SORRY, WRONG NUMBER – By GARRY ARMSTRONG

People of a certain age will recall the title from a popular radio drama that became a film noir classic with Barbara Stanwyck as the damsel/wife in distress and Burt Lancaster as the spouse with mayhem on his mind.  You can also dial “M For Murder” with the same theme: the telephone as a nefarious device and weapon.

A friend just wrote a piece, extolling the virtues of the telephone as a personal link in the impersonal age of social media. Good point. You need to be able to talk, hold an intelligent and coherent conversation on the phone.  Social media doesn’t require those basic skills.  Courtesy is also another trait required on a phone conversation even when you’re dealing with unpleasant matters.

My wife, Marilyn, rises to heroic stature dealing with insufferable customer service, health care reps, local business people who lose the check and fail to show up. Credit card hackers who’d love a little personal information and the idiots who’ve dialed the wrong number but keep redialing anyway.

I hate the telephone!  It stems from all the years of unwanted calls from the TV station that employed me for 31 years. Three o’clock in the morning calls demanding I grab my gear and immediately report to the scene of a grisly crime, awful weather, deadly fires, criminals running amok, traffic accidents with myriad, mangled bodies and the latest gangland or drive-by shooting with multiple victims.  All breathlessly awaiting my presence to round up the usual suspects for eye-witness accounts and/or to go banging on doors asking parents “how they feel” about the recent death of a loved one.

Hey, how do you feel, Pilgrim?  All of this hurled at me in fleeting minutes once I picked up the phone and heard a familiar voice with the phony excuse of waking me up out of my warm bed.  I usually cursed myself if I answered the phone.

Marilyn normally took the calls because of my hearing problems.  I couldn’t blame her. Nor could I hurl expletives at the person calling.  You can’t shoot the messenger in the TV news biz.  Being called into work goes with the territory.

Instead, I blamed the inanimate object.  The telephone. Outraged, I yelled obscenities at it.  Meanwhile, the telephone sat there quietly,  probably mocking me. After all, the phone was just doing its job. Nothing personal.

Statehouse on Beacon Hill

During my bachelor years when I had to take these calls, I frequently hurled the phone across the room during my tirades against the telephone company, its employees, executives, and Alexander Graham Bell who I imagined as Don Ameche from the old biofilm.

Why did they seemingly always call me?  Why was someone always picking on me?  Frequently, I’d envision conspiracies to target me. Racism? Envy because I was on the tube every day, outshining other folks? Political target?  I had an ‘attitude’ with some local pols. It was me against the giant telephone conglomerate.  I was riffing Dwight Eisenhower’s warning.

Truth time.  Early on in my Boston TV news career, I let it be known I was ‘always available’ for major, breaking news stories.   I envisioned the scoop on that major story that would shoot me to stardom and a mega-contract.  I put myself on the spot that assignment editors love. An eager-beaver young reporter with stars in his eyes and experience not yet absorbed.

Veteran reporters scoffed at my enthusiasm even as I sauntered around the newsroom full of myself at landing big stories that had me prominently featured on every newscast of the day from sunrise to midnight.

In my glee over the big stories I always forgot how it began.  Always the damn phone call.  During my saner moments, I knew I was my own worst enemy. That logic didn’t sit well with me.

During long lunches as everyone congratulated me with my face and story on all the monitors, I realized I was in a catch 22 scenario.  Hero of the hour absorbing lots of congratulations while my brain kept reminding me that it was that early phone call that made all of this possible. I continued blaming the phone for interrupting my sleep. I would go on shooting the messenger for years.

One time I lived up to my vow to avert the phone call-to-arms.  I answered the call. Heard the voice and slowly said, “Sorry, wrong number.”  I grinned to myself, returning for a good night’s sleep.

I was still smiling as I awoke and turned on the radio in the morning.  The all-news station was frantically blaring out details about a massive fire, building collapse and the loss of many lives.  It was such a big story that the networks were in on coverage.

My smile turned to a scowl. The potential ‘story of a lifetime’ had been lost to my erstwhile, “Sorry, Wrong Number.”

Oops.

41 thoughts on “SORRY, WRONG NUMBER – By GARRY ARMSTRONG

  1. Garry, great piece! Hmm, that’s pretty much what I “type” on FB! This, too! 🙂

    I don’t recall ever calling you at some odd time or day when I was either working the weekend desk or sharing it with everyone’s hero at Ch 7–the late, but never forgotten Chuck Gordon.

    BTW, the pic of you on the set of the local TV program, “Preview”, also shows a shot of the host, Guy Giampapa, my former boss at Ch 7, who passed away on March 18, 2019 at the age of 91.

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  2. What a totally fascinating look at the telephone and it’s use or misuse as the case may be. Fortunately for me, whenever it rang, it was a friend and someone I wanted to talk to. I can imagine how you’d hate answering it, a double edged sword for sure.

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  3. We’ve “talked” on FB about phones and pagers and how they took years off our collective lives. At least the pager was one-way. As often as not, mine would go off at inopportune moments (in the bathroom, for example). Naturally, if you didn’t call the desk within what seemed like 10 seconds, the pager would take on a life of its own as they paged you again…and again. People on news desks or “coordinating” news bureaus had highly-tuned BS detectors, so the old “Sorry, man, I was in the tunnel!” never worked. Still, I never quite matched one of my colleagues, a gifted sound recordist, who was pulling into his garage after working something like a 30-hour stretch for one donnybrook or another. As he stepped out of his car, barely awake, his pager went off. He claims that he broke not only the pager but the sound barrier, such was the gusto with which he threw it against the wall. Later, when GE took over NBC, I joked (hollowly) that they would be issuing pagers that gave you one minute to call the desk, otherwise they’d explode and shatter your hip.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mike, LOVE your pager anecdotes. Golly, I hated those little bastards. I was, admittedly, spoiled by YEARS of minimal interference when in the field. We did the usual schtick on the 2-way. Hand over mouth responding, “We can’t hear you. You’re breaking up. We’re headed to the story. No landlines in sight. Sorry, can’t hear you”.

      One phone call where I almost blew a major story.
      The ABC Net (NY) called 3am-ish. I’d just gotten home from a late shift and “pit” stops making my way home from Manhattan to Long Island. I took the call with obvious attitude. The voice at the other end was nonplussed, “Garry, don’t pull any of your BS. You really wanna hear this call. (Heavy breathing from me)…Garry, don’t be a jerkwad on this one. (More heavy breathing). Garry, don’t be an ass. (Still more heavy breathing). GARRY, for Chrissakes, this is a GOOD one! (Fart sound from me) Okay, Garry this is it — They want to send you to Vietnam with——–(They wanted me to go as a grunt backing up the A list correspondents. President Johnson was in Vietnam and something “Big” was expected.) “Are you serious or is this a bad joke”, I finally asked. “No joke, Garry. They like your ballsy attitude and think you’ll be a good fit with the ‘old guys'” “Jeezus F. Christ”, I answered. “Yeah, Garry, that’s right. Grab some of your old Marine gear and get your ass in ASAP. There’s a debrief and then you’re on a special flight to Saigon” I couldn’t resist the final response. “Okay, thanks for the heads up, round eyes”. Laughter on both sides of the call. I grabbed some of my old gyrene gear and headed to the door.
      My mom yelled, “Garry, where are you going, NOW?”
      “Mom, I’m going to Vietnam. Call you when I can. Love you. Bye”
      I heard Mom yell, “What?” as I headed out the door and an exciting new chapter in my life.
      Glad I took that call.

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  4. Great post, Garry.

    I too have grown to despise talking on the phone. Sometimes it’s great to use to avoid a long volley of texts or emails to set things straight once and for all, but most of the time I’d rather not chitchat.

    Like Marilyn posted above, it wasn’t always that way. I used to spend hours on the phone talking with my buddy, my girlfriend, and various radio disc jockeys who mentored me in my early days. It was actually the use of the telephone that got me into this crazy business. As a student on Cape Cod in the mid 70’s, there was a mid-morning call-in show on WCOD in Hyannis. My high school had double sessions when I was a freshman so I didn’t go to class until noon. Several times a week, I’d call the number (775-6800, committed to memory) and comment on all sorts of topics. Other friends would hear me on the air, and suggested I had a pretty good voice for the radio, and that maybe I should pursue it as a career. Here it is 45 years later, and I’m still crankin’ out the hits.

    One observation about your post, I’m sure you never asked a parent “how do you feel?” following a tragic accident. I’m pretty sure you approached those dreaded door knocks with empathy and sensitivity. I’ve made a few of those myself over the years, but only while working in TV, never radio. Perhaps I called them on the cursed phone instead?

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    • Hi, Steve.
      Thanks for the very kind words. As a “Broadcast Bro”, you know how those phone calls can mess with your life. Often I had just settled into bed after a long day and night, settling into that first dream to mellow out when the cursed phone interrupted my bliss. It’s hard to explain to ‘Pilgrims’ who think it’s all glamour and glory.

      Steve, I’m glad you’ve found a niche at BUR which has always struck me as a good place to work. I also had a fondness for COD which rode with me on my trips to the Vineyard where I summered for almost 3 decades with friends from Boston TV who shared several summer homes. We were the “summer people”, several niches above touristas but never accepted as regulars. Nevertheless, we were well regarded by MV lifers which made us feel “special”. While on MV, we vowed NEVER to accept phone calls from the mainland. Many the time, assignment editors sought our services for MV or Cape stories. We were always unavailable. Local merchants would tell about receiving calls from TV and radio suits, looking for their “talent” or crews. No one ever gave us up.

      The tragic weekend of JFK Jr’s death was an awkward situation where the vow was broken and we went to work.
      Presidential vacations also broke the no telephone vow. Our bosses knew where we were and assigned us to “special presidential coverage’ which sounded better than it was. They got us for extended coverage without paying for lodging or food. But I had a trick card – the fee sheet – which made sure I was never cheated. In retirement, I can say the fee sheet (in those days) had my financial “6” with phone call receipts/data to back up my claims.
      two other telephone anecdotes, Steve —

      — Back in the olden days — the early 60’s. As a student working at then Hofstra College radio, the world was small enough for a wannabee to simply pick up the phone, call big-time TV and radio celebs in New York City and actually be connected without trouble. My colleagues and I were able to land interviews with legends like Johnny Carson, Howard Cosell, Arthur Godfrey, Merv Griffin, William B. Williams, and others with a simple call. Our small college station had a great rep within “the industry” and it was a time when eager newbies often got shots at the big time. All it took was a phone call.

      –a phone call from Hofstra radio to ABC Network News (with input from a colleague) enabled me to leapfrog over Long Island radio gigs to “the show” — ABC Network News. I walked into the ABC Network Newsroom — a pea-green rookie — as the 6-day war in Israel had JUST broken out. I was numb with fear but it all worked out well.

      — one of my first gigs at ABC Net: Working in their “OPS Room” where I took telephone beepers, verbatim for the network broadcasters, editors and managers.

      The overseas phone lines from Russia, Australia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Tokyo – among other places — were often garbled, difficult for anyone with normal hearing. With my limited hearing, it was bizarre chaos! Somehow, I managed to get those reports, typing two-finger max speed with minimal mistakes, I was so impressive, I was quickly promoted. I still don’t know — more than half a century later, how I was able to deal with that telephone frenzy. The phone clearly was my ally in those halcyon days.

      Good sharing with you, Steve. Don’t be a stranger.

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  5. Lately, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend of businesses and government ages preferring to call you on your mobile phone. I suppose that it is because fewer people have landlines. It doesn’t work for me though. I don’t like giving my mobile number to everyone and I don’t like them being able to get hold of me wherever I am. This past weekend my mobile phone has remained in my handbag in another room. Why would I have it with me when I am at home?

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    • I NEVER give out my mobile number. It’s bad enough on the landline. If I give out this number, it’s just one more phone that rings all the time and I absolutely don’t want that. I turn mine off unless I need to use it, which is rarely. Mostly I keep it for emergencies or to get in touch with someone when we are on the way to say that we are late or nearly there. I just don’t need one more device.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I loved the phone right through my teenage years. From then on, it became gradually more and more of a nuisance. When I was a kid, a call meant someone you knew was calling to say hello, chat. You could talk and laugh. There were occasional wrong numbers, but that was all. As technology changed, the telephone became increasingly a business device.

    The concept of “cold calling” and trying to drum up more business meant that fewer than half the calls coming in were people you knew and that included calls you wanted, like a reminder from the doctor of an upcoming appointment or another pending appointment. By the time I came back from Israel, most calls were solicitations or surveys and occasionally, a person you knew and actually wanted to talk to. And now, 32 years later, NOBODY calls except a rare couple of friends. And since there are no real landlines anymore, calls tend to run really short because you lose your line somewhere in the middle of the call, especially if you are unlucky enough to have Charter as your carrier.

    ALL the rest of the calls are from doctors, hackers, surveys, insurance companies trying to get your business, solicitations, and my personal favorite, silence. I never believe it when they say to leave a message and they’ll get “right back to you.” They don’t get back to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One phone thing I still remember with affection — “The party line”. Pick it up and listen without heavy breathing. So many salacious details as gossips swapped the latest details about neighbors’ indiscretions. Juicy, juicy stuff.

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  7. Many years ago, when I was too young to avoid being manipulated, I was stalked by a mentally unstable woman who threatened to commit suicide if I withheld my affections. Her favorite tool of control was the telephone. Long (3 hour plus) conversations filled with crying, demands and threats. I dreaded the ring of the phone. Finally I got her out of my life, but ever since then (this was 30 years ago) I’ve hated, hated, HATED talking on the phone. I have a particular reason for hating phones, at least when used as audio communication devices. Thank God for the invention of the text message.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Garry had that happen more than once and it was usually a criminal who was either in prison or a mental facility. One woman got so weird (and dangerous), he had to call in the station’s lawyers to deal with the facility. The woman was clearly in another world, but she became threatening.

      It was also unsettling to get “reviews” of his work from inmates (some who were serial killers to boot) whose trials he had covered. For reasons no one knows, the criminals liked him.

      None of these calls made him want to answer the phone, though these days, he will take a call if I answer it and he knows who he is talking to.

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    • Slmret, reminds me of the olden days when you had a medical emergency. Just pick up the phone and dial the family doctor who usually would be there very quickly. Very familiar with your family, the “Doc” didn’t need pages of ref data to deal with whatever was ailing you or your kids. Always fascinated with what was in the Doc’s trusty bag. Doc was always very amiable – even when answering three o’clock in the morning calls in horrible weather.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I do remember one time when my dad answered a middle-of-the-night call, told a parent that he’d be right over to their home, dropped the receiver, and went back to sleep. I think the kid lived, but it was pretty embarrassing for my dad!

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  8. Pingback: Hi There! | sparksfromacombustiblemind

  9. The phone was my career in my early life. I was a telephone operator for the now extinct answering service. The live body answer to the impersonal answering machine. We answered phones for doctors and morticians, clinics and dentists, and some people who, wealthy enough to pay, had us as a buffer between them and the telephone call. I worked in the field for five years and then continued to wear the hat of ‘telephone operator’ at my many desk and office jobs into the future. Customer Service took over the title of ‘telephone operator’ (in that capacity). And yes, I HATED the phone. At home I’d often refuse to answer it, and since hubby was also a phone-o-phobe, the answering machine would have to do. These days I kinda miss those old land line phones. The electronic (??) cell phone I own is a piece of garbage and unreliable in comparison. I still hate the phone though. These days ring ring ring means bad news 99% of the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Melanie, belated bravo to those of you who were telephone operators. Live, human voices to soothe our anxieties as we sought the doctor’s help in a family emergency. You and your colleagues were always empathetic. Thank you for your service.

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  10. I recall the movie Dial M for Murder with Grace Kelly, and Ray Milland plotting against the princess. She wasn’t a princess yet, but looked like one.
    I remember the age of the beeper before cell phones were prominent. You were supposed to have it at all times in case you were not home to hear the phone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rich, I also loathed the beepers. Frequently, my beeper would go off loudly in the middle of a trial I was covering. It rattled me and usually drew the ire of the judge. This was before the “electronic/social media age” when warnings were limited to “no pictures” in court.
      The beeper usually was for a phone call from work, asking ” So what’s happening, anything interesting?” I often slammed the phone against the booth window-screaming profanities and wondering ow much key info I missed in court while answering the idiotic call. I often wanted to just step on the beeper and blame its demise on a usual suspect.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Rich, I also remember “Dial M”. It was shot in 3-D. Not Hitch’s call. I loved the actor who played the English lead investigator. John Williams? He also played a similar role in “To Catch A Thief”. Ray Milland was so smooth as the bad guy even when he was finally trapped. I had problems with Robert Cummings as Grace’s lover. I still thought of him – at that time — as the “Love That Bob” fella.

      “Phone Call From A Stranger” is an oldie running on cable these days. Bette Davis and an ensemble cast. Pretty good.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Yep, “Love That Bob” brought Cummings a new audience but hindered serious work in his later years.
          I had to pause a bit before watching him in the Fonda role in “Playhouse 90’s” version of “12 Angry Men”. He was good.

          I have seen lots of Cummings old movies like “King’s Row” in which he was a fine dramatic actor. Ditto, “Saboteur”. But the TV sit-com changed it all.

          Liked by 1 person

  11. I do not like talking on the phone any more. I used to. Well, I hate the ringing phone…. scam artists or marketing or political. Headphones make it easier to talk (bad neck and shoulder), but why? I ask, do I still tilt my head?? 🤣🤣🤣

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’ve never enjoyed talking on the phone very much but still have trouble just letting it ring. Love the photo of the black phone! Young people just don’t know what they’re missing, with that twisty-corded instrument connected to the wall:)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hey, Becky! Young people just stare in awe at the old phones. “You actually talked into those things?, they wonder. “What did you say?” “Did they have apps?” “Could they take pics?” “Could you play games with them?” “They’re so big, bulky and look so ugly in black — how did you know which end to talk into?”

      You could use the long phone cords to strangle the questionnaires.

      Liked by 1 person

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