Remember Your First Answering Machine?

Remember your first answering machine?

I do.

In the days when I was still watching new episodes of Thundercats, if someone called and no one was home, or if someone was home but was in the shower and did not hear the phone ring, or if they did hear it ring but were afraid of getting electrocuted by picking up the phone with a wet hand, then the phone just rang and rang until the caller got tired of hearing the phone ring and went off to do something more productive with his or her life.

Close your eyes for a moment and try to imagine what it was like not being able to record a message with your voice on it. Imagine the inconvenience. Imagine the missed opportunities. Imagine the bliss.

Answering machines were marketed upon the assumption that you wanted to receive telephone calls. But not all calls are wanted. If you don’t pick up your phone and the caller leaves a message, you have no recourse. When you don’t return the call or do what was asked, the caller can say, “Well, what you mean you didn’t return the 500 fake birds and tree branches we ordered for my baby shower? I left you a message.”  You can run, but you can’t hide.

Before answering machines, however, you could let the phone ring, and ring and ring and ring, and with each ring sense that the caller was getting tired, like a boxer hanging against the ropes in the tenth round, and would eventually go away. And when the phone stopped ringing, that was it. You could continue watching the Flintstones Meet the Jetsons or whatever, safely insulated from any constructive knowledge that you were supposed to call someone back or perhaps even do something for someone.

And then one day it all ended. They invented these machines upon which you would record a message.  I remember my band director’s answering machine played a steel drum band version of the theme from “Peanuts” that I heard about fifteen times when I tried to tell him that I was going to miss the Memorial Day parade because my cat was stuck behind the dryer.

My father’s greeting was robot-style. “I can’t come to the phone right now, but please leave your name, tel-e-phone number, and brief mes-sage after the tone. Here is the tone.” And true to his word there would be a tone.

My grandparents called leaving messages “talking into the machine” and they would shout into it as if the answering machine was hard of hearing, just like all of their neighbors at Westwood 21 in Ft. Lauderdale.

People today are so used to leaving messages that they speak onto the digital medium just as if they were talking to me in person. That is why I have no trouble ignoring them.

Thanks to Maria for the topic. She does a great treatment of it here.

15 thoughts on “Remember Your First Answering Machine?

    1. No voicemail? I considered doing the same and then I realized that not only would certain people get frustrated with me, but they would have no way of leaving a message to express those frustrations.

  1. Remember them?!! While millions of dead answering machines are buried in landfills, my 89 year old mother still uses hers, if you can believe it. She can barely manage her phone….but that answering machine still works. Forget about voicemail.
    In the 1980’s one of my best friends was a radio dj and he recorded my message with the intro soundtrack to Mission Impossible. Great post!

  2. As a person who simply hates the phone and hates talking on it, the answering machine is my lifeline to sanity. I’m waiting for someone to invent the “answer back” machine so that I don’t have to call the person back and deal with the conversation. By the way, I don’t live on a mountaintop without electricity, though it sounded that way.

    1. The “answer back” machine – great idea! They could use that computer that beat the human Jeopardy! champs. Train it to return calls and have inane conversations.

  3. i despise answering machines…well, voicemail, the mobile equivalent. i only check it when it’s full and then i just delete everything. voicemails are not valid in my world.

  4. I distinctly remember one afternoon when my sisters and I recorded and re-recorded HILARIOUS messages on my parents’ answering machine. We did the whole fake answering thing, “Hello?…Hello?…I can’t hear you…LEAVE A MESSAGE!” while giggling uncontrollably in the background. We took turns saying each word, “We.” “Are.” “Not.” “Home.” We even pretended we were Dracula and spoke with a bad Transylvanian accent.

    Did I say HILARIOUS? I meant lame, but in the most endearing way.

    1. That sounds like it was a lot of fun. Your parents must have been proud. I think the Dracula one would be the best. “Bla, bla…leave a message at the beep.” Or the Count from Sesame Street. “One, two, three…three messages! Ah, ah, ah!”

  5. Thanks for adding answering machines to your list of always enjoyable posts. I also loved the one on cassettes, particularly the part about your Dad letting you listen to your Guns’N’Roses tape in the car. I’m pleased that these two essential retro items have now had the Schlabadoo treatment they were crying out for – and I’m really chuffed at your generosity in mentioning my post, that is really nice of you! Cheers!

  6. Haha, two thoughts.
    1) I’ve always done voices, and my family would let me record whatever was popular on Saturday Night Live in the early 90s.
    2) I have a rule that all who know me are aware of. If you leave me a voicemail and don’t get to the point in about 15 seconds, I’m going to delete without listening.

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