Phone home

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(Host) Recently commentator W.D. Wetherell has been thinking about how our lives change and one of the little things we usually take for granted.

(Wetherell) I asked him not to give up the number, but he gave it up anyway. We live in a digital age, everything is numbers, but how many do we feel any affection for, any allegiance?

Not that there was any magic in those numbers individually, but put all seven of them together in the right order, substituting, from old-fashioned stubbornness, a P for the 7 and an I for the 4, as in Pioneer 1-3846, and they became a life buoy that helped me in times of trouble for nearly 50 years.

“Dad,” I said, “you didn’t have to give up the number.”

“I live out here now,” he said. “This retired cop in the next unit told me you can have your identity stolen if you leave a phone number behind when you move.”

Dad, at 87, has just moved out to a retirement community on the eastern end of Long Island. He hasn’t sold his house. Until we decide what to do with it, my niece is house-sitting. There was no reason Dad had to cancel his phone there, but he insisted on canceling it – and so a phone number that is all but engraved on my heart now means nothing.

PI 1-3846. Will I ever dial it by mistake some day, in a fit of dreaming? Who will answer? How, in a stuttered apology, do I explain what that number once meant?

A little thing surely, but of all the changes we’re facing this autumn – a daughter off to college, a son entering high school – this is the one that has gotten past my defenses and pierced my heart. Last night I tried calculating how many times I had dialed that number in the course of the last 47 years. The number I came up with was well over 7,000 times – and I’m sure that’s a conservative minimum.

I can feel the nerves in my fingers pulse in exactly the right order. PI 1-3846. I can feel that pressure, and it’s impossible to think that, applying it, I won’t be met by the voice of my mother or my father, always happy to hear from me, always willing to talk. “Walter!” – that’s the way they always answered, with pride and excitement and pleasure – 7,000 times worth, never a single miss.

Almost certainly it was the first multi-digit number ever placed into my hands for safekeeping. I called it from school if I forgot something, called home to be picked up after sports or when I needed a ride home from a friend’s. In college, homesick, I would call embarrassingly often, always choosing a phone booth that was far enough from campus no one would overhear. I dialed that number when I sold my first novel. I dialed that number when my daughter Erin was born. I dialed that number when I was happy and proud and elated and lonely and scared and in need, and there was never an answering machine on the other end, never call waiting, but always a voice, my mother’s, my father’s – and that’s what makes you love a number, and that’s what makes you sad and nostalgic when that number disappears.

This is W.D. Wetherell, from Lyme, New Hampshire.

W.D. Wetherill is a novelist and essayist who writes frequently on the outdoors. His new book is entitled “A Century of November.” He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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