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In a land before Google, imaginary dogs bought us time

Burt's Eye View

“There was a time,” I said, “when Google wasn’t my constant companion. No, seriously.”

The kid’s face scrunched in perplexity. He almost looked up from his screen. “How did you do your homework? Where could you scroll for answers?”

“Not scroll. Stroll,” I said. “I strolled into the kitchen.”

“The kitchen?”

I nodded. “Yep. That’s where Mom was.”

“Your mom knew all the answers?”

“Probably,” I said. “I actually strolled into the kitchen hoping to sneak a cookie. I already knew what Mom would say.”

The kid waited expectantly.

“Mom always told me …” I paused. “‘We did not pay all that good money for those encyclopedias just to have you kids bug me while I’m trying to cook supper. Go look it up.'”

“Aha! You did Google it,” the kid said. “You used Wikipedia.”

“Not WIKIpedia. ENCYCLOpedia. It was a massive set of 20 or 25 heavy books. Without power cords or batteries. Say you wanted to look up ignorant baboons, no offense.”

“Hey!”

“You went to the bookcase and lugged down the volume with the B’s. You riffled through pages, and after one or two paper cuts, you found ‘Baboons.’ If you were fortunate, there would be a subheading for ‘Ignorant.'”

“How did you copy and paste from a book onto your homework document?”

“We had to use pencils and write the information on lined notebook paper, which we kept in our three-ring binders.”

The kid shrugged. “I haven’t heard of that technology. Was it new?”

“It was an improvement over stone tablets and chisels. I had some bruises you wouldn’t believe.”

“Every kid had these encyclopedia thingys?”

“Most of us did,” I said. “But we still had to go to the library a lot. We could go to the card catalog and find …”

“The what?”

“Card catalog. A bunch of drawers crammed with index cards for every book in the building. We’d find books on the assigned topic, sign our names on the card in the back, read the names of all the other people who had ever checked out that same book, then have the librarian stamp the card so we could take the book home.”

“You’re talking gibberish now.” The kid waved his screen. “Why didn’t you just look it up on your phone?”

“Phones were big, chunky things that sat on desks or hung on walls. If a burglar broke in, you could knock him out by clunking him over the head with the family phone. He’d be in the hospital for a week.”

“But when you tapped the screen …”

“No screen. The phone had a big, ol’ wheel called a dial mounted on its face. You spun the dial to call people. Provided one of your neighbors wasn’t already talking on a call.”

“Why would that matter?”

“Party line. You could listen in to all their conversations and they could hear yours. We had one neighbor who had a phone in the barn. They’d leave the phone off the hook and all you could hear was cows mooing. You couldn’t even call Grandma for help with your homework.”

“Weird,” the kid said. “What happened if none of this primitive stuff worked? What if the encyclopedia didn’t have the information, you couldn’t get a ride to the library and you couldn’t call anyone? What did you tell the teacher the next morning?”

“Ah,” I said. “We may not have had high technology, but we had inventive tech.”

“Inventive tech?”

“Yep. We all had imaginary dogs that ate our imaginary homework. Our imaginary dogs bought us another day so we could go through the whole process again that night.”

The kid Googled it to see if I was lying. Google cried.

• Look up Cole at burton. w.cole@gmail.com or on the Burton W. Cole page on Facebook.

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