Like a lot of teenagers, I had voicemail. That is, like a lot of teenagers now. But I had voicemail in 1984.
This came about because a kind soul posted a phone number to a voice mail system in Washington DC. I knew it was Washington DC because the area code was 202 and by thirteen I’d memorized all the area codes. You did that sort of thing when you were using phone codes, since you were then calling so many different states and provinces you simply had to. 404? Georgia. 617? Massachusetts. 415? California. I could rattle them off like my own phone number. “Give me an area code” was an occasional but always fun game, although winning it was kind of an empty victory.
I knew the voice mail system was in Washington, but that was about it. In this particular case, each mailbox got its own phone number on the private branch exchange (PBX). That is, when you called a number, you got a single person, no indication of what company, and you could leave a message. And, like many companies with a new PBX, this company set a default password on all the accounts. I don’t think it was 1234 but it very well might have been. With a few random dials, I got a phone number (really, an extension) to try out, put in the default password, and I was in. Wily hacker, indeed. A quick change to the password, a new incoming message, and here I was, just thirteen, with a slick way for people to reach me.
I hadn’t found the number. The message from whoever gave the number had hints on how to get a voicemail box on it. But still, I’d done it, I’d gotten my piece, and I was one proud bastard. With my street-cred 202 number, I logged onto BBSes and posted like I usually did, except now I mentioned people could “call my box”. Make a little pistol-shooting gesture with your hand and wink. That was me.
Some of the BBSes I posted on included a board in New Jersey called the Restaurant at the End of the Universe and a board out in Minnesota called the Safehouse.. Like the rest, I invited folks to call my box and leave messages. I then checked my box faithfully, several times a day.
Messages started trickling in. People checking out the system. Kids fascinated you could press keys and make this “computer” do stuff. People screwing around, leaving profanity or sounds. Even kids breathing in while talking, trying to get around any voice printing that might be going on. Many of them called me “Alan” and this confused me, until I realized the “short name” setting still told people the “old” owner of the box, whose name was Alan. (I then went in and fixed this as well.)
Amazingly, this thing impressed people. Kids called and offered me “elite” access. People called me (not the service) cool for doing this. And one kid thanked me for specifically making the BBS I’d logged onto cool by posting this information.
His handle was Machiavelli, and he was on The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (also known as Milliways BBS). This message, plus the charm of the BBS, kept me calling back. A lot. And over time, my personality and style won me points with the sysop, Outland, whose real name was Jim. He offered me a co-sysop position, my first, and from there my love of BBSes grew even more than it already was. My times with Jim and the Milliways BBS will fill an entry of their own someday. And I owe it all to my voice mailbox.
Being who I am, I recorded all of these messages using an induction microphone and saved them for history.
Why, here they are in this directory.
Cell phones, it has to be stressed, were a dream for even the most well-off kids. They were such a premium that I remember how places would sell fake plastic cell phone attennas that you could attach to your car and fool people into thinking you were more connected and classy than you were. And I certainly wasn’t going to be giving out my home phone number to people I didn’t know to discuss software trades or shared phone information. My box solved all this. Just reach me on my 202 number, I’d say, and I’ll check it and call you back.
By the age of 14, I was already using the box like people use them today on their phones; to store cool messages, to leave notes to myself, and to test out new phone codes. Naturally, codes would sometimes be scarce and I’d pay the money to call. It cost a bit, but it was worth it, if just to pick up my messages and get back to people. Non-local calls were still a wallet-breaker for the population, but I was quite happy with my hundreds-of-miles distant voicemail and telling people they “knew what to do”.
Stolen voicemail boxes, of course, were short-lived at best. Like anything swiped away but still running at someone’s place of business, it was inevitable that the hoisted number would be found out and the box shut off, or recoded and all the messages deleted. It was the price of doing business, of getting for free what others were paying hundreds of dollars a year for.
But here’s the weird part: My voicemail lasted for five years.
From when I was 13 to when I was about 19, I had this box. That’s a long, long time by any stretch, but by hacked voicemail standards it was Highlander-class immortality. In those five years, I changed schools, got new friends, started my own BBS, had a lot of laughs, a lot of good times, and a lot of sad times. But I always had that box.
In fact, I can remember where I was standing, what phone booth near what diner in what town, when I called my box to check messages, and got the error.
The error said I had the wrong password. But that couldn’t be. I knew this box by heart; I could call the whole thing without even looking at the phone dial (and often did). So I hung up and tried again.
I remember the grey day, I remember the rain drizzling across the street and against the booth when I realized my box, my little teenage piece of the phone system, was gone forever.
I even remember, strangely, what I said at the phone as I hung up the handset and left my childhood toy behind:
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