ASCII by Jason Scott

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The Phone Stories: VOICEMAIL —

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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  1. I remember scouring random phone numbers in search of diverters, or basically unsecure PBXs that would allow us access to a company’s outside lines. We would look up the numbers to insurance companies, because they always had PBX systems straight out of the box with no set up or security. On the easiest ones, you just hit 9 for an outside line, just like you were sitting in their office…

  2. sclozza says:

    What a great story! It’s always good when something being scammed turns out to go unnoticed for years and years.

    There was a pay phone around the corner from me (replaced now) that used to give out free long distance calls. It was a little temperamental, but given enough coercion, you could get a bit of fun out of it.

    These things seem to suit male teenagehood in suburbia. You have nothing but time on your hands, and for the most part can go about your mischief unsupervised.

  3. This brings back great memories. As Thomas mentioned above, you could always run into unsecure PBXs, which allowed you to dial out. Those were gold back in the early-mid 1980s.

    Back then you could war dial a local company’s exchange, most companies had their own XXX designation, and find the most interesting things.

    Today if you did it you would be arrested. Times have really changed.

  4. Flack says:

    Isn’t it funny what used to impress people back then? Knowledge was king, especially pre-Internet. I remember when I was really young, someone told me a three-digit number that you can dial on basically any payphone to “reset” it. By dialing these three three numbers, pretty much any payphone will go dead for a couple of minutes. It still works today. Occasionally I’ll show someone (without showing them the numbers, of course!) and I still get the same wood I got when I was 12.

    I also remember a phone number that I got from a BBS that was supposed to determine whether or not your phone was being tapped. It played a sweeping tone, and if the tone stopped, you were being tapped — or so the legend went. I never heard of anyone who ever heard the tone stop sweeping. For all I know we were dialing a tornado siren.

  5. Flack says:

    I remember one other funny trick I used to use. Before I knew how to perform ANI’s and LONG before the Internet provided reverse lookups to any schlep who wanted one, I knew how to get people’s names and addresses from their phone numbers, a trick I routinely performed for friends and fellow modemers. The setup was always the same; they’d give me a number, and I’d give them some song and dance about how I had to hack into the phone company (which was no easy feat; their password was a hundred characters long and changed daily, or so I said), and then get the information. This would take at least an hour or so.

    Then, I’d walk down the block to the local library, who, among their other reference materials, had a phone book that had both regular entries and reversed-entries, listed by phone numbers.

    A little ingenuity and creativity went a long way back then.

  6. Patrick says:

    I just remembered that when I was a kid, in my area at least, all phones used to ring by themselves after dialing their own 7-digit number with the two first digits inverted. That even worked with public phones (which usually had their own number written on them even though they didn’t allow incoming calls).
    That was fun to show off to other kids, until it stopped working after a while.