A cell phone link to his inner Dick Tracy

The Baltimore Sun

A chill gray day under lowering skies and I left home without my cell phone and didn't go back for it - thought, "Naw, I'll just use a pay phone if necessary" - and felt awfully lost without it for the next 24 hours. The problem with pay phones is that you have to stand still. A man gets accustomed to striding off the plane and without breaking stride dialing up the C.O. and reaching her in five seconds flat and giving his location and ETA and then, as time permits, phoning around to others in his unit.

As a boy I followed the intrepid detective Dick Tracy in the Sunday comics and envied him his 2-Way Wrist Radio that kept him in touch with Sam Catchem in their crusade against Pruneface and other desperate villains. That wrist radio, my dears, was the precursor of the cell phone of today. For millions of us aging Tracy followers, the cell phone is no mere plaything; it is a weapon in the fight against crime. When you see us in the airport terminal, 2-Way Cell Phone in hand as we stride purposefully toward jet airplanes bound for distant destinations, we are talking to far-flung colleagues about matters that, for security purposes, we must keep secret for now, but they are crucial, trust me.

My home base is the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, a very well-run establishment near the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, and I do think that the presence of thousands of men and women with Instant 2-Way Communication Capability is one reason the airport (I prefer to think of it as an airfield, or airstrip, but never mind) works so well.

It is 15 minutes from my house. I cruise into the parking ramp where - listen up now - I simply slide my credit card into a machine at the gate and am admitted. Swift, secure. No paper trail. I drive up the curlicue ramp to the top level where I park and, for a moment, surveil the airfield and runways for suspicious activities, and then descend via electric elevator to Level 3, where a 2-Way Skyway affords easy access to the terminal. I pass surreptitiously through the milling crowd to an airline computer terminal, insert my credit card and get a boarding pass. Bingo.

This is a perilous moment right here. A person unknown to me could approach at this point and ask me to carry objects aboard the plane. The unknown person could be large and have a prune-type face and a bulge in the pocket. The object is in a brown paper bag. It is bulky. I must resist, but how?

Right here is when I take my phone out and hold it in my hand, easily visible to unknown persons. They can see that I mean business. I am no sap. I proceed through security and toward my aircraft to complete my mission in an undisclosed city.

I don't remember Dick Tracy using the 2-Way Wrist Radio to call up his wife, the beauteous Tess Trueheart, and murmur endearments to her, but I must admit that, in weak moments, I have called up mine and said things that I am not about to repeat to you now. The crime-fighting life is a lonely one, and as I make my way from MSP to LGA and ORD and LAX and back, I sometimes feel an urgent need for 2-way intimacy and have used the cell phone for that purpose.

Intimacy is a luxury when you're young, and as you get older it becomes a necessity without which life is unbearable. You walk around in your public face and you long for unguarded small talk with a friendly soul. You can glom onto an utter stranger and tell your life story. But, sitting on an airplane, in the mood to chat, I hesitate to talk to women, who are likely to misinterpret this, and men tend to be monosyllabic, so I pull out the 2-Way and there's a long list of pals. Scroll down, press the green button. Talk.

A lovely invention. God bless it. Can't get along without it.

Garrison Keillor's column appears Thursdays in The Sun. His e-mail is oldscout@prairiehome.us.

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