September 25, 2005
Damned if I wasn’t the first person to send and receive e-mail. Check that. Billy Bob Underwood and I share in that achievement, which has long since been forgotten.
We got this idea from a cartoon in the Panhandle Quarterly. I don’t recall the caption, and I’d bet my bottom dollar that neither does Billy Bob Underwood (1910-1928). What caught our attention was the picture of two kids talking to each other over a makeshift telephone. They were standing about ten feet apart. One of them was talking into a tin can and the other had his ear inside another tin can, which had a loose string attached to the the first guy’s tin can.
Lights went on in Billy Bob’s and my heads.
“Hell,” said Billy Bob, “that ain’t nothin’. Put ’em a quarter of a mile apart and see what happens.”
“The string had better be tighter,” I added.
“Hell,” said Billy Bob, “a damned string won’t do it. You’ve gotta have a wire.”
Next week we had tied a couple dozen wires together, which we’d bought at Old Man Coon’s Hard Ware & Supply. We’ll, maybe we hadn’t actually bought these wires, we got them on Billy Bob’s credit account, unbeknownst to Old Man Coon.
We’d also picked up a couple of rusty tin cans down at the County Dump.
The next step was putting these materials together. This took a couple of Sundays.
So now we had an invention. The next step was testing the contraption. By this time it was October, and the air was as clear as an empty bottle of gin. Perfect conditions.
It took all Sunday morning to get out of town and unsnarl the wire and stretch it to its full length, a quarter of a mile. Then the moment of truth came.
“Let ’er rip!” yelled Billy Bob, waving his arms like a madman.
I stuck my face into my tin can and yelled back, “Underwood, come here!”
Billy Bob had his ear to his tin can. He heard me, clear as the church bell that just that morning had called the church-going Southern Baptists to an evangelistic meeting.
After hearing me, Billy Bob came scampering in my direction. The scampering was a sign of his delight that our invention was successful.
Then a funny thing happened. The scampering stopped. I could see Billy Bob leaning over to look at something on the ground. He was maybe, oh, an eighth of a mile away.
“Slack, come here!” he yelled.
I noticed he wasn’t yelling into his tin can, but I came anyway.
When I got to Billy Bob, I could see what he was inspecting.
“Jee-zus,” I said.
We looked at each other. We were both wondering the same thing: when had the wire snapped, before or after our long-distance conversation?
Being true scientists, we tried the same experiment again. Only this time, we yelled at each other without the tin cans.
Again, clear as a bell.
Oh well, we agreed. At least we didn’t have to dish out the money to the U.S. Patent Office.
Next morning, Old Man Coon got his wire back, no questions asked.