If the Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon administrations had wanted a look at my grandfather’s phone records, they wouldn’t have needed a secret court order to get them from Ma Bell.
They would only have had to send someone to stand outside his window and peek in at his calendar — a task so simple, even the bumbling Watergate burglars could have pulled it off.
My grandpa was in the habit of documenting many, and maybe all, of his long-distance phone calls on his calendar. Not only the outgoing calls, but the incoming ones, too.
And if one ran long, that was usually noted, as well. (What d’ya suppose constituted “long” in his frugal view? Fifteen minutes? That was probably when he started pacing and checking the clock.)
For instance, after a blessed event in the summer of 1973, he used some of the free space on his calendar for the following notation:
I don’t remember — or perhaps I never knew — who my grandparents knew in Trumbull, a town a little farther east in Fairfield County. Apparently someone in Trumbull was a close enough friend to merit calling with some big family news … but not close enough to be identified on the calendar by name, like everyone else.
And apparently my Great-Aunt Eleanor got an especially long call. Perhaps she had news of her own to share.
I sometimes wonder why my grandfather kept such careful track of his long-distance phone calls.
Perhaps he’d had a bad experience with Ma Bell — maybe he’d been charged for eighteen phone calls to Brazil once — and he wrote down all his phone calls from then on, so he could use that record as evidence in case of future disputes.
Or maybe he wrote them down so he could keep tabs on his phone costs, the same way a modern cell-phone user might take pains not to go over their texting limit. Maybe a long phone call to Rochester in the first week of the month meant a foreshortened one in the third week. Money doesn’t grow on trees, after all.
(I am imagining my grandpa in the cell-phone age, shrugging his shoulders and explaining in a bemused tone: “I get free calls on nights and weekends now! So I stopped writing ‘em down. Didn’t seem like I needed to any more.”)
The recent news about the Obama administration commandeering vast amounts of telephony data from Verizon arouses age-old suspicions about just how closely our government is keeping tabs on us.
It makes me wonder what the notoriously venal Nixon administration would have done with those phone records.
And — while I don’t overmuch care how closely The Man is watching me — I wonder whether The Man ever had occasion to check in on William Blumenau of Stamford, Connecticut.
I cannot imagine in a million years that the federal government or its operatives ever had reason to find my grandpa on their radar screens.
Hard-working, middle-aged, politically conservative and disdainful of public protest, my grandfather (and my grandma, and my great-grandma) would have been absolutely the last people to cause the slightest bit of trouble.
The Man would have had His hands full dealing with all the people trying to kick out the jams, tear down the walls and bring the war home in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He would never have cared about the occupants of 1107 Hope Street.
And yet … if today’s government can execute such a sweeping grab for the personal information of its citizens, who knows what might have happened in the past? Does anyone really think this is the first time, legal or not?
I am sure my grandpa never had his own file. But perhaps he was part of a larger one … a row of figures in some paranoid data grab, or a footnote in some foot-high pile of papers.
I kinda wish he were. Not because he was any sort of rebel, but because the inclusion of Bill Blumenau in any list of people to watch would have demonstrated the absurdity of keeping those sorts of lists without a laser-tight focus — as the Obama administration seems to have done.
That’s all speculation, anyway.
For now we’ll return to what we know — a middle-aged man for whom long-distance calls are something of a luxury, scrawling dutifully on his monthly calendar, keeping a detailed record of his communications that the government will never see.