Back when I got my license in 1993, cell phones were nowhere near the "state of the art" they are these days. In fact, 7.6 million had them in 1991. Now, 203 million of us in the U.S. alone have them.
They were large, bulky, and heavy (look at the monstrosity to the right), they lasted for all of a few hours on a charge (without talk time), and if you did use them, you were either charged a ridiculous amount of money per minute, or you had limited talk times per month. And don't even get me started on roaming charges...
Because only doctors and celebrities could afford these miracles of modern technology, the "poor man's cell phone" was the autopatch, or a phone patch hooked up to a repeater. Back in 1993, we had 3 repeaters in Knoxville with autopatch capability, and all were open for use. I was fascinated to listen on a scanner to hams using the patch to call home, find out what they needed to pick up from the grocery store or the fast-food joint, or just to see if little Johnny got home from school okay. Every so often a 911 call would roll in and usually it was a car wreck where people were banged up but okay.
There were those who used it daily for the same thing over and over. One in particular would call his mom and ask her what she needed, and every time he called, she said the same thing: "Pick me up some 'see-grets'," or "cigarettes" as we would say.
Some hams would never have a QSO with anyone other than the autopatch. I can recall many hams who would make their patch call then leave, never to be heard from again until the next time an autopatch was needed.
My first autopatch call was to my mom, if I remember correct. She wasn't too thrilled. She didn't like the "one-way" aspect of it where I couldn't hear her unless I un-keyed the mic. Still, it was great to have the ability of calling home while on the from work to see if I needed to stop and get something along the way, or call my then-girlfriend (now the wife) to check on things.
Knoxville must be the exception to the rule, because just about any other city I've been to, from Des Moines to Destin, not one phone patch outside of Knoxville was "open". They were off the air, toned with an unpublished tone, or a code was needed to be entered that the repeater owner needed to provide (and who were they to do such a thing?). I can recall one repeater trustee in Florida who said flat out he wouldn't give out the patch code to "foreigners" like myself. That ended the otherwise pleasant QSO immediately and swearing off of "his" machine.
One repeater here in Knoxville had its user base centered around the autopatch, and it was not unusual to see 50-60 patch calls made per day. Along with funny IDs, weather info, and an occasional TWIAR or Newsline airing, it was a happening repeater.
Then came the modern era of telecommunications. Phones got smaller, smarter, and most importantly, cheaper. My first cell phone was circa 1996. I got a whopping 60 minutes per month to use, at $49.99/month. My first cell phone was the popular Nokia phones with that "Snake" cell phone game that was so addictive. Text messaging? Wasn't that what beepers were for?
Over the years, as cell phones gained popularity, autopatch use was inversely proportional, and nowadays one autopatch call a day is above average. I myself have not used an autopatch for several years. Until today.
Today is my younger daughter's birthday. So one of her requests was to have a sleepover with her friends. And my other daughter's friends. And their sisters. 9 kids (including my two) camped out in the living room overnight last night. All girls. Then there's my wife, and our two dogs and a cat, all girls. I was drowning in an Ocean of estrogen.
This morning I get (rudely) awakened to the sounds of kids hollering about how hungry they were (similar to birds when the mom brings a worm to the nest) and my wife dispatched me on a mission to get doughnuts from the nearby Krispy Kreme. The task was simple: One dozen plain glazed and one dozen with rainbow sprinkles. I arrive at the doughnut shop and discover the rainbow sprinkles have been substituted with brown and orange Halloween Sprinkles since it's October. To make sure I don't scar my daughter for life I decide to call my wife to ensure I can get these sprinkles. Alas, I discover I have left my cell phone back at home, because I was still in a stupor heading out the door and forgot to take it with me.
So I go back to the Trailblazer and get on my ham radio, trying to remember how to use the autopatch. Back "in the day" one repeater had the simple "* up, # down" method, where you keyed the mic, announced your call, punched in the * key followed by the 7-digit number, then listened for the repeater to acknowledge the connection and read back the phone number. Another repeater (Tim Berry's WB4GBI on 147.075) was slightly different. You had to key the mic and push *, listen for the dial tone, then key up again and punch in the phone number. An extra step, but nothing like the one used by the local radio club. I can't even remember the sequence, but it was like a 3-digit code to get the patch up, then the 7 digits.
It had been so long since I needed the autopatch, things changed a bit. One repeater's autopatch I couldn't access, so it may be offline (the repeater trustee sold the machine when the club running the repeater dissolved) and the other machine (147.075) changed its format to *up, # down without the need for listening for the dialtone.
Attempt #1 succeeded, but no one answered the phone and I left a message begging for someone, anyone to pick up. Strange, since there's 9 kids and my wife, someone SHOULD have heard it. I call again, and again, I get the answering machine. Since the machine is working, I know my house hasn't burned to the ground, so I try my wife's cell phone. For some reason, it didn't want to connect all 7 digits on that attempt. I try again and this time it connects, but I get her voicemail.
I then decide to make the executive decision to get the doughnuts with sprinkles. In the end, I made the right choice. My wife claims she was not near the phone and it was in the bedroom out of earshot (apparently the 100 decibel level of kids drowns out a phone/answering machine) and the cell phone was on vibrate and she didn't have it on her.
It never ceases to amaze me how the best technology built into a cell phone is useless when you don't take it with you. But it's nice to know that the autopatch is still there "when all else fails".