SOS. Many of us know (or think we know) what these familiar letters stand for. We may have even sent out an SOS, a time or two, when life or limb warranted it. Some (myself included) think that the trio means “save our souls.” Others say it means “save our ship.” Well, it’s neither.
Yukoners may have been acquainted, however briefly, with a telegraph machine at the MacBride Museum. I visited this fall with our granddaughters, Taya and Eden, and couldn’t resist trying one out, imagining what it would have been like to communicate with the rhythmic clacks, imagining the tapping and the urgent, choppy messages that would come through via wireless radiotelegraph machines, through radio waves. (Not that I purport to understand how that works!)
In International Morse Code, three dots stand for “S” and three dashes stand for “O.” So, three dots, three dashes, three dots (no spaces), came to be known, simply, as SOS.
Of course, the days of Morse Code have faded into an all-but-distant wartime memory, of days at sea when distress signals were sent out in hopes of saving both souls and ships. A memory, yes, but the signal remains to this day. It may be scrawled in dirt or scribed with any available implement, or even spelled out with stones, in some remote location, and is commonly recognizable as HELP!
Eventually, the unspoken signal became the audible “Mayday!”—another international distress symbol, heard from sea and sky, that originated with the French word m’aider or “help me!” These signals are still understood and employed today—perhaps SOS more so than Mayday—but, as described in the old Bob Dylan song, “The times, they are a changin.’”
These are the days of texting and high-tech, of 911, of both audible and visible alarms on electronics—and all of this on our cellphones, our constant co-dependency-inducing companions. But somehow I am enticed by simpler times—seduced by power outages (short ones) and lulled by the quietness, the lack of urgency and the return to hearth and candlelight. I even bought a typewriter, recently, and am enchanted by the gentle “clacking” of the keys, as if this were some new invention. Perhaps it is that the “old” becomes “new” again in its unfamiliarity. Or perhaps we are simply enticed by what Valdy described as “the simple life.”
If I need help, though, the first thing I will reach for is my cellphone. And if I can text only three letters, they will be SOS because I know that their meaning will be instantly understood.
SOS … remember, those three letters can save your life.