26 March 2008

Me, my phone, and I, pt. 1

When I was a little girl my family moved to the country, a good fifteen minutes' drive from town. The only telephone service available to us and all our interrelated Missionary Baptist neighbors was the party line. We shared a wire with nosy folks up and down our road. Have any of the rest of you ever experienced a party line? It was, by turns, great entertainment and great vexation.

The way it worked was simple: Each household sharing the wire had its own distinctive ring. When our ring sounded, either my mother or I would answer (I don't remember my father ever voluntarily picking up a phone). Usually, in those days, I was more eager to be the one to pick up the receiver. Mama didn't mind. She already dealt with too many phones at night in her dreams—rotary dials that wouldn't stop spinning around, busy signals, dialing wrong numbers repeatedly, not being able to connect, uncooperative operators, malfunctioning mouthpieces—all these she brought to me for interpretation. I was her personal Daniel.

Riiiiiiiiing! That's our call! "Hello, Bowen residence, Georgia speaking."

"Honey, is your mama home?"

"Yes, ma'am. I'll get her."

Later on in the day: Ring-ring-riiiiiiiiing! The Hendersons' line! Don't pick it up. Wait'll the ringing stops. Ring-ring-riiiiiiiiing! Ring-ring-riiiiiiiiing! Ring-- Now! Quietly . . .

I would ease the receiver off its hook s-l-o-w-l-y so as not to be noticed. Molasses in winter. Over time I learned to unscrew the mouthpiece and take out the talking chip before I joined the conversation, in case I needed to cough, or giggle, or breathe. Sometimes the rural ladies would gossip with their friends, or complain about their husbands and children. Most of the time their calls were pretty dull and their voices flat, but to me it was still thrilling to listen in. I felt grown-up, adventurous. I was working undercover. I was an only child, and the phone was an excellent playmate.

"Is somebody there? Hang up."

Snicker, wheeze. They can't hear me!

"I know you're listening. Hang up!"

I would wait it out until they either decided I really wasn't there, or stopped caring.

I was making calls of my own before private lines came to Kellum Loop Road. I would be on the phone with a friend and hear a click! That's when the sound of our voices over the wire would alter slightly, as if the room suddenly got bigger.

"Hello? Did somebody pick up? I'm on the line. Would you please hang up?"

Muffled silence would come from the eavesdropper's end. I guess word never made it around about removing the talking chip. I'm sure I never told.

"I know you're there. I can hear you breathing! Would you please hang up the phone!"

My friend and I would exchange disgruntlements and then fall hotly silent till the listener lost interest and hung up.

Sometimes I would be in the middle of a call and someone wanting the phone would pick up—click!—pause—then slam down the line, pick up—click!—pause—then slam down the line, and so on. It was a very annoying, very anti-social way of getting a point across. Why not do what a dream neighbor would do—pick up the line quietly, and politely ask for a chance to make a quick call. I remember needing to do that a time or two. But did I ever passive-aggressively pick up, pause, and slam first? Truly, I don't recall!

I was in heaven when we finally had our own private line. I got very carried away at times with uninterrupted talking. I remember I was on the phone a very long time one evening. My dad was working late at the newspaper office, and apparently wanted to talk to my mother, who was probably in her room, reading. He called and called and called, and every time got a busy signal. I don't know what oaths he uttered to the operator, but when her mechanical monotone broke into my conversation and instructed me to hang up because there was an emergency call trying to come through, I knew I was in big trouble. I got quite the tongue-lashing for that.

I never could understand what made adult conversations so much more important than kids'.


Jamie said...

I actually think that kids' conversations are very important--part of sorting out adolescence, I think, and I plan to let my kids chat quite a bit when they reach A Certain Age as long as their other responsibilities are taken care of. I love stories about party lines--I think the police scanner serves a similar voyeuristic purpose, and I still have people on my VT route who live for the police scanner action! I don't know many people outside of our ward, so that wouldn't be so entertaining for me (among other reasons). This is a lovely, well-written memory--thanks for sharing! Miss you!

Justine said...

I will confess that I know exactly how to remove the talking chip from a telephone. And I'm reeeaallly glad to learn that I'm not the only one that did that.

I remember the guilt of hearing my neighbor talking about leaving her husband. I think I stopped listening after that.

I remember party lines quite fondly, but imagine that my parents weren't so fond of them.

Wow, I had completely forgotten about that part of my life. What fun to remember that, thanks!!!

Bluebell said...

Fun story. You're such a great writer.

compulsive writer said...

Great post. The only equivalent I can think of nowadays is when I get to "sit in" on a conference call unannounced. Not as much gossip though, and just not the same.

b. said...

This is a great story!!
My gram had a party line.
Our land line out here is just about as bad as a party line.

I used to go sit downstairs in the beauty shop while my mom did hair. Those were some really fascinating conversations!

Nigel said...

Please, don't make me laugh.

I didn't have a party line, but when I was a teenybopper, one of my friends got hold of the secret code that allowed phone repairmen to make free long-distance calls. It was mayhem. It was nation-wide prank calling before the age of caller I.D.

wendy said...

What fun memories! No party lines in our town or my grandparents. I thought they went out with the Cleavers. That's how much I know!

Geo said...

JAMIE. We never had a police scanner, but my dad got into CBs for a while. 10-4, good buddy!

JUSTINE. Glad I could churn up a memory for you! Thanks for visiting.


C-DUB. A friend told me yesterday that she thinks cell phone addicts provide the general public with sort of a one-sided party line to listen to.

B. Now THERE'S where you can pick up some serious edumacation. Salons are hotbeds of scandal! Enough to curl your hair!

NIGEL. That reminds me of the phone booth in the desert.

WENDY. Call me June!

Demon Hamster said...

I really enjoyed this post, it made me even more grateful that my parents let me install my own phone line around my sixteenth birthday. This also reminds me of a woman I used to work with who claimed that she could tune into the cordless telephone conversations of the other people in her building if she picked up her phone and stood in exactly the right spot in her apartment. Apparently there were some strange things going on with her neighbors, although she always refused to give me specifics. I think the idea of listening in to someone else's unguarded, personal moments has a pretty universal appeal, even if what you end up hearing is all mundane stuff about people you've never met.

The Mohrs said...

You should write some stories....I can't wait for part 2!!! I really wanted to keep reading more.

andi said...

I remember our party line in Colorado. It is such a small town that, until just 5 years ago, you only had to dial the last 4 numbers of anyone in town.

Funny how advancing technology has enabled us to talk more and say so much less.

Lois said...

Didn't have a party line, but my parents STILL have their 30-pound black behemoth dial telephone. I remember having to go to my dad's office to register for college because we didn't have a push-button phone. Of course, Nigel had to go to a store down the street!

Speaking of the importance of kids' conversations, I remember something that the infamous Sister Jensen once said in the old Parvo Farth Ward.

"I used to tell my kids to turn off the TV immediately when it was time to eat dinner. But I wouldn't want someone to tell me to stop watching "E.R." if I was in the middle of it. Why should their shows by any different?"

Olivia said...

i LOVE this story! I would have been the worst eavesdropper if i'd had this kind of set-up... man.... not just your mom's calls, but the neighbor's too??? lucky.

AzĂșcar said...

Geo, love the remembrance of telephone days gone past.

pflower10 said...

We had a party line on my sister's phone line when we were growing up. I remember being ever so quiet when I would try to ease myself into someone else's phone convo. I had forgotten all about it. Thanks for the memories and the hilarious story!

Am'n2deep said...

Oh, party lines were so much fun. We didn't have one, but grandma and grandpa did. I remember sneaking downstairs to the back bedroom where there was a phone and I could go undetected for some time to listen to Sadie gossip. I also remember grandma having to discuss with me how this was not a polite thing to do when I inevidably would get caught every time--if only I had known about the talking chip!

Geo said...

HAMSTER. (I'm focusing on the soft cuddly part of your persona, not the horned alter-ego.) Welcome! It's great to "meet" you. (Have we met in 3-D?) I agree with you about the personal moments. This is why, I guess, I started bugging my clothes at the age of eight, after some fairy godmother gifted me with a cheap recorder. I have always, always loved to capture people's voices and stories. Hope you and I cross paths again!

N.M. Never fear, I had a long jaded history with telephones. I'm sure I'll be making more confessions in future.

ANDI. Wow, I didn't know there were still holdouts like that in the US. I bet you have some great phone stories yourself.

LOIS. Your folks have one of those? I think I might actually answer my phone more if I had the old black rotary dialer. I think they are beautiful! They're as cool as old typewriters to me. Impractical? Yes. But when have I ever been practical?

OLIVIA. You are a perfect candidate for Child of the Party Line. Too bad it's just a dream now. Maybe you should visit Andi's old neighborhood in Colorado.

AZUCAR. Am I turning into a grandma?

PEEF. You too? Hey, if you remember any good stories, do tell!

DEEP. Yup, I'm afraid it also took me a while to grow into "polite." It just wasn't nearly so much fun! I'm sorry you never learned to chip trick, to maximize your naughtiness.

Elizabeth said...

I loved the reminiscing in this, Georgia. I've heard about party lines, but never actually experienced them myself. Sounds like they would be both interesting and annoying -- but exciting, too.