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'.