I didn’t hear the conversation my mother was attempting to have— likely six or seven other people did, the more faithful listeners- in on our telephone’s over crowded party line. For you young ones, a party line is not a number that flashes across the screen on lonely Saturday nights, offering some sort of “online party.” Some people still pay to use those services, because they believe that what’s promised will actually help them to forget that they are still home all alone and still lonely. Come to think of it the eavesdroppers on the party line phone conversations may have been home alone and lonely too. There really weren’t more than a couple accessible channels on TV that you could pull in clearly enough to bother watching, out in the rural areas of Ontario in the 50’s and 60’s. Shopping wasn’t commonly used as entertainment either, as there weren’t any enclosed malls or giant superstores, nor was there any movie theatre complex offerings multiple blockbusters simultaneously, to lure you out of your home when you were bored.
So, back then, instead of calling a number flashing on the TV screen and being connected to some person or persons on the other end, people just listened for the various phone ringing sequences assigned to its subscribers by the Caradoc-Ekfrid telephone company. Then they ran to grab their phone receivers whenever the promise of a good juicy conversation was announced. This was done by the one long and two short rings, or three long rings, or whatever the distinctive combination of rings each householder needed to use, when hand cranking the phone’s ringer; with the right order and length of rings he could summon his neighbour to the phone. I have long ago forgotten whose ring was whose, so there is no attempt on my part here to imply that juicy content was available at either of the households vaguely identified above (just in case an old neighbour with a great memory is reading.) Our own house could be alerted with one long and four short rings. It would always ring the same regardless of whether it was one of the many neighbours on our line calling, or an operator assisted call from someone in Mom’s family in Pittsburgh as it was on the night I was just now remembering.
When we first we traded houses with my grandparent’s big house next door for our original two bedroom bungalow, there was one of those big tall phone boxes on the wall with the speaker, or speaking- into part shaped like a shower head sticking out of the front of it, and the bell- shaped hearing part, the receiver, on a cord coming out of its side. It had been installed inconveniently high by someone trying to save money on the wire which came into it from above. Mom needed to stand on a stool if she wanted to speak straight into the sticking- out speaker. Otherwise she looked like she ought to go put on her shower cap.
The receiver was called that because it was the part you received the spoken words through, but the hand- held combination piece on the big black table phone that was designed later, did both functions but was still only called “the receiver”. That was because it probably sounded too dumb in arguments to yell “Hand me over that speaker-receiver you big dumb jerk, or I’ll knock you over the head with it!” Besides that, fighting over that big black “sender –answerer” or whatever you might have otherwise called it would have taken all the breath you had, in which case “receiver” would have just been a lot easier to say. That’s my version of the facts anyway, especially as I can’t check it out on Google just now because my computer is being an obstinate pig!
Telling you that I actually remember such a museum piece of a phone in our house when I was growing up actually makes me feel really really old— older than a black and white movie where people grab hold of the receiver and hold it up to their ear and yell into the shower head- shaped piece in front of them, “Look out! There’s a tornado coming right your way!” or “There’s a fire at the old Gilbert place! Bring a blanket!” I’m sure that the blankets were obviously meant to beat out the fire with, not to throw on the ground and sit on while roasting marshmallows! Still a scene like that always reminds me of times that our family excitedly sends off those rapid fire messages to one another when they know Rolly is about to light one of his famously epic bonfires. They have always been huge because we have so many trees and shrubs in our yard that generate a lot of pruned wood. Always big enough that no one would need to alert all the neighbours with the very long single ring that people used to tell everyone in its hearing “There’s a fire! You need to get on the line and find out where! You need to come running and help put it out!”
When my sister Marsha was dating I’m sure that a few of the “old bitties” as we liked to call them, were also running, but just to try to get to the phone and listen in before Marsha’s calls were already over, as they were usually just quick invitations to go out on dates, of which she had many. I didn’t date much until I met Rolly and then we kept our phone conversations fairly short too, because he was shy and didn’t usually call just to chat, but to quickly arrange a date to go out somewhere or to come over for a visit. Although he was only twelve miles away, his family was no richer than mine was and the operator assisted calls were expensive. That wasn’t the only reason though. The main reason was to avoid sharing our feelings with outbursts of heavy breathing. Those wheezy old birds hung on that phone line like sparrows on a warm spring day! It was sometimes difficult to hear Rolly when people were so congested that their breathing was only a decibel or two quieter than an old man snoring. Then again, it very well could have been an old man snoring. It was hard to tell amidst all that clicking and clattering as people picked up their phones again after returning from the medicine cabinet with more Smith Brothers’ cough drops, and rustled their newspapers during all the boring parts.
If one of us had sneezed and they had all said “Gesundheit!’ we would probably have forgiven them. It would have been far more tolerable than their usual one word interjection. All at once as you were talking away, someone from the peanut gallery would suddenly say “Using?” They really weren’t asking the question “Are you using the phone? If someone is speaking on the telephone then that much can be assumed, unless one of the eavesdroppers had accidentally cranked up the hog report on the radio just as you hung up. I guess if it wasn’t juicy enough to entertain them then they would rather you just got off. Then someone else with something more exciting to say could take your place. What these people were really missing in their lives, especially all the men, were remote controls. But sadly they were not perfected yet. They sometimes turned on and off when the light changed, or they created ear-piercing noises quite unexpectedly. Besides that, who would have ever bought one to change the three available channels? Some men I know.