It was just a phone, hanging there on the wall to make calls and to receive calls. No text messages, call waiting, photo ability, no texting, sexting, or whatever today’s magical cell phone is capable of performing.
Our family’s first phone was installed in our farmhouse in the mid to late 30’s, when less than a third of farm homes were so equipped. A monster machine in a wooden cabinet about two feet top to bottom, and a foot square. A hand crank on one side let us send a ring heard by all neighbors on our party line . The receiver hung to the other side when not stuck to someone’s ear. The speaker cone jutted out over six inches from the front, and we hardly had to shout into it to make ourselves heard by “who’s calling, please”.
We could direct dial only Central and those five or six neighbors on our party line. Central was the operator whose services were required for reaching out and touching someone on a different party line. The daytime operator was Miss Nelda, who performed this magic. With her headset tethering her to the central board, she answered our hand cranked ring (one very long) for Central by plugging into our party line’s socket. She would then plug a two ended cord into our line and the party line of the requested party with the other end of the cord, and dial their assigned Morse code dial: one long-two shorts, or one-long, one-short, one-long. Though she never stayed on to hear any of the conversations, she seemed by some to be remarkably well informed about civic and social matters around the neighborhood.
All our family learned our ring, of course. Some symbol of longs and shorts. And soon we memorized the rings for all our fellow party-liners. On most party lines, there was at least one rubbernecker; ours was someone we’ll call Mrs. Higginbottom. Mrs. H was adept at lifting her receiver quietly or simultaneously to avoid detection. Everyone knew she did it, and occasionally paused to say, “Mrs. H, are you on there?” No response from her, of course; not even the sound of quiet breathing. I once heard my mom ask, “Mrs. H, are you getting all this?” Mom was quite direct.
It would have been pleasant if all on a party line were courteous, and kept their chat room to reasonable lengths. In lieu of other forms of entertainment (only a few had radios for their soap operas or daily cattle price reports), there were those eavesdropper who never missed a call. The monopolists were even more of a problem than Mrs. H. Courtesy demanded that one who wished to make a call would pick up the receiver quietly to see if others were on the line, then wait for a short time before lifting the receiver again to check for open line. Two or three receiver clicks usually did it. Again courtesy suggested, after a few short waits, “Could I interrupt for a short call?” The less courteous might demand, “Will you get off the damned line? I need to call the vet.”
My wife remembers that in her early teens her dad got so frustrated with those old hens on our line, he had a private line strung to their farm. I still remember her phone number, #269, for that phone and it, too, was operator dialed through Central in their town’s system.
Those boys and girls with romantic inclinations were severely restrained by the party line. A face to face female rejection of a proposed date was humiliating enough for a boy. When he knew that all the neighbors might be talking about it before suppertime, he just avoided the party line in every way possible. I attempted to elude Mrs. H’s curiosity one time during my high school days. There was a public use phone in Miss Nelda’s control room, no private booth, just a phone at a table, but it was no charge in the days before AT&T got involved in our neighborhood system. I decided to use that phone to minimize the exposure. There would be no evading Miss Nelda, who could eavesdrop from wherever the call might originate. She was careful about spreading the news so gained, including such minor ones as my possible rejection.
From her public phone, I asked, “Miss Nelda, would you call Martha Miller, please?”
“Know her Daddy’s name? No? There’s seven Miller families round here. Where’s she live?”
“About four miles north of town, I think.” By now I was ready to give up the project. I stood up and said, “Maybe I’ll just try some time later —-“.
“Hold on. That’s probably Frank. He’s got a girl bout your age. I’ll try his phone and ask.” Sure enough she called and, “This is Central. Is there a Martha at your house?”
There was. Due to Miss Nelda’s skill and persistence, I was able to ask Martha to go to a movie. I got rejected, but didn’t suffer much humiliation. No one but me and Martha, and Miss Nelda knew about it. Probably.