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Telephones


Fri, Feb 9th, 2001
Posted in

Monday, February 12, 2001

It is Saturday and the telephone rang again for about the sixth time and it is only two p.m. The various jingles, tones, and warbling throughout the house barely stir me. The kids will get it. The phone hardly ever rings for me anymore. I certainly do not get my share of the calls and that is all right. It is a relief to hear the phone ring and have it be for someone else.

My wife happened to be reading a newspaper story this morning that referred to "party lines" out on the farms. We both grew up when one telephone per house and one line per neighborhood were the norm. Today, we have four phones in our house that work, a couple in desk drawers that might work, two cell phones and nobody to talk to. Well, it isnít that bad, but I think this might be called communications overkill. We have twice as many phones in the house as people to use them.

When I was growing up, our telephone on the farm was a rotary dial black plastic wall phone that hung in the kitchen. This was the only phone on the farm for many years before extensions were added in a bedroom and eventually the barn. One telephone in a six-person household made private conversations fairly difficult with the kitchen on one side and the living room on the other. Privacy was a relative term anyway, always keeping in mind that this was a party line.

I recall that our party line ring was "four shorts". As we ate our meals next to the phone, all conversation stopped when the phone started ringing. We didnít know until after the first couple of rings whether or not one of us was being called upon or whether it was for one of our neighbors. It could have been two longs for the Sonnenbergs or any of the other combinations for the Kroenings, Beighleys, or Bethkes. It was something to talk about and a cause for concern if a neighbor got more than a couple calls in a short time. Even though it was a focal point in the farm home, the telephone was still just another farm tool. When you talked, you talked fast and listened for the click that indicated that a neighbor wanted in. We lived in a very polite part of the world.

But, there is almost always an exception. One summer Saturday afternoon, one of the neighbor boys put on quite a party for his buddies. His parents were not home and he had invited some of his city friends out for the weekend. The traffic going by our farm was much heavier than normal as the city boys drove their hot cars back and forth to go on supply runs. At some point, one of them called a neighbor on our party line. We happened to be in for supper and were sitting by the phone when it started to ring. It was soon evident that this was not a polite country caller. I started counting and when the phone had rung a hundred times, my brothers and I debated whether we should answer a neighborís ring. It was an immense ethical and moral dilemma. This had never happened before and was quite outside the realm of established party line etiquette. Finally, I answered the phone and quietly explained that the person the caller was looking for was obviously not near the phone. I hung up and they did not try again.

Later, I learned that the caller was a teenage thug, or something as close to a thug as we had back then. The thug had confided to an acquaintance that he would seek out and "beat up" the person who had interfered with his phoning attempt. I walked around in mild fear for several days until I realized that it was unlikely that even a thug would go out of his way to find a person who might turn out to be even more "thug-gy" than he was.

It seems that this was about the time that a midnight lightning bolt blew the old black telephone off the wall. Soon after that we got "wired" with a private line. The private line was as up-to-date as we were going to get for the next thirty years.

Wayne Pike

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