Listen My Children, And You Shall Hear, Part 1

My apologies to Longfellow, for this has nothing to do with his magnificent “Paul Revere’s Ride”. I was actually thinking about something we often repeated as children:

Didn’t know it
Feet Showed it
They were Longfellow’s

But I digress. I think the phrase came to mind when thinking about telling stories of ‘the good ole days’ and ‘when I was a kid’. I guess we do that more and more the older we get.

When chatting with a friend last week we were laughing about how technology bound we have become and I wanted to capture the thought before the idea left me.

I can remember when our first black wall phone was installed in my grandmother’s house. We were on a party line with four to six other houses. Everyone on the party line had a particular ring, so you knew if the incoming call was for you. Sharing the line was always a problem. Older shut-in people liked to talk a long time as did children. And then there was the listening in on your conversations. I can still remember my grandmother chastising heavy breathing neighbors to ‘hang up the phone’.

The phone companies also provided the telephones. Standard issue rotary phones were the first we had to choose from. There was no buying a phone elsewhere. I vaguely remember visiting an AT&T store. I wanted a pink Princess Phone so badly, but all we ever got was a pushbutton Trimline phone and rotary wall phone, both in harvest gold color. There were also extra charges for ‘touchtone’ and extra charges if you wanted an unlisted number and extra charges if you wanted the phone company to service the wiring inside your home.

Traveling to see loved ones was always a lesson in faith and trust. There were no cell phones to report on progress. When we traveled the 12 hours from Ohio to Virginia to visit my grandparents it was a long haul. They must have worried as we were on the road for so long. When we made the return trip home, we used the collect call to a ‘code name’ to let them know we arrived safely.

Operator: “Will you accept a collect call from Bartholomew Smith”?
Grandparents: “No”
Operator: “I’m sorry, the charges were refused.”

Everyone would giggle and the message was conveyed. We got home ok. And the message did not cost anything. Long distance calls were expensive, and collect calls even more so. Any operator assisted calls caused the cost to skyrocket.

Which made me wonder. If I press ‘0’ on my cell phone, what would happen? Or on a landline? Do operators exist anymore? What about overseas operators? They were a specialty – located in Denver if I remember correctly.

Then of course, we dialed 411 for directory assistance when we needed a Local phone number. An information operator would ask what number you were seeking, look it up and recite the number to you. The service was also used for long distance. Dial the area code +555-1212.

Many towns and cities also had a reserved number you could call for time and temperature. I do not recall any of those numbers. There is a great scene in the movie “Doc Hollywood” where Michael J. Fox calls back to Grady from Los Angeles just to hear the time and temperature recording.

Then there were pay phones. I can remember going to a payphone with a change purse full of quarters to make a ‘long distance’ call, which in reality, was not necessarily long distance. If your time ran out, an operator would come back online instructing you to add more money or your call would end abruptly.

I worked as a switchboard operator when I lived in Alaska. I worked with a few of the local telco technicians. They told me about a man that was finally arrested for making thousands of dollars of fraudulent phone calls. You see, when you put money in a pay phone, each coin made a specific sound. That’s how the operator knew if you had paid the proper amount. Well, this kindly older gentlemen would call the operator and chat with her and would pay the appropriate cost for the call – except he didn’t. He had in his possession a recording of the sound the coins made when falling into the machine. It took a while to find him, but they knew something was up when the money was collected from the phones and there was nothing there.

I cannot remember the last time I saw a working payphone. There are still some boxes around, but the phones have long since been removed.

I never imagined telephones would become part of my nostalgia. Another scene – all too familiar – of a stretched out phone cord taken into the bathroom for privacy plays out in the movie “Home for the Holidays”.

The phone was our connection as cumbersome as it seems now. Maybe here in 2020, we are reminded of what it was like to ‘reach out and touch someone’ through the phone.