Thursday, November 12, 2009

Party Line

I am dusting the antique black telephone that now sits on my end table. This very phone used to sit in the front room on my grandparents heavy oak desk. The access cable is cut and is connected now to nothing more than my memories.

There are no numbers on the face plate; rather it has a black knob that still cheerfully rings as I crank it around. That one continuous ring would have notified “Central” (the woman in town who sat at the switchboard) that I needed assistance to reach a phone number outside of my party line. My grandparents ring was “long-short-long”. Any other combination was notification that the incoming call was to someone else on our party line.

I can still see my grandmother tip-toeing across the floor to her corner desk; rather short and plump, she moved with a quiet gracefulness. She would settle in and then very gently pick up the heavy black handset and bring it to her ear. Without making a peep, she would listen in on the party line to her neighbor’s conversations. When I think back on it now, it strikes me as so incongruous for my sweet little grandmother to be such a voyeur. I remember it now as a Sunday afternoon ritual, but everyone did it. Sometimes there were so many folks “listening in” that the connection would get really bad, the spoken word growing fainter and fainter. No one could hear, not even the original two parties! Someone would have to hang up so the conversation could continue. You may have heard how everyone in a small town knows what you are doing? Well, back in the old days of rural telephone party lines, you were hard pressed to keep a secret.

I can also remember a long ago drive in our car, when one of us kids wondered out loud how birds could set on telephone lines without getting electrocuted. Could they feel the words as they zoomed through the wire? We were looking at dozens of shiny black starlings perched on the telephone line as it stretched out on either side of the tall, tar-smeared wooden pole. My mother said they must be having a party, listening in to all our secrets. “It’s a party line” we all giggled. To this day, I think “party line” every time I see them.

* annette

1 comment:

Mary said...

I once had an old friend (born in 1896) whose whole neighborhood listened to a neighbor who played the fiddle into his phone.

Party line. You bet.

Craze

P.S. I can see the pictures of your granny as you describe them.