When I was growing up on the farm in Carlisle County, everyone had wall telephones. They were very old, even for the fifties, so I suspect the phone company dumped them on country people, who were glad to get any kind of phone.
We were on a party line, and to distinguish who was being called, every family was assigned certain "rings." Ours was two long rings and one short ring; Maw Maw Wilson's was two longs and two shorts. And so on.
Trouble is, our phones were out of order much of the time. Either a tree had fallen onto a line (which took the phone company weeks to remove); a phone had been left off the hook; someone had unhooked the line to our neighborhood so the phones on Hwy. 123 would work. Or some such problem.
When the phones were working, though, it was great. I loved eavesdropping on fellow party-liners; it was like an ongoing soap opera.
Until Mother caught me.
"Get off that phone, Brenda Gail," she whispers, "Now!"
Just about everyone on our party line eavesdropped at one time or another, although Mother and Maw Maw seldom listened unless someone had taken ill or a tragedy had occurred. At times like those, everyone was on the line (like a conference call): "They don't expect her to live through the night." "He was eat up with cancer; they operated on him, but they just had to sew him back up."
Miss Ora eavesdropped all the time. How do I know? She and Dummy lived just across the field from us, and they had a rooster who had a very strange crow (like he had Laryngitis, or something like that). I could hear him crowing across the field and through the phone. But I felt a certain commoradory with Miss Ora, the two of us quietly listening together.
Although most of her phone conversations were boring, I did enjoy hearing the orders Miss Ora left at McKendree's Grocery for her husband: "When Dummy comes in there, tell him to get a loaf of Sandwich bread, a dozen eggs and some Pepto-Bismol."
Sometimes she ordered hamburger "meat," Martha White self-rising flour, cornmeal. One day she added cake flour to the list, and I pictured her stirring cake batter with one hand and holding the receiver with the other, the dysphonic rooster crowing just outside her window.
Gertie and Miss Ninnie had interesting conversations: "I wasn't feelin' so pert this morning," Gertie says, "So I took a Milltown." "Law me, I was just gettin' ready to take one myself," says Miss Ninnie, "I feel a migraine comin' on."
Aloha's mother-in-law (who was also my great-aunt) lived near each other, and they talked each day: Your bedroom light was on at three o'clock this morning," Aunt Mary says, "Was one of y'all sick?" Aloha hesitates and clears her throat: "Looks like it's gonna be a nice day."
Men in our neck of the woods seldom talked on the phone. When they did, their conversations were short. And boring. They talked very loud, as if yelling at each other through megaphones: "Yeah, okay," shouts Daddy, "Alright, then." They never said goodbye; when the conversation was over, they abruptly hung up.
Not so for the women. If there was a conversation going on about someone they knew, they butted in: "Ruby?" says Gertie, "Who're y'all talkin' about?" "When did she take sick?" adds Dorothy.
Occasionally, someone had to make a long distance call, which required "getting through" to the Bardwell operator. One person was seldom able to get the job done, so an all-points plea went out: "Could somebody help me ring Central?"
Eavesdroppers up and down Laketon Road began simultaneously cranking their phones. Again and again. Their reward was listening in on a conversation between the caller and someone far, far away. Maybe Clinton, or some other distant place.
Sometimes our phone began emitting faint, sputtering rings, like it was sick. It was impossible to make out who was being called, so several party-liners picked up their phones, always using the pat phrase: "Who you ringin'?"
Kids seldom talked on the phone. Phones were for adults. If Mother was unavailable, we were allowed to answer, but that was all. It didn't make much difference, though. Most of our friends didn't have phones; if they did, we would have had to call long distance. And long distance was only used if someone's house was burning down or a close relative was dying.
Which is why what Terry, Pitty, Mary Ellen and I did one summer was so out of character for us. I take full responsibility, though. The whole thing was my idea.
To be continued...