The Party Line

Technology in the early 1960’s was an incongruous blend of the almost unbelievably new and the “it will do for now” old. The most obvious example of old stuff hanging on was the telephone system. When my parents called their parents in Pittsburgh, 30 miles away, it was an event.

To place such a call, one first called the operator and then you verbally instructed her that you wanted to “place a person-to –person telephone call to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.” You would then provide the name of the person and the telephone number which in a big city was seven digits, but never referred to as seven numbers. Instead it would be something like “Tennyson 4-3567” with the TE standing for the numbers as they do on today’s’ phones. It took two minutes to place the call – obviously reflective of a different time and pace.

When I was in first grade I remember that I needed to know my home number so I could provide it to my teacher. This was the first time I had to know anything about my phone since children in those days never used the phone until they were at least in the fifth grade. My number was 56267. That was it. If you wanted to call me from France you would have had to go through several operators to get me, the last being Butler, Pennsylvania and that operator would call me at 56267. Classmates in Nixon, four miles distant, had numbers with only four digits. Those were long-distance calls.

When I was first allowed to use the phone, I had to contend with one of those remnants of the “It will do for now” system called a party line. A party line is almost incomprehensible today. It was literally a shared telephone line, in our case a line we shared with eleven of our neighbors. Sharing meant that only one of the parties could have a call at any one time. Families were not usually dispersed and if they were telephones rates were exorbitantly high compared with those of today so calls were made out of necessity and were, of necessity, short. Sharing also meant that any other party on your line could listen to your calls. They could pick up the receiver, and if they were silent and discreet, hear the entire conversation possibly without your knowledge of being eves-dropped. We often imagine of privacy being more intact in those days – well not always.

An exception to the “call when needed” rule was a pair of neighbors who lived right next door to each other who loved to tie up the party line for the indecisive dithering that could hardly pass for communication. When we had something really vital to accomplish, such as setting up a football game, we needed to make six to ten calls and you needed to make them quickly before daylight was gone. It was frustrating beyond the realm of reasonable patience to hear to older women sigh, say “oh well” and sigh again as both figured out who was say what meaningless and unnecessary drivel next. In an effort to introduce a sense of urgency, or at least convey the passage of time. I once held the receiver up to the pendulum of on of our large wall clocks. I could hear one of the neighbors moan: “There it is again… if I ever find out who has those clocks near their phone I’m going to tell the phone company… sigh.. Oh well.” In an effort to simplify their search I bleated into the phone for all I was worth. “Now,” I said with a sense of triumph hoping to drive them back to their domestic chores, “look for the people with sheep in their living room!”