Party Lines

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If you grew up in a city, the subject of today’s column may not ring any bells, so to speak. But if you grew up in small town America, or perhaps grew up in the country, you no doubt remember the concept of a party line.

As America was wired for telephone service, it was impossible to give everyone their own private line. So neighbors would share a single connection, each having their own phone number. Strange stuff, but it made sense to Ma Bell.

Now consider what was required to complete a phone call in Centerton, Arkansas circa 1971: A line, shared by ten or so households, would have to be unoccupied. Otherwise, the caller would get a busy signal.

That meant that if you had a neighbor who liked to yak, you would miss lots of calls. Not good.

Of course, we had a neighbor lady who loved talking on the phone. And, more than once, she had to be tactfully told that an important call was expected, and could she please hang up for a while. And no, she didn’t like being asked AT ALL.

I don’t know why. She would enjoy listening in on the conversations of others almost as much as she loved having her own.

Party line users soon became adept at knowing the telltale signs that another neighbor was listening in. The call, particularly if long distance, would have line noise mixed in with the other person’s voice. However, a nosy neighbor’s breathing, etc. would come in crystal clear.

Party lines were cheaper in 1959!

I grew up with three different party lines. The first one was when we moved to southwest Missouri, three miles up a dirt road out in the middle of nowhere. We lived there for nearly a year before we even GOT a phone! It took that long for the phone company to run new wires. Important calls would be made from a pay phone at a store on the main highway. So the nuisance of other neighbors using the same line was welcome, after being cut off from the world!

At least our phone rang independently, on all of the party lines we had. We visited a friend once whose phone rang several times an hour. I asked her why she didn’t answer it, and she told me that her ring was “two shorts and a long.” That’s when I noticed that the rings were in different patterns, sort of like Morse code.

Imagine getting used to constantly ringing phone in your house, to be ignored 90% of the time!

Nowadays everybody has their own connection. By 2004, there were about 5000 homes hooked up to party lines, but 90% of THOSE had only one party. Weird, I know, but that’s how the phone companies classify them. So in reality, about 500 families still have to wait for the line to clear before they can talk.

My problem is the opposite one: I have TOO STINKING MANY phone lines! I still have a land line, because it comes with the DSL. But I also have that lovely little cell phone that always seems to go off at bad times.

However, we children of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s can recall a time when making a call sometimes meant politely asking a neighbor to hang up, and then making sure she STAYED hung up!

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