Note: The names in this story have been changed to protect the guilty.
Perched majestically, strategically, and prominently atop its regal-like throne, my family’s black rotary phone proudly pronounced its presence.
Ring, Ring, Ring.
The esteemed hardware device, about the size of a lady’s shoe box, had a free-standing base with a rotary dial on the front. To launch the app, the user placed a finger into one of ten digit holes labeled 1-0 and spun the dial clockwise. Once the finger reached a tiny guard, it prohibited the dialer from continuing further. Once released, the phone’s software worked its magic, and click, click, clicked the designated number of times to equal the number selected. If the phone number was five digits, this procedure was repeated five times. Local numbers only needed a total of five digits, while long distance used ten. We never used long distance numbers at our house, because we could not afford the added expense.
Ring, ring, ring, it continued.
Above the dial, was a holster for the receiver which resembled a horn, with a large earpiece on one end and a mouthpiece on the other. I heard tales of some homes owning phones in colors other than black.
“Dad let’s get a red phone,” I suggested.
“Nope,” said Dad. “We don’t need no red phone. Our black one works just fine. Besides, a colored phone costs another fifty cents a month!”
Ring, ring, ring, proclaimed the great, great grandfather of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook; the grandfather of mobile cell phones and texting, and the father of touch-tone, call-waiting, caller-ID, and voicemail. These wonderful future updates were yet to be conceived.
“Gonna answer that?” my city friend asked.
“Nah, that’s not our ring,” I replied, knowing more questions were on the way. There always were more questions from my city friends.
“What?” came the next question, right on queue.
“We are on a party line,” I told him.
“A party what?” he asked.
“A party line. There are five other families on our line. We each have our own distinct ring. Ours is one short and three long ones,” I explained.
“That’s crazy,” he said. “That reminds me, I need to call Mom. Can I use your bedroom phone?”
“Au contraire, my city slicker friend! My dad would never pay for a separate line. That costs an extra $1.50 per month. The one phone, attached to the wall with a non-extendable wire, strays no more than three feet. You can either talk here, in our living room, in front of God and everyone else who happens to be in the room, or you don’t talk,” I said, continuing the country way schooling.
“Okay, I’ll talk here. Just don’t listen,” he said.
“Okay,” I said, knowing I would be listening.
When my friend picked up the receiver, he heard voices. “Hey, someone is already talking,” he said, acting shocked.
“I told you, we are on a party line. Someone beat you to the punch. You will have to wait until they finish.” I patiently educated my friend.
“Can I listen to them talk?” he asked smugly, with a mischievous smirk.
“No, I said. That would not be cool! We NEVER listen in on other conversations,” I lied.
Oh, how I wished that last statement was true. It was not so bothersome when others, (including Mom), eavesdropped on me as a young buck, but it did bug me as I got older.
The people of our party line consisted of fine, God-fearing, church ladies. They would do anything in the world for you, but according to some folks, they loved to gossip! And where do you think the bulk of their gossip fodder was collected? Yep! You guessed it. On our party line.
Now I am not one to point fingers and accuse others of snooping. Besides, where would I start? Would I start with Willie Mae or Cora Mae? Buena or Bessie? Lula or God forbid, my mother? Looking back, I believe the phone company had a sense of humor and matched these ladies together on one line, to see who could get the best of the other!
I first suspected sabotage when I was busted by my mom, prior to breaking one of her many rules. “How did you know about this? I asked.
WikiLeaks was in its infancy.
“Don’t you worry about it. You’re grounded, Young Man,” mom piously proclaimed, knowing even she was out of bounds for this ill-gotten information.
Determined to smoke out the mole, I concocted an idea. Informing a friend of the plan, we held a fake phone conversation that included, let’s just say, some intel that was not completely true. On the phone, my friend informed me of his families impending move to another state. Later, mom asked about his move. I asked how she knew about this. She said Bessie told her. Bingo! Mole discovered!
Another counter strategy was to employ a form of Pig Latin when I knew the snoop was on. “OmeoneSay isyah isteninglay inyay onyay ouryay onversationcay,” I might say. Knowing I knew, they knew, I knew they were on the line, click, click, click, click, the lines would go. But wait! We still were not safe. I only counted four clicks. One mangier mole lingered. “Oneyay eronpay isyay illstay istenglay.” Click. The coast was finally clear. Line secure!
When I was very young, I heard mom take her wrath out on her fellow eavesdroppers. “I’m still talking and plan to talk fifteen more minutes. I would appreciate some privacy,” she exclaimed. Click. A satisfying smile spread across her face, as my sister and I continued listening to her phone conversation.
Occasionally, a true emergency would arise. The person in need of the line declared their issue and asked the talking party to relinquish the line at once. If reasonable, the talking parties complied with their request. When the coast became clear, the lines started buzzing again. The gossip gals called each other and discussed the details of the emergency. Soon news of the saga spread to their non-party line friends. Some of the news was correct, some, not so much.
As a teenager, who began having cozy conversations with members of the opposite sex, the party line was only half the challenge. The dang rotary phone was limited in its movement, by a three-foot wire, attached to the wall. Some families had really, really, really long cords, so they could move the phone to another room to have privacy. Not the Collins family. According to my dad, really, really, really long cords costs seventy-five cents more, when I submitted this upgrade request to him. In addition, the cord attached to the handset, was extra short. It stretched a maximum of three feet. Again, no extensions at our house because, you guessed it… another seventy-five cents.
I had a tendency to talk to my girlfriend every night from 8:30 until 9. In addition to my mom sitting right next to me, while she pretended to watch our only television, the other five ladies on the party line who also knew my timing, had their cauliflower ears cuffed to the phone. They were ready to hear the exhortations of young love and recall their younger days, when life was so simple, and they too were in love. By now, the ladies had long ago broken the Pig Latin code, so hey, my girl and I just let it all hang out.
“Mom, can I have some privacy?” I begged, as she reluctantly moved to the next room, still snooping.
I can just imagine Buena telling Lula, “did you hear what Ronnie told his girlfriend the other night? I can’t believe Alice would sit there and allow him to say that!”
Early in my life, I began to figure it out. Because we only had one television, in the same room, with our only phone, meant everyone in the household always heard every word spoken on any call.
An advanced math equation I learned later went something like this; six families on one party line equals six households knowing my business.
Exponential growth came into play once I tried to determine the rate of speed, in which six families spread my business to six other families, who spread it to six other families, who…well, you get the picture.
The party line church ladies, no doubt refined their gossiping to an art. Perhaps these skills were passed down from their moms and their mom’s moms. But make no mistake about it, their hearts were far bigger than their ears. Looking back, I can recall times when these ladies went out of their way to help me. In a way, I believe they looked at me as one of their own kids. Perhaps this was penance for robbing me of some of my innocent privileged information as a youth. And really, I have decided that’s okay by me. It really is! While they may have talked behind my back, I knew they always had my back!
Social media version 2019 has nothing on party line 1970. I know the gossip girls agree with me on this subject. Right girls? Iyay owknay youyay areyay isteninglay (I know you are listening). Click, click, click, click, click.
And just like that…no evidence of collusion!