Thursday, August 14, 2014

Party Line

When I was kid it took just four numbers to call my friends; the prefix and the area code were not required. If you had to use the area code that meant long distance – and that meant a phone bill was being tallied by the phone company for every minute spent on the phone. This amount would only become known when the phone bill arrived; rates varied on the weekends, after six and on holidays.  In other words – nobody but Ma Bell knew for sure, and she encouraged us to dial a 1 followed by all ten numbers. After all, long distance was the next best thing to being there, so we were told.

But every word, every pause, every minute counted – time was precious. Talking on the phone with someone “long distance,” rarely allowed for a casual conversing experience even if you were paying the bill (which I wasn’t) as someone would eventually be heard saying, “better keep it short, this is long distance.”  I often thought – is the person on the other end only worth $2.95 and not $4.65? My older brother and sister were both in college hundreds of miles away so phone calls never seemed long enough – still cheaper and faster than driving I suppose.

Calling long distance could mean calling someone in another country or the next county. Rhonda, then my girlfriend, lived only about twelve miles from my house, but to call her meant to call long-distance.

Most homes had only one phone located in a very public place such as the kitchen where privacy was never served. Although many people had phones in their homes with their own phone number, many people had to share a line (a party line) with others in the neighborhood. For instance, when Rhonda, now my wife, was growing up her family had to share the line with two other families – seventeen people (nine teenagers) all sharing each other’s secrets. She would pick up the phone and discover a conversation already in progress. It was like turning on the radio in the middle of a talk show – except you were not welcome to listen in; although some did.

When we moved out here twenty years ago we were having trouble with our phone line – sometimes it became a party line. The problem was that the phone line was lying exposed in the ditch. The flimsy wires in the weeds were occasionally munched on by the neighbor’s horses. This went on for a couple years – the phone company would patch the wires and the horses would disconnect them.

Land lines are disappearing and are being replaced with cell phones and with that the long-distance charges are going away too.  I was talking to my friend Tim, the L.A. movie star, last week about the changes in the telephone. He remembers running in from outside because so and so was calling long-distance. Now his friends call him from all over the country to tell him a joke, even when they can’t remember the punch line.

It seems now almost everyone has a cell phone so it’s never been easier to reach out and touch someone. I don’t even have to remember my friends’ phone numbers, which is good because they are no longer just four numbers; they now include the prefix and area code. To call my friends and family just takes a tap or two on my phone.

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