Sunday, October 16, 2016

REMINISCING: The Legend of the Corded Telephone

Many of you probably don’t realize this, but phones used to have cords on them that kept the talk basically leashed to the wall or to the desk. Some of you may even be surprised that phones used to be tied down to each house.Plus, we couldn’t take our phones with the car to us. It was the Dark Ages of the Telephony Era.

When I was a kid, our kitchen telephone, which happened to be the main phone in the house, had maybe an 8-foot cord on it. That was as far as you could go. Sometimes, if you brought the cord around the corner of the doorway just right, you could sit at the table in the dining room. Mostly, however, you just stayed in the kitchen and leaned against the counter. There was just enough cord that Mom could move about the kitchen to get dinner ready while talking.

Eventually, we got a longer cord for the phone and could make it all the way to the basement stairwell to talk in private, away from eavesdropping younger siblings. Of course, anyone walking into the kitchen without paying attention was likely to be clotheslined by the taut cord across the breadth of the room.

Let me make something clear here -- we did not actually get a lot of time to talk on the phone. When my Dad was working swing shift and was on afternoons, the phone had to be free so he could call home at his lunch break. I can’t tell you how many times I was on the phone only to have my mother tell me, “Get off that phone. Your father will be calling.”

Yes, that’s right. Only ONE person at a time could call the house at a time. We didn’t have “call-waiting” on the phone line. That was for the rich people who could afford to waste money on frivolity. I know it may be difficult for some younger readers to fathom, but a busy signal was a normal sound when attempting to make a phone call.

You know what else we didn’t have? We didn’t have ‘caller-ID.” That meant we never knew who was calling. People were excited to answer the phone. We’d run to be the first to answer, trying to out-yell siblings with “I’ve got it!” I’m sure there are still scars left from those mad scrambles to the phone between my sister and I.

If you think those were the Dark Ages of communication, think again. My grandmother still had a party line into the 1980s. Someone else in town (or, in her case, the neighbor down the street) would share the same line with her. The phone would ring differently depending on who was receiving the call. There were several times we’d run for the phone only to be told it was for the other neighbor. Sometimes when we were visiting and tried to order a pizza, we’d pick up the phone only to hear the neighbor talking. I guess, but I’m not sure, that someone trying to call grandma’s house would get a busy signal if the other party was in use.

Speaking of picking up the phone and hearing other people talking, we used to have other extensions in the house where we could listen in on calls. If you were really, really good at it, you could join the call and leave it without the people actually having the conversation ever knowing. It was perfect for blackmailing your brother or sister. But if they caught you, oh boy, there would be hell to pay. The secret was to hang up when they laughed or happened to be saying something loudly. That way their own exuberance masked the telltale click of the hook when you left the call.

Another thing that younger generations will never understand are phonebooks and address books. Yes, there was another use for the phonebook other than ensuring that the little kids could reach the table at dinner.There was no way to save numbers on phones for your best friends, favorite restaurants, or dad’s work. You either had to memorize them (which we did for the closest of the best friends), write them in an address book (mostly reserved for out of town relatives), or use the phone book.

Having delivered the phone book for several years, I can assure you that people eagerly anticipated their arrival and sometimes would be upset if it didn’t come when they expected. The phone book was our own, local, worldwide web. We could connect to almost anyone in our city and the surrounding areas. Conveniently, each of those books had a place in the front of the book that you could write down the most important of those numbers you needed to call.

Indeed, you could call anyone in the book. Sometimes, we would call the girl we thought was cute. When someone answered, you would just hang up. It wasn’t like she knew who was calling or could find out. If you actually had a conversation with anyone on the other end, it was quite an accomplishment.

Sometimes, especially if the people were police officers, lawyers, or teachers, the phone number was “unlisted” and was not in the book. These numbers were worth their weight in gold. If you could get someone’s number who didn’t have it listed, you guarded that with every fiber of your being while simultaneously bragging to everyone within shouting distance that you had so-and-so’s phone number.

In Lockport, we had the added feature of have two, and later four exchanges covering the city. The person you were trying to reach could have been 433, but you dialed 434. You were talking to someone who had no idea who you were. “I’m sorry, but you have the wrong number,” was a common refrain. Later when they added 439 and 438, it was a big deal. It was almost bragging rights to be able to say, “Well, I have a new 438 number. Only certain people have those numbers.”

I couldn’t write about old phone memories without bringing up the rotary dial phones. You’d put your finger in the hole and drag it around the circle with a schuck-schuck-schuck sound as each number made its revolution. You couldn’t dial to fast or the phone couldn’t keep up. Especially bad was if the number had a lot of 8s, 9s, or 0s. That was a long way around the dial. Later, as touch-tone arrived, we could dial pretty fast. We we’re as fast as some of the texting fools I see today, but we did get pretty quick.

When the first cordless phones came out, they were bulky things that gave us the freedom to walk around the house. Well, mostly. Sometimes when you got out of sight of the home base, static would creep into the call. And if you didn’t extend the antenna, it was even worse. Sometimes you couldn’t even make the call if the antenna wasn’t out. And of course, if you forgot to retract it and you broke it, you ended up with a pretty fancy paper unless you stood next to the home base.

Ah….the good, old days. At least we didn’t have to call the operator to make a call. I know we’ve called the operator before, but it had nothing to do with phone calls. We’d call for weather and the official time. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was because we could. All I can say is those operators had the patience of saints.

Who had fun with phones as kids? I’m not old enough to have had a phone number like HF-1298, but I know people who did. Let’s hear your stories.

Craig Bacon once fell victim to the phone cord clothesline when he ran through the kitchen. His pride hurt almost as much as his neck and tailbone.