Here’s a blast from the past: a telephone attached to a wall. Nowadays, if we were suddenly confined to a phone cord that only allowed about ten feet of space, we’d go crazy. What? We can’t talk on the phone while on the porch, in the back yard, or most importantly, in the waiting room at the doctor’s office? What would we ever do with ourselves?
I remember being jealous when I would visit a friend’s house, with one of those extra long phone cords. It dangled all the way down to the floor. However, there was one downside. When stretched to its fullest, the cord allowed my friend’s mom to venture all the way into the living room. More than once, we kids would be running around aimlessly and get clotheslined. If “America’s Funniest Home Videos” had been around back then, we could have won some cash.
Cell phones have made landline phones obsolete. We’ve said goodbye to operators, tangled cords, and even those beloved busy signals. You should see the looks on the faces of my young friends when I use that term. While waiting to talk to a person who is involved in a face-to-face conversation, I’ll say, “We should wait a minute. His line is busy.” They look at me as if I’m speaking Latin.
I may be one of the last humans with a phone book on my desk. Twenty-somethings approach it as if it were a rare ancient scroll.
They listen in awe as I explain party lines. When I told them that once upon a time, the entire neighborhood could listen in to our family’s phone conversations, they were dumbfounded. “Wait,” they said. “The people next door could just pick up the phone and listen?” “Yep, they sure could,” I replied. “Along with folks in about eight more houses.” “So all of those people couldn’t make a call until you finished?” they asked. “Well,” I responded, “they would just have to wait. Unless they were really rude, and they would just interrupt you and tell you to get off the phone.” Oh yes, it happened.
Eventually, to prevent one family from tying up a neighborhood line, the phone company limited each call to six minutes. You would get a ten-second warning, and then it was (CLICK!) goodbye, like it or not.
Party lines were a way of life until the 1970s. “Private lines” became available, for an extra charge of course, because it was a great luxury.
Folks have vivid memories of party lines. We remember the elderly ladies gossiping about their neighbors, who could hear every word. There were no secrets. We all knew who was sick, who was in trouble with the law, and who was fooling around with whom.
A friend told me, “My aunt would listen in on the neighbors all day. She would sit there quietly, and get so engrossed in the conversations, she would blurt out the answers to questions the other people were asking. She was so embarrassed when they would scream at her to get off the phone!”
Now we depend on Facebook to tell us who’s dating who, who had a baby, and whose arthritis is acting up. Who needs a party line when you have a computer?
Now and then, I ponder the usefulness of our landline phone. Our parents who regularly dialed that number are no longer with us. Our remaining landline callers are telemarketers who care more about our car warranties than we do. The only apparent service the landline phone provides is interrupting my nap.
The last time I actually used the landline was to call my cell phone, because I had misplaced it. In that sense, it serves as a $30 per month tracking service, as long as the cell phone is in my house, and the ringer is not silenced.
After chatting with my neighbors, I learned that most have disconnected their landline phone. In our home, the landline remains intact. Before long, I expect people to slow down as they pass by my house, pointing and laughing at “The Landline Guy.” Go ahead, I can take it. In fact, come on in. We’ll crank up the stereo so you can enjoy my 8-track tape collection.
(David Carroll is a Chattanooga news anchor, and his new book “Hello Chattanooga: Famous People Who Have Visited the Tennessee Valley” is available on his website, ChattanoogaRadioTV.com. You may contact him at 900 Whitehall Road, Chattanooga, TN 37405, or at RadioTV2020@yahoo.com)