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Reflections February 2017

As I Recall...

Party Line News

By Jerry Ginther

Anytime a phone rang on the party line, nearly everyone picked up their receiver and listened in. Thus, news with varying degrees of importance and reliability was disseminated throughout the community. You could learn who called for an ambulance or police during the night or whose barn burned.

People of my age have lived quite a long time, and are still participating in the game. We have our eyes and ears open, and still learning. Solomon said that the eyes are never full of seeing and the ears never full of hearing, however, the instruments by which we see and hear things have considerably modified.

Most of the news today is seen in vivid, high definition color on TV. However, there was a time in our lives when some of it didn’t arrive via television – and none of it by social media. Back in our day there was the party line telephone system, which we all shared with equal contempt.

The contempt we shared was for the lack of privacy and ready accessibility to the phone line when we needed it, not for what we gleaned from our neighbor’s conversations.

Early on in my preteen years, we had the old wall-model phone with the hand crank on the side. Not everyone had such a contraption at that time. Most city folks had the black desk model with the rotary dial. Nevertheless, some were still on party lines, because for quite some time there was an additional fee charged for a private line.

If you were on a party line, you were obliged to know the combination of long and short rings assigned to your particular phone. You were also given a pamphlet providing the names and rings for others on that particular line. So, every time the phone rang you knew who was getting a call if it wasn’t for you. As you can imagine, that called everyone to their phone. Anytime a phone rang on the party line, nearly everyone picked up their receiver and listened in. Thus, news with varying degrees of importance and reliability was disseminated throughout the community. You could learn who called for an ambulance or police during the night or whose barn burned.

Those on a party line had the advantage of obtaining the local news hours before others saw it on TV and days before it appeared in the local newspaper. Not only did they learn of local news, but also everything a party-liner learned while in town or heard on TV or radio. While most had broadcast band radios, not everyone had a television set back then.

If you needed to make a call outside the party line you often had a problem clearing the line even when it was important. Whoever was on the line was on first and often refused to give it up right away. After they hung up, they would listen in to see if your call measured up to their definition of “important.”

If you had the old wall phone, once you cleared the line you hung up your receiver and gave the crank several swift turns, lifted the receiver and waited for the operator to answer. You knew sooner or later she would, so you waited patiently. She would answer with, “operator” or “central.” You gave the phone number you wanted to call and waited some more. You didn’t leave anything on the stove, because you knew you would be tied to the phone for quite a while – not talking, but waiting.

The telephone operator was the local information center as well, because she knew everyone’s business from eavesdropping on all incoming and outgoing calls. There were several party lines on her switchboard. No one needed a therapist either. If you had a problem that needed to be brought out in the open, you told her, and she told everyone on the party lines. It was out in the open – no more problems. You will readily see the practicality of that method of problem solving I’m sure.

If you’ve never participated in the use of a party line system, you’ve missed a substantial amount of aggravation. I think there are very few, if any, left in operation in the country today. Having said that, I am concerned that our privacy is not much better protected today than it was then.

However, we still don’t like to wait for anything when using the phone. In that regard the phone companies think they have made a major improvement. Now, we no longer have the aggravation of waiting for a dial tone.

 

Jerry Ginther grew up in Sullivan IL and now resides in Texas. He has a degree in Christian Ministry and is the author of "Acquiring the Benefits of Biblical Wisdom," available in e‑book format on Amazon.com. You may contact Jerry at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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