One was in our kitchen and one was on the landing at the top of the stairs in my parents home when I was growing up. They were stationed on the wall and could move only so far as the attached cord would allow. They were called telephones.
Imagine, kids, only be able to talk on the phone when you were at home — unless you had a little spare change to use pay phones that were located in many public places — and only being able to move with the phone as far from its base as the cord allowed.
Despite the limitations, it seems we were just about as able to keep track of our friends then, as well as we are now, despite a cell phone within arm’s reach pretty much 24/7. Well, OK, it is much more easy now. But is it better?
Back in the day we did not have to talk to telemarketers and others we did not want to talk to — unless we had a party line. That meant that the telephone line that connected your home to the outside world was also connected to someone else’s house, or maybe several houses. Sometimes (and it always seemed to happen when we really needed to make a call) we’d pick up the phone and hear other people having a conversation. That meant we had to wait until they were done talking before we could call whoever it was we needed to call.
Those party lines disappeared when I was fairly young. But there were still often issues when we wanted to make a call. That’s because despite having two phones in our home, we could only call one person at a time from any household. Two people from the same household could talk to two other people from a different household (if both households had two phones), but you could only dial one household or other number at a time.
It was very similar to sharing one cell phone with the rest of your family. Imagine that.
I used both phones in our home, but the older I got the more I used the one on the upstairs landing. It had a long cord that could be pulled into my bedroom where I could have long talks with the girls — until someone banged on the door and said they needed to use the phone. How rude, I often thought, they were to interrupt such an important call.
While our phones were not as fancy as the ones today, we still spent plenty of time playing on them. During my late elementary through junior high years, we made lots of prank phone calls. We’d “dial” a random number, wait for someone to answer, and ask questions like, “Is your refrigerator running?” When they replied “yes,” we’d answer with, “Well, you better catch it.” Or, “Do you have Sir Albert in the can? Well, you better let him out.”
In the process of making prank calls some cousins and I kind of made friends with an elderly lady. Her name was Maude Fox. She must have had hearing issues, and was likely lonely, because she always thought we were one of her friends, and she would carry on a conversation with us for about as long as we cared to listen. We called her a lot. Sorry, Maude.
Sometimes we recorded our prank calls. We had a lot of fun with a particular recording at a family gathering one year, when we replayed an angry uncle’s voice (he had no clue who we were when we called) telling us he was going to shoot us.
Phones are expensive these days, and they could be expensive back in the day, too. I remember attending a fraternity party in college, then returning to my dorm room to make a “long-distance” call from Morehead, Kentucky to Hillsboro, Ohio to talk to the girl who is now my wife. I was a bit lovesick, but later was literally sick when I received the bill for that hours-long call.
It is rare these days that I can recite someone’s phone number. Because I’m now used to only having to push a single button to dial someone, I could not tell you the number of someone I called five minutes before. But to this day, I can recite numbers I have not called since my college days.
Sometimes these days, on the weekends when I’m mowing or working elsewhere outside, I’ll set my phone aside for a half a day or so. It’s actually rather nice. But sooner or later I’ll want to listen to some music, need an alarm or a flashlight, or want to check the weather or something, and my phone and I become one in the same again.
Yes, these dang cell phones are convenient. But I’m sure glad they weren’t around back in my high school days. I was not always exactly where I was supposed to be, and I had enough trouble hiding from my Dad as it was, without some device that would let him track my every move.
He had some kind of built-in parent radar, and could find me in the most unlikely of places. Once, when school was called off early in the middle of a school day due to a heavy snow, I was gallivanting with some friends on a remote road several miles from town. I could not believe my eyes when I saw my Dad driving down the same road in the opposite direction.
Thank goodness, I was somewhat near a girlfriend’s home. The excuse I came up with when Dad pulled us over was that we were horsing around in the snow before my buddies were going to drop me off at the girlfriend’s house. I’m not sure he completely bought the tale, but he let us proceed. It’s a good thing she was home when I showed up. Because she did not know I was coming, and I was going to need a ride home on the snowy roads.
Jeff Gilliland is the editor of The Times-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-402-2522.