Remembering the ‘old days’ of party lines and collect calls

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday July 16, 2018

Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday, July 15, 2018

All that’s going on in our community these past few weeks – from the tragedy of lives cut short to the hope symbolized by Independence Day celebrations – has caused me to think more about life’s many blessings.

One of those is the blessing of aging – and understanding that living through the “three score and ten” indicated by the ancient Scriptures is an experience denied to many owing to disease, accident or conflict.

The blessings of aging are many – including increased wisdom that comes from combining knowledge with experience; deeper relationships – and more appreciation of their importance; and a more focused understanding of the meaning of life, suffering and death.

Another benefit of aging is a longer and wider perspective on the events of everyday life.

I had this experience this past weekend when my wife, Mary Sue, and I spent most of one day constructing a playhouse for our grandchildren. The directions said, “Construction typically requires about two hours for two people.”

Those words must have been written by a shameless promoter, a Pinocchio with a very long nose or an experienced construction engineer with another construction engineer as a helper. For Mary Sue and me, it took the better part of a beautiful, cool day where the only interruptions were pesky mosquitoes and frequent breaks to re-read instructions on this part or that.

Still, the delight of creating a playhouse for the grands out of a pile of wood and more than 250 screws of different sizes was huge. It was surpassed only the joy of seeing a spontaneous, I-can’t-believe-it smile on the face of 30-month-old Addy when she discovered this new addition to her play space in the backyard of our home.

Even her sister, 10-month-old Lilly, seemed to be intrigued by this new environment as she discovered she was able to navigate the playhouse and fiddle with the pots and pans we bought for the “stove”.

As the little ones began to explore their new surroundings, Addy discovered the wall phone. Actually, it was a simulated cell phone mounted on a plastic wall bracket.

It took about ten seconds for her to figure out how to get it off the wall, and she immediately began pushing the buttons to make a call. She “called” her mother and told her all about her new digs and then promptly ended the conversation with, “I have to go now. I have work to do.” Hmmmm. Wonder where she heard that before.

As I watched her with the phone, my mind flashed back on how things have changed over my own lifetime around the culture of using a telephone. Being able to look back and replay a lifetime of experience in a certain area is one of the blessings of aging I appreciate.

I remember when I was a little kid in Lebanon, Indiana, we had a party line. Even my own kids don’t know what a party line is – where you share a phone line with two or more subscribers. Sometimes, when you picked up the phone to call someone, you would find your neighbor already using the phone. You would gently return the phone to its cradle and wait till the line was free.

Or you would be talking, and you would hear a click and perhaps someone breathing. You would know your nosy neighbor was listening in. Yes, that would happen from time to time – until we were able to get a “private” – i.e., one-party – line. Addy and Lilly will never experience that.

I remember when I went away to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois – more than 220 miles from our home in Lafayette, Indiana. The school did not permit cars on campus, so I would hitchhike. When I arrived safely back at school, I would make a long-distance, person-to-person, collect call for Phil Burgess at my parents’ home number. When one of my parents answered, they would decline the call – and would know that I had made it back to school safely.

Addy and Lilly will never know about “collect calls” (where the recipient pays for the call) or costly long-distance calls. Now, they all cost the same.

They will never know the difference between “person-to-person” and “station-to-station” calls. All calls today are “station-to-station” – and all are exceedingly cheap compared to the “good old days”.

When they go off to school and arrives safely, they won’t call home. they will text their parents a selfie showing a daughter safe and sound in her dorm room with one of her friends.

Just as we only read about the Pony Express, an early form of “rapid,” long-distance communication that required payment in advance, our grands are most likely to see a payphone if they go to the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

“Give me a ring” and “dial me up” are gone. About the only phrase that remains the same is “Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?” – though even that is slowly dying as mobile phone reception improves.

As I was writing this, I thought of the words of Spanish Philosopher George Santayana: “We must welcome the future, remembering it will soon be the past; and we must respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible” – changes those in our bonus years have been blessed to witness.

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  1. Greg Malo on January 30, 2021 at 7:22 pm

    Phil, I ;love your conversational style narrative. I’ll bet writing comes very easy to you. Indeed, you have the gift of prose.
    It is my good fortune to have brilliant friends ,
    And, thank you for your gift of Retirement Reboot. I’m into it.

    Best Regards,