The party line – and I don’t mean politics

Some days I think my husband and I are dinosaurs living in techno land.

We don’t have i-Phones or i-Pads.  Instead we have basic cell phones with only the capability to make and receive calls and text.  And we only have that because texting seems to be the mode of communication our adult children prefer best.

We still own an old desktop computer and our newest type of technology is a two-year-old laptop.  Heck, we’re relics because we still have a land line telephone.

We’re not ready to cancel that service yet because cell phone coverage is spotty in our country house and we lose the signal a lot when we talk by cell, although it would save us a chunk of change each month.  The land line phone company also provides our internet service, another reason to keep it.

But the other day, our house phone provided a real throwback to the past.   The first day it happened, it was funny.  The second full day?  Not so much.

Some of you may be old enough (dinosaurs too!) to remember the days of party lines on your telephone. For those of you young’uns who don’t understand the reference to party lines, I’ll explain.

Back in the day (i.e. when I was a kid), our telephone lines were shared by more than one household.  Lines connecting neighborhood phones on one line were called party lines.  You could get a private line, but it was more expensive or simply not available in your area.

Of course a party line could be very inconvenient.  Just about the time you decided to call someone, you picked up your phone to hear someone else chatting it up non-stop.  Some people were party line hogs and talked incessantly tying up the phone for hours.  That’s when you politely but pointedly chimed in by saying, “I really need to make a call, could you please get off the line?”

The other sticky wicket about party lines was that your phone calls were never private.  At any given moment, someone on your line could simply pick up their phone and listen in on your conversation.  Of course, you might have heard a slight click whenever they picked up or background noise going on at their house, but some people developed a keen knack of picking up so quietly and eavesdropping that they weren’t noticed.

No doubt a lot of gossip got “shared” that way.  The issues of eavesdropping on the party line even was mentioned in a song by Hank Williams Sr. in 1949 called “Mind Your Own Business.”   You can listen to it by clicking  here.

Recently, I encountered a blast from the party line past.  One morning around eight, my phone rang.  As I answered it, I heard a man say, “Hello.”  I opened my mouth to reply,  but heard a woman’s voice saying,  “Hello, what are you doing this morning?”

The man answered, “Oh, just watching the tube.”

She asked, “Well, do you need anything?”  He replied no.

I hung up quickly feeling as though I was an interloping eavesdropper on my own phone!  Puzzled, I wondered why I heard someone else’s telephone conversation.   I lifted it up once more and they were still talking.  I hung up again bewildered.

Later that morning, I tried to make a phone call but my call did not go through.  Instead, I heard a very loud busy signal, a screech, and a recording,  “Your call cannot be completed as dialed.”  Huh??

It happened every time I tried to use our home phone.  That afternoon it rang, but when I answered, I heard the same man and woman having a conversation again.  What in the world was going on?

Exasperated, I attempted to call the phone company and report that my phone was goofier than goofy.   After punching in this number for that, and that number for this, I was put on hold and elevator music sounded.

I heard a series of clicks on the line.  And all of a sudden, I heard that woman’s voice again.

“I don’t understand this!” she exclaimed.  “Something’s really wrong with your phone!  I keep hearing music like I’m on hold or something.  I don’t know what’s wrong with your phone!”

At this point, I was in a quandary.  Should I speak up?  She was interrupting my call to the phone company.  Finally, I timidly said, “Um, excuse me, yes, there is something wrong with the phone lines.  I’m actually on my phone which is out of order and I’m trying to call the phone company to report it.”

“Oh!” she replied.  “So your phone’s acting weird too?”

“Yes, and it’s like phone lines are crossed or something because I heard your conversation on my phone,” I told her.

“That’s weird,” she said. “Where do you live?”

I told her and continued to tell her how strange my phone had been all day when all of a sudden she questioningly said my name.

And that’s when I too recognized her voice.  It was one of my best friends – my long-time friend of over 50 years!  Her widowed, elderly father lives about 3/4 mile or so from my house and my phone line somehow was crossed with his!

We laughed our heads off!  Then we proceeded to compare notes on the craziness of the phones all the while talking over the phone company’s ‘hold’ music.   She then decided to hang up so I could finish my call and then she too would call to report the problem.

What we discovered was that every time she dialed her father’s telephone number, it rang into my house and his.  What a mix-up! But what were the odds that my phone would be somehow connected to her dad’s line and only his out of all the houses along our road?

An automated message informed me that the phone issue should be resolved by 7 pm the next day.   My friend and I continued updating one another on the situation by cell phone and text messaging.

She texted me to warn me that she was going to try to call her dad again to check on him that evening and for me not to answer if my phone rang.  Sure enough, my phone rang,  caller ID did not identify the call, and my answering machine kicked in.   It was a hang-up call.

Then I got this text from my friend.  “HA-HA!  I just called my dad and got your answering machine.”

The next morning my phone rang.  As I answered, I heard my friend and her dad conversing.  Obviously, the phones weren’t fixed yet and I joined in their conversation to let them know.  Another full day of party line style phone service ensued.  When I called my cell from our house phone, the number that showed up on my cell was my friend’s father’s telephone number.

By dinnertime, the situation was no longer that funny and I still couldn’t receive phone calls other than those to my friend’s dad.  Finally, the phone rang and my caller ID showed a number.  I hesitantly answered hello.

The phone repairman called to inform  me the phones were repaired.  When I asked what had happened to cross two different phone numbers that didn’t even have the same exchange, he said a squirrel had chewed through lines in a phone cable box in our area.

Really?  A party line loving squirrel?  How did it chew through phone lines encased in a metal box?  And how did our lines get crossed?

That remains a mystery, but it makes a good story.  Sounds like one of those yarns spun to give an eavesdropping gossip something to talk about.   And that reminds me of a song….”let’s give them something to talk about.”

Obviously, the phone company delivered that message, party line or no party line.

Copyright ©2012 mamasemptynest.wordpress.com

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22 responses

  1. Busy squirrels in your area. Liz said the hospital lost power the other day for several hours because a squirrel chewed through the line and shorted it out.

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  2. What a great story Mama! I loved it and I do remember party lines. We have a land line phone for our country house too and it usually stays “on” but went off for five days during the big Derecho storm. They didn’t offer any excuses but in the past I have heard the squirrel chewing lines more than once.

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  3. Oh, yes, I remember those party lines. The lady who listened in on all our calls was “Miss Annie Rose”! Those were interesting times: too bad the youngsters of today don’t have a clue what it was like! Or the rotary dial phones.
    How ironic that your line was crossed with your long-time friend’s dad’s…! Glad it’s repaired.
    Enjoyed reading about it!

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    • I don’t think people would have the patience for party lines today, do you? Glad you enjoyed my crazy story — yes, it was so amazing that my line was crossed with my friend’s dad’s…what are the chances?? My blog is linked to my personal facebook page and my friend commented on the post that those two days reminded her so much of when we were kids. She kind of got a kick out of it!

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  4. Oh my what a mix-up. Glad it’s fixed. It’s hard to not be plugged in.

    My best friend and I used to tie up the phone working on math homework…not such an interesting conversation. And my mother would call in the background, “Time to get off the phone.” Other than that, we had to use the phone sparingly. Sometimes it was just easier to hop on a bike and just knock on her door.

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  5. If we ever had one I would have been too young to remember. I’m sure my grandmother did at one time as I heard of them. What a fun post you shared today. Had me smiling. All the technology and a squirrel can disrupt the whole thing. Gotta love it.

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    • We got a private line as soon as it was available in our neighborhood because my dad needed the phone to make business calls often and he got tired of someone always being on the line. Yeah, it still cracks me up and makes me scratch my head in bewilderment that a squirrel can cause technology havoc!

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    • Isn’t that the truth? It was uncanny, that’s for sure. And you are right, I could have been hearing that familiar ‘do do do do’ music of the Twilight Zone. Not to mention, if I had been an unsavory sort, I could have run up a lot of long distance calls on someone else’s phone number. :-O

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  6. Oooh, I love a good mystery. I know it was annoying for you — but I kind of wish it had gone on a little longer! Or been the fault of something more exciting than a squirrel. 🙂 Still, I can understand that you are glad to have it resolved. Maybe I’m intrigued because I grew up without party lines. The coolest thing we were are able to do with our rotary dial phones (I’m not that young, see?) was to pick it up as the same time our friend did, when we were each trying to call each other at the exact same second, and we’d be connected without even dialing. I’m not sure how that happened, but a good friend of mine and I quickly became masters.

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    • I’m glad you enjoyed my little mystery, Melissa! It sure was strange and uncanny when it was my friend’s dad’s phone that crossed lines with ours. I know the squirrel thing wasn’t that exciting even though it sounded a little nutty. I mean, a squirrel chewed through lines inside a metal box?? Maybe it was “SuperSquirrel” with his super power teeth! There, that makes it a little more exciting. 😉 OK, you’re right, if you remember rotary dial phones, you’re not that young. LOL I am curious how you and your friend figured out connecting without dialing….now that’s a mystery!

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  7. This was so funny and it’s incomprehensible that you’d experience this in 2012!! Gosh, do you remember the crank type phone? My grandparents had one. It was so very big!

    Thanks for the story. Hope your day is a pleasant one. You’ve just given me some smiles!

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