Listening in on the party line

Most kids have never seen a telephone attached to a wall.  Let’s face it, if all of us 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 car?  What would we ever do with ourselves?

Not to mention this:  as far as we know, no one listens in on our modern-day telephone conversations.  (Let’s leave the NSA and the Russians out of this, because that’s another story.)

For the first time, cell phones outnumber landline phones in homes across the United States.  It’s the end of an era.  We’ve said goodbye to operators, tangled cords, and directory assistance.  We’re gradually phasing out phone books.  And thank goodness we no longer have to deal with party lines.

When I told my children that once upon a time, the whole neighborhood had access to our phone calls, they were dumbfounded.  “The people next door could just pick up the phone and listen?” they said.  “Yep, they sure could.  Along with folks in about eight other houses.”  They continued.  “What if they needed to make a phone call?”  “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 such “hogging,” phone companies limited each call to six minutes.  You would get a ten-second warning, and then it was goodbye, like it or not.

Party lines were a way of life, until around the 1960s and 70s.  Eventually “private lines” became available, for an extra charge of course, because it was a great luxury.

Everybody has a party line story.  Here’s mine.  When I got a weekend radio job at WEPG in South Pittsburg, I was sixteen years old.  It was my claim to fame, and my only connection to coolness.  It only took a couple of weeks before it went to my head.  At that time, I also worked in my family’s store, which shared a party line with our house next door.

One fine day, things were a little slow in the store, so I walked over to the house and called into the radio station for something. The disc jockey put me on the air.  I guess he thought that two deejays talking would be deeply entertaining.  I have no idea what we were talking about, but I’m sure I was doing my best to sound like a big deal.  No doubt I was promoting my show for the upcoming weekend, and trying to sound really hip.  About a minute into the conversation, my mother got on the line.  She was working in the store next door, which had apparently gotten busy all of a sudden.

I was right in the middle of some very amusing big-time DJ chatter when the radio listeners heard a woman’s voice: “David, I need you….Right now!”

The deejay at the station started laughing uproariously.  “Who was that? And why does she need David so desperately?” The last thing I wanted to say was, “Uh, my mama needs me…I gotta go!”  So instead I said, “Wow, I don’t know what’s going on, heh heh.  You know how these party lines are!  Well, good talkin’ with you, see ya on Sunday!”

I raced over to the store, and after the throng of customers had cleared out, I said, “Mom!  You embarrassed me on the phone in front of thousands of radio listeners!” (I probably exaggerated by a few thousand).  She showed no sympathy, basically explaining that the store came first.  Now I remember why I got into radio.

Folks have some great memories of party lines.  I asked a few of my Facebook friends. Some say they remember “the old ladies” gossiping about everyone in the neighborhood, who were listening to every word! (It was better than going out to the clothes line, especially in bad weather.)

“There were no secrets.  Everyone knew who was sick, who was expecting company for the weekend, and who was fooling around with whom,” Linda Mines of Chattanooga said.

Arlos Dempsey of Signal Mountain said, “My aunt would listen in on the neighbors all day, and would sometimes forget, and answer questions the other people were asking.  It was so funny when they would scream at her to get off the phone!”

These days, many of us depend on Facebook to tell us who’s dating who, who got married, who had a baby, who got hired, who got fired, and who has arthritis. I guess Facebook is the party line of the 21st century.



About David Carroll

David Carroll is a longtime Chattanooga radio and TV broadcaster, and has anchored the evening news on WRCB-TV since 1987. He is the author of "Chattanooga Radio & Television" published by Arcadia.

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