My daughter, age 9, warned me that she might want a cell phone. Not yet, but sometime. Perhaps in a year or two. She just wanted me to be forewarned.
I did what any reasonable parent would do. I told her about the “olden days.” I’m 35 and yes, according to a 9 year old, even I lived in the olden days. Here’s proof:
Up until I was five years old, I lived in town. Town was laid out in blocks. It had neighbors and modern conveniences. When I was five we moved to the farm. The farm was exactly 8 miles from the only stoplight in town. The closest neighbors were a mile away. We had a party line.
A party line, I explained to my daughter, was when the whole rural road we lived along all shared the same phone line. We all had our own phones in our houses, but they were all connected to one, singular line. Only one of us could be on the phone at once. Someone miles down the road might be using the phone when you picked it up and you’d have to wait until they were done talking. And yes, you could listen in on other people’s conversations.
My mother taught us that this was very, very rude. She never did it. If someone was on the line, she’d hang up so quick it was like she’d dropped the phone. My mother was patient and polite. But there were occasions when she’d need to actually use our party line.
Every party line had one: an Odessa. Odessa was a neighbor who lived 3 or 4 miles closer to town than we did. She probably wasn’t that old at the time, but as a child, I thought she was old. She was a heavy woman and she was LOUD. So loud, that all you had to do was lift the phone from its cradle at arm’s length. If she was on the phone, you knew it.
Odessa was ALWAYS on the phone.
She also always knew everybody else’s business. (There was speculation in our house that she “listened in” on the party line).
I remember only three occasions when my polite, patient mother quietly asked Odessa if she could get off the phone because my mother desperately needed to make a call. Most of the time, my mother just waited, checking the line every hour or so until she heard a dial tone instead of one of the neighbor’s voices.
It’s hard to believe that it was well into the 1980’s before we got our own phone line. Now, that . . . that day was a party.