BABY BOOMERS AND THE PARTY LINE
You can make a phone call today from just about anywhere, except under water. You “speed dial” your call and the signal rockets to outer space and bounces off a satellite and then makes its re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere and hones in on the number you dialed just a few seconds ago. It’s still a mystery to most of us how the signal gets to the right number – let alone how this signal allows voices to talk back and forth. “Hello Japan?”
Baby boomers know that it wasn’t always this way. All we knew about satellites and phone calls was that Telstar was launched in 1962 and a British music group called the “Tornadoes” wrote a song about it. You could call your friends to talk about Telstar if you wanted; but only if your telephone line was free to use.
For those who think cell phones always existed and wonder why Paul Revere made his ride when he could have just called people, making a phone call was an adventure. You could pick up the phone and hear voices in a conversation. The standard was at least four people were using the same line as you. And you never knew who the other parties were, although you knew their voices, which became more annoying the longer you had to wait to make a call.
You learned to strategically time your calls by avoiding, if you could, the peak air times in early evening. But if you had to make an important call by 6:00 p.m., you started calling at 5:30. A conversation is already in progress, so you redial every five minutes. Redialing, for those who don’t know, required you to stuck your index finger in a small hole in the rotary mechanism in front of each number you needed and then turn it clockwise until it stopped. You had to do this with each number each time you dialed the phone number.
Frustration came quickly when you realized a marathon phone call was in progress. And who could resist listening for a while? Technically you weren’t eavesdropping.
Many people got so frustrated that they crossed the “line” of party line etiquette. “Why don’t you get the hell off the phone!” Others tried the sympathy approach: A subtle, if dishonest strategy: “Excuse me, but we have no oil and it’s very cold and I have little children and I need to call the oil company.” But this strategy became all too common and was usually met with a cynical retort and a refusal to hang up.
Finally, you get through! You start talking to your friend and all of a sudden you hear another voice: “Could you free the line, I have to make an important call…”