by Cindy Hester
Oh my, my...the party line. People get all up in arms about how everyone knows each other's business because of social media such as Facebook. I am here to tell you that Facebook couldn't hold a candle to the telephone party line back in the day. At least with Facebook you have pictures to prove most of the gossip and drama. On the party line, however, there was rarely actual proof, and stories usually got bigger and better the more they were told.
Trust me, because of party lines, the community could learn who tithed and who didn't, who drank and who didn't, who cursed and who didn't, and definitely who gossiped and who didn't, and a LOT was learned about relationships (more than was needed or wanted!)
Let me give a little history lesson for those of you too young to understand how the telephone party line worked. In rural America during the early to mid-twentieth century, several telephone subscribers were often connected to the same "loop". Now don't ask me what a loop is, but essentially what this meant was that there could be as many as a dozen households using the same telephone line. (Kind of like having more than one telephone in your home that all uses the same line...no, not cell phones...land line telephones...oh, this is more difficult to explain than I imagined...)
The way you knew an incoming call was for you was that each household on the same line had a distinctive ring. Now, mind you, any one of the other telephones on your loop could simply pick up the phone at any time and listen in on your telephone conversation. Not only that, if the line was currently in use, the person wishing to make his or her own outgoing call had to wait until the active telephone conversation was completed before getting his or her turn at making a call.
As you can imagine, this could be quite frustrating for someone needing to make an urgent call, and quite tempting to the curious soul who felt it a calling from God to know everyone's business and to share it with the world. Now remember, in the early 1960's, there were very few televisions in households in rural America. The ones who were lucky enough to have a TV certainly did not have cable with multiple channels to view. You were lucky to receive any one of the three major networks, and even then it often required going outside to turn the antenna pole in order to improve reception. So you can see how inviting these party line telephone conversations could be.
I cannot count the times my Paw Paw Hood would come in from working the cows and catch my Maw Maw listening in. He'd say, "Winnie, hand me that phone!" Sometimes she would, sometimes she wouldn't. When she did give him the phone, do you think it got hung back up in the cradle? No way! (the cradle is the place that held the receiver...what do you mean, what is a receiver?!...oh well, I digress...) He could not help but put the phone to his ear and start listening. I always knew whether it was anything worth hearing by how long he would keep listening in. Then Maw Maw Winnie would get aggravated and say, "Arch, if you're gonna' listen in, at least put the phone where we can both hear!" (Trust me, that was waaaay before speaker phones were invented for home use.)
Other than with the cows and Maw Maw Winnie, the most aggravated I ever remember my Paw Paw Arch get was over that party line. He came in all hot and sweaty from working his cattle. Something was wrong, either with the cows or the equipment. He needed to make a call to assess the situation, but two of the community ladies were having their afternoon chat on the party line. Now, their "chats" were known to run a little long, but since my Paw Paw was usually out in the fields working this time of day, he was not aware of this fact.
He picked up the phone and politely hung it up whenever he realized the line was in use. He paced the floor a while, picked up the phone once again, and firmly requested to use the line as he had somewhat of an emergency. The ladies promised to end their conversation, but advised they needed a couple more moments of privacy. Amazingly patient, he hung up the phone once more, paced a few more minutes, then tried the line for the third time. I immediately knew there was trouble when I heard the ladies cackling laughter and I saw my fair-skinned Paw Paw turn blood red.
I am not exactly sure what all was said that particular afternoon to end the ladie's daily chat. I do remember my sister and I swiftly being ushered from the room as my grandmother muttered sternly under her breath, "Watch what you say, Arch. I have to face these ladies at church!" The one thing of which I am sure is he never again had to ask twice to use the line to make a call!