Here a phone, there a phone, everywhere a phone, phone… As dependent as we are on our phones today, it is difficult to imagine a time when this was not true. But just in my lifetime we have gone from sometimes no phone to the ubiquitous cell phone.
When my family moved to Medford (MA) in 1942, because of the war, we had to wait nearly three and a half years before we could get a phone. The wait would have been even longer, but the doctor intervened because of my mother’s heart condition. When we did get the phone, it wasn’t an old crank like you see in movies, but neither was it a dial phone. You would pick up the receiver and wait to hear the operator say, “Number, please.” You would state an exchange (for example Mystic or Trowbridge) and four digits, and she would connect you.
Now our phone was a two-party line, so there was a letter after the digits, and when the phone rang, you had to listen to the ring to make sure the call was for you. Ours was two successive rings; the other party one. When we would hear the other ring, my mother would say, “That’s Mr. W.” Of course when you wanted to make a call, you picked up the receiver and made sure the other party was not on the line. I think I was in fifth grade and chatting away with a friend when I got in big trouble because I wouldn’t get off the line when the other party said it was an emergency. By that time I knew the other party, a bossy neighbor, and I figured she was just saying that to get me off the line. I was right; there was no emergency, but I still got in trouble.
When I was pregnant with my second child, we were living in a small farming community outside of Rochester (NY) and had a TEN party line which was always busy, usually with teens. As my due date approached, recalling my own lack of emergency response years before, I taught my not- quite- two-and-a-half year old how to go to a neighbor for help and alerted that neighbor of the possibility.
Back to the days of “Number, please”: you could also request “Long distance,” which was a huge deal and reserved for special occasions because it was expensive . The rates were lower at night and on weekends, so you saved calls for then and kept them short. This was true for a number of years. When I moved away from home in 1960, we were living in a married-couple’s dorm, and the only phone was in the hall. Between the location and the expense, I called home only once a week even though I was terribly homesick.
When the operator said “Number, please,” you could also request, “Information, please.” When I was in fourth grade I made this request and asked the operator, “What are the three rivers that converge in Pittsburg?” She laughed and told me to ask my parents, so that was the end of my reliance on the information operator.
And then rapidly there were all sorts of developments: private lines, call-waiting, answering machines, extensions, and, finally what we first called mobile phones. Those first mobiles were bulky and unreliable, a novelty. But they kept improving the phones, building cell towers, coming up with service plans. Today, at least where I live, EVERYONE has a cell phone and is seemingly on it all the time. Just drive through the Dartmouth campus and see the students in the crosswalks on their phones. Drivers, beware. New Hampshire just passed a hands-free law which should at least cut down on traffic accidents.
Oh, and did I mention texting? Up until 18 months ago, I would say, “Why would I ever need to text?” But then when my significant- other was seriously ill in the hospital for three weeks, I am not sure I would have been able to cope if I hadn’t been able to text his sister, his daughter, my family, and friends from his bedside. That got me into the habit, and though I probably would still prefer a live conversation, it sure is convenient and sometimes the only way to stay in touch, especially with teens.
Just as 70 years ago, or even a few years ago, we could not have imagined the development in phones, we probably can’t imagine today what phone service will be like in as little as 10 years.
But for now, here a phone, there a phone, everywhere a phone, phone.
Dorothy C. Judd (c) 2015
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