Sunday, July 29, 2012

Telephones I've Known and Loved

We just got new landline telephones, and it made me much happier than I expected. They are so much better in every way--easy to see, easy to use, and very clear. I didn't realize how bad the old ones were until we got the new ones. And they weren't even costly. I love our new telephones!

Something about this experience caused me to think of the difference between phones now and phones early in my life. The first one I ever saw was an oak box attached to the wall with shiny metal bells on top, and the receiver hanging from a hook on the side. Talking on this telephone was not a relaxing experience, impossible for a child unless you stood on a chair.This was the telephone we had in the early twenties when I was very small.

Then as technology began to develope and life began to become more effortless, we got an exciting innovation: a "candlestick" phone. It was upright, the receiver still hung from the side, and it sat on a little table that also held the phone book. I liked those telephones. They were comfortable to hold and I felt somehow important and efficient answering when it rang, or calling one of my friends. The numbers in our small town were very short. Ours was 2742. The cab company was 666! Easy to remember, but with unpleasant connotation which I wasn't aware of at the time

There was no such thing as a dial tone. You just took the receiver off the hook and waited. An operator would say "Number please!"  Sometimes this happened immediately and sometimes not, depending on how busy she happpened to be. You would give her the number and she would connect you.

The operators did many other things too, such as delivering messages in an emergency, or helping a tearful little kid who was hurt track down his mother when he couldn't remember where she said she was going. Most of the operators were very kind and helpful. .

The operators always sounded a bit odd because they were taught to enunciate in a certain way in order to be perfectly understood. They would say "Number ple-uz!". And if they had to repeat a number to make sure they had it right, it was said in the same exaggerated way: "Fi-iv fo-er tha-ree!"

Even small towns had a switchboard where one or more operators would sit connecting and disconnecting calls. When I was 9 or 10, an operator called our house to tell us a friend of the family, an amateur pilot, had crashed his small plane at a farm just outside of town and been killed. Neither of my parents were at home. My mother was performing, playing her violin at a local church that afternoon. I told the operator, and she rang the church, but no one answered. So I ran six or seven blocks to the church and went breathlessly up to the podium to give her the sad message.

At other times operators would track down doctors or family members in an emergency. More than once, they were instrumental in finding a lost child. And I am sure there were countless times when instead of hearing a number, they heard a frantic, weeping child, and did what they could to ease the situation. Really, I can't say enough for operators--they helped over and over in a myriad of ways. They were like a dependable connection that was always there whenever you lifted the receiver. Looking back on it now, it seems almost like a cosmic source of aid and connection.

Some time in the early thirties, we got a "French" telephone, a cradle phone. We thought it was so new-fangled! You only had to use one hand to hold both the mouthpiece and the receiver, and then you could write with your other hand. How modern! What would they think of next? Secretly, I liked the old candlestick phone. It seemed so official and business like. To me, it had real personality.

But the rest of the world didn't see it my way, and before too long our cradle telephones had dials. That was really a radical step forward. No operator? Just dial? Amazing! Now we only had to use the operator for long distance. We had to dial "O" for operator, and then ask for Long Distance.

Eventually, I can't remember exactly when, the world graduated to push button phones. That made it  inevitable that sooner or later we would be able even to call long distance without having to involve an operator in most cases.

How can people born into a pushbutton or cell phone world even imagine how much every new development in telephones affected our daily lives? How could anyone today imagine the importance of telephone operators in small town life back in the twenties and thirties?  It was a differnt world, and in some ways a much nicer one. Even though we were less connected telephone-wise, we were  more connected in almost every other way. It was a good time to be alive.

1 comment:

  1. I love this article Troy and still have my pink princess phone that was a gift way back when. Remember all the miles Bob & I traveled without a telephone? It's hard to imagine that happening today! Love Rhonda