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When everybody knew your business

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Today we post news on social media, and the whole world knows in seconds. Years ago, a juicy tidbit was picked up, enhanced and spread through the continent within hours. Different method. Same effect.

None of my siblings remembers a time when we did not have a telephone in our farm home. Ours was shiny black and sat on a small cabinet in the kitchen. A coil attached the speaker/receiver to the base, allowing little movement by the talker. A clear plastic circle, the rotary dial, covered the front of the phone. We turned the dial by placing a finger in the corresponding number hole and turning to the metal stop. The receiver controlled the switch, so when you picked up the handle and held it to your ear, you immediately heard the dial tone.

You heard the dial tone unless you heard people talking. Then you knew someone was on the line---the party line! Beginning in the 1950s and for nearly thirty years, rural phones were connected to neighbors in a loop circuit. Like a Morse Code of sorts, each phone had its own “ring.” Ours was two longs. One neighbor’s was two shorts. Others were a combination. Amazingly, everyone on the party line knew everyone else’s “ring.”

Deloris recalls our parents’ strict rules regarding her phone use: No call longer than five minutes. Only homework calls allowed.

As the youngest, most spoiled child, I enjoyed more phone freedom, much to the chagrin of the neighbors on our party line.

One Friday, I had just walked into the kitchen after riding the bus home from school. The phone rang. Mom answered. She laid the receiver down next to the base. “It’s Lisa.” (Name changed to protect the innocent.) “Don’t be on for too long now.” (Note Mom’s precise limit as she headed out for chores.)

I nodded and waved. I strolled to the phone and pulled up a chair.

“Hi, Lisa. How are ya doin’?” After all, I had not seen her for 32 minutes.

“Good. How about you?” We hear a tiny click. Someone on the line had just picked up their receiver.

“Good. Whatcha doing?”

“Nothing much … Somebody’s listening.”

“Yeah, I can hear them breathe. How can people be so rude?” Another click.

“Gosh, I can hardly hear you anymore.”

“I know. I wish they would hang up. Why does everyone have to listen? What are you wearing to the game tonight?”

“Probably stretch pants and my school sweatshirt. What are you wearing?” Suddenly an annoying racket of clicks resonates into our ears as someone punches their switch down repeatedly. “Sheesh! Somebody must want the line.”

“Well, that’s just rude. We’ve only been on a few minutes.”

“I know. That noise is so annoying. My folks would kill me if I did that.”

“Mine, too. What time are you leaving for the game?”

“I think maybe around 6:30. Depends on when Dad comes in from the field.” A new sound whirs in, a sort of buzz followed by fast clicking. “Somebody’s dialing. I can’t believe how selfish people are.”

“I know. You’d think they owned the phone lines or something!”

Suddenly an irate male voice interrupts. “Girls, how much longer are you gonna talk? I need to use the phone!”

I heave a giant sigh. “I suppose we have to get off the line. It had better be something important he needs to call about!”

“Yeah, no kidding. Some people….”

“Well, see you in a couple hours.”

“Ok, bye.” We hang up. I wait a few seconds, and just as I am about to lift the receiver to listen in, Mom walks in the door.

Today, we talk into a flat five-inch bar that we take with us everywhere, no coils or cords attached. We tap to call a number. People can check their phones to find out who called. We can talk for hours without infringing on neighbors’ phone use. Never do we hear voices when we turn on the button.

Privacy rules in this day and age. Telephone technology has grown by shouts and yelps. Yes, today’s communication systems are far better--unless of course one really wants to know everyone else’s business.

Want to read more of Kruempel’s writing? Her book, Once Upon a Midwest Sunset, as well as her 5-book series, Promises to Keep, are available on Amazon.com. All make great gifts for all ages. Watch for details of Kruempel’s soon-to-be-released book, Putting on the Big Boots, a compilation of the stories from the column of the same name. Contact DeAnn at deannkruempelauthor@gmail.com

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