• Dialing your number
    August 15,2013
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    When I hit “star 69” on my phone, a recorded voice sometimes says: “The number you are trying to call cannot be reached by this method. Please dial the number directly.”

    Two things come to mind at this juncture.

    The first is, if I knew the number to call directly, I wouldn’t have gone to “star 69,” since that’s where you go to find out who called in your absence, or who called and hung up before you could get to the phone.

    The second thing is, who these days actually “dials” a phone number? I myself am very old-fashioned and loath to try new methods and was probably the last in Rultand to get a touch-tone phone. But even I have had one for at least the last decade.

    So that recorded voice on the phone was put in place years and maybe even decades ago, when dial phones were commonly used.

    Speaking of bygone phone days reminds me of what it was like before there was anything like direct dial or area codes, and when you made a call you actually spoke to a live operator. When we lived on a farm in Londonderry, the office of the closest operator was in South Londonderry.

    At the time my grandmother lived in Chicago, and on her birthday my parents decided they wanted to telephone greetings to her. She had a Chicago number, and my father gave that number to the operator in South Londonderry.

    The South Londonderry operator gave the number to someone at a larger switchboard in Brattleboro. The operator there called Albany and repeated the Chicago number to the person on the switchboard there. That person in turn gave the number to Buffalo, and Buffalo in turn passed it on to Cleveland.

    Cleveland had a direct line to the Chicago switchboard, but most of the lines were busy and she had to search for an opening. The Buffalo operator wanted to get things over with and said impatiently: “Hurry up!” to which Cleveland replied: “Hold your fire: I’m doing the best I can. Ah! There’s a line.”

    Soon the Chicago operator was ringing my grandmother’s phone, and we were all giving her “happy birthday” greetings.

    The phone line in Londonderry was a party line, with four or five families connected to that single circuit. The operator in South Londonderry had to ring the numbers physically, and each residence on the line had a specific ring. Our number was “four-five ring 11.” That meant the circuit was number 45, and when somebody called us the operator gave the phone a long ring, followed by a single short ring. The long one was “10” and the short one was “one,” so 10 and one are 11. A residence about two miles away was called by a long and two shorts, which of course was “four-five ring 12.” We got used to paying attention to how many rings the phone gave, so as to know if we were supposed to answer.

    Of course in a rural farming community with houses widely separated, there was a great temptation for lonely housewives to listen in on conversations intended for other people. One afternoon my mother was chatting on the phone with someone far across town.

    The other woman said her husband was taking a nap and asked: “Can you hear him snoring?”

    My mother said: “I don’t hear that, but I hear your clock.”

    The other woman said she didn’t have a clock anywhere near the room where her phone was located. It wasn’t until weeks later that my mother was visiting another farmhouse on our phone line and there, right next to the telephone, was a very loud grandfather clock.

    One winter the husband of another neighbor came down with a cold and flu symptoms. His wife called the only doctor in town, who lived five miles away in South Londonderry. The doctor on the phone gave a recipe with five or six ingredients so the wife could make a tonic that would give relief.

    The wife was mixing the materials when the phone rang. It was a neighbor whose farm was a mile away further up the hill.

    The neighboring wife asked: “What was the third ingredient the doctor was giving you?”

    Direct dial and touch tones are great, but people these days often don’t realize what it used to be like.

    Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.
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