My relationship with the telephone began when I was in second grade. My mother was expecting my youngest sister and Dad thought it a good idea for me and my other two sisters to be able to reach him on the phone – just in case “something” happened to Mother and she couldn’t get to the phone. Nearly everybody in Knoxville had four-party lines at that time. Long before the days of the rotary dial, we simply picked up the handset and, when the operator said, “Number please,” we told her the number we wanted. I repeated my dad’s work number in my head several times daily so that I wouldn’t forget. Sometimes, Mother would have me call Dad at work and give him a list of groceries to pick up on his way home, so that I wouldn’t be too panicked if I actually had to make that call because “something” happened to Mother.
It was not uncommon to pick up the phone and hear somebody talking on one of the other lines. We girls were cautioned to keep our conversations brief so as not to inconvenience fellow party line holders. In fact, we very seldom initiated phone calls except at our parents’ request. The most we were allowed to do was to answer the phone when it rang, if it was inconvenient for Mother to answer it. Unlike the rural party line that my grandparents had, our phone did not ring when one of the other parties was called. My grandparent’s phone rang with a combination of long and short rings for each number on the line, and rang on all the phones, so that one had to be alert to know if it was their own phone or a neighbor’s. Sometimes, my aunt or grandmother would listen in or take part in conversations made to other phones. Privacy was not insured, nor was it necessarily demanded or even expected.
When rotary-dial phones were introduced, my dad obtained one of the coveted private lines with a four-digit number, which had previously been available mostly for businesses. I think I was in high school when that marvelous convenience was introduced. We no longer heard the operator’s cheery voice asking for the number, nor were we advised that “the lion is busy” when the number we were calling was in use. We heard only that rude, buzzing busy signal. We also had to look up the number in the phone book rather than ask the operator to ring the Rexall Drug Store, or Dr. Ralston’s office if we were in a hurry. We could still get the number from the operator, but we had to ring “O” first, request the number, write it down, hang up, and then dial the number ourselves. Not nearly so convenient. We could still call the operator for the correct time, or ask where the fire was when we heard the town’s fire alarm go off, but that wasn’t to last long either.
I didn’t know anyone who had more than one telephone in the house during those years. I suppose it was several years after I was married and lived in a two-story house that I saw the necessity of having telephones on both floors to save those mad dashes to answer the phone before it stopped ringing, or woke the baby, or wonder if the bacon would burn before we got back to the stove.
During all this time, the telephones in our house remained the property of the telephone company and, by sometime in the mid-fifties, we could get different models and colors of telephones installed. This served us pretty well until 1971, when we moved to the country and built a new house. Wanting the ultimate in convenience, my husband insisted on having telephones in nearly every room, and telephone jacks in the rest as well as outdoors on the deck and patio and in the garage. We had one portable phone that could be plugged into any of the jacks, but it was still not satisfactory for a man who wanted a phone withing reach no matter where he was in the house.
Soon, we could buy our own phones, including one that resided on a charger and was cordless so that it could be taken outdoors to the garden, or hauled to the pond by a fisherman who feared missing an important call. Next, he wanted a phone in his car. Enter one early model, cumbersome, cell phone. I consented to use it only when pressured to take it with me when traveling alone. It was to protect me should I have car trouble and need to call my auto club. I never used it. Eventually, the company phased out the old fashioned phone and I was getting along without it until my sons insisted I get a new one if I meant to venture more than twelve feet from my back step. I forget to recharge it. I forget to take it with me. I’ve forgotten how to access the voice mail. It makes an admirable alarm clock though. (I’ve always been immune to alarm clocks; I just don’t hear them.) But I found a way around that – I set the alarm clock to sound like the telephone ringing.