Yuet-Sim Darrell Chiang, 2015

©Yuet-Sim Darrell Chiang, 2015

We had a party line at our San Diego home. For those who don’t know what a party line is, let me explain. First of all, this was in the 1940s when I was in elementary school, and my sister Kathy was in junior high. As I recall, being on a party line had its good and bad aspects. I didn’t make telephone calls when I was young, but my sister, five years older and of course my parents did. If they wanted to call someone and picked up the phone’s receiver, they often would hear voices in conversation. So then patience was required. The polite protocol was to listen for only a brief second then gently hang up the receiver. Wait. Try again, five minutes later. Listen. Voices? Repeat until finally, if it seemed an unreasonable length of time, ask the people to please hang up so that the phone would be free for our use.

I sometimes would sneak up on the phone, quietly lift the receiver and listen…for as long as I could without being caught or until the voices would stop and then one voice would say rather ominously, ”Is someone listening on the other end of this line?” I hoped I would be able to identify who the voices belonged to –was it Mr. Stassis who owned the local fish market and was a neighbor who lived down the block or was it one of the catholic Finnegans next door? Mr. Finnegan drank, my parents said, and so I wondered if he was on our party line and would say something shocking because of the demon rum. I fervently hoped so.

Being on a party line usually worked fairly well, primarily because we didn’t have much need for the phone and didn’t compete for time. Occasionally my parents would call their church friends to check on where next Sunday night’s potluck would be and would they be playing canasta or 500. These calls did not interest me in the least. I admit, however, to eavesdropping on my sister, hoping to hear something I could use on her or even some “good gossip” but I always was disappointed. When talking on the phone, there was no expectation of privacy especially from a younger sister.

My earliest memory of a telephone in our home was that of a black wall phone anchored to the middle of the left wall between the living and dining rooms. It was about the height of an average adult’s ear. To dial a number the caller would lift the receiver off its hook, put it next to his ear, and dial the base of the phone that was attached to the wall. If someone answered, the caller would put his mouth close to the speaker part and begin; the caller could either stand throughout the conversation or drag a chair over from the dining room table so as to sit. It all depended on how long-winded the person on the other end of the line was.

Important calls to relatives in Texas or to the minister of our church required absolute quiet in the room.

My husband Richard also had a wall phone in his home, but there was no dial. To place a call you lifted the phone from its wall hook and an operator would say, “Number, please.” If it was late at night or early in the morning it more often than not was his Mother who was the operator from midnight to 8:00 A.M. for over twenty years. They also were on a party line, but in the small community of Cle Elum it was likely you did know who it was, and so it was important to watch what you said.

Sometime during my junior high years we changed the wall structure between the   living and dining rooms, and we moved the phone, upgrading to one that was not attached to the wall. The new phone was located in the hall that connected the two bedrooms and sat on a table just to the left of the bathroom door. It too was black, but it sat on its round base where the dial was and the receiver when lifted combined the speaking and hearing functions all in one piece. As my Dad would say, it was a dandy.

In the hall you could close the door to the living room and have some privacy, although there always seemed to be a parent monitoring the time spent “talking on the phone”.

“Janie, time to say good-by now.”   “Janie, hang up NOW!”

Talking on the phone was an earned privilege that could be taken away if I abused it…and I didn’t as I recall. I was never all that comfortable talking on the phone whether it was with my girlfriends or as I grew older, my boyfriends. As I moved away from home and married we had a round dial phone, never a Princess Phone, and after 9/11/2001, we all had cell phones, to allow us to contact one another immediately if needed.

I now own an iphone 5 that I really don’t know how to operate and rely on my son or my grandson to help me out when I get stuck. And it’s OK, especially when I observe, everywhere I go, that cell phones are new body parts, attached to hands. Ready in the front pocket for any non-emergency need, a great tool for learning and a great escape from the world around you.

The other day we were going shopping for a new chair. I took out my iphone and took a picture of the living room so I could show the salesperson the space we wanted to fill. I didn’t give it a second thought.

©Jan Bergamini, 2015

Jan Bergamini taught at Mt. Diablo High School from 1976-96. She discovered and fell in love with BAWP during that time and became a BAWP Consultant in 1991. She experimented with portfolios in her teaching and witnessed the power they could have in the classroom. Jan continues to write on an irregular basis and once a month meets with Bev Hansen, another BAWPER, to share  their writing and deepen their friendship through writing. It keeps us honest.

One Response to “From Party Line to Photo Op by Jan Bergamini”

  1. hilary Says:

    Beautiful commentary Jan! Your writing is as clean and friendly-thoughtful as ever. I enjoyed this.

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