Days gone by: reaching friends on the party line | Wally’s World

When I was a little kid, the Pacific Telephone Company owned the phone service within the greater Enumclaw region. Of course, by modern standards this operation was pretty primitive. Its basic unit was an electrical circuit that connected perhaps eight or nine residential or business phones. Each circuit was called a “party line.” There were several of these party lines within the city limits and many more in the surrounding region.

All of these circuits came together where the stationary store is currently located. A small section in front of that building served as Pacific Telephone’s business office. Behind this, in a large, poorly lighted inner sanctum with dark, rather depressing wood paneling, 25 or 30 operators – all women who were assigned various shifts and split-shifts – sat on high stools at a 15-foot switchboard of electrical jacks. Wearing earphones and mouthpieces, they controlled and connected the various party lines.

If you were calling someone on your line, you could dial them directly. However, if you were calling someone on another party line, you had to dial the operator and she’d connect you.  “Number, please,” she’d say.

My first telephone experience took place while standing on a kitchen chair before a rectangular wooden box anchored to the wall. (You’ve probably seen them in antique stores.) Holding the “receiver” in one ear and poised in front of the mouthpiece protruding before my face, I’d crank the little handle on the side; one long and two shorts to ring the Martinelli boys on the same line.

“Hi, Gary!  Can you come over and play?”

The party line always had considerable fascination for children, especially those with hyperactive imaginations. I mean, you could actually spy on your neighbors! With a hand clasped tightly over the mouthpiece, you could hold the receiver to one ear and surreptitiously listen to “private” conversations. My mother scolded me for such eavesdropping, but that simply increased its appeal.

Mom knew many of the operators on a first-name basis. When phoning one of her friends across town, she’d occasionally get side-tracked talking with an operator. Such downhome, folksy ways ended when automation eliminated most of the operators around 1958. AT&T closed its last Washington state facility that had live operators about 20 years ago. Today, you can still speak to real operators in real time, but now you’ll be routed through Phoenix. (Chances are you won’t know any of them.)

So, I recall walking through New York’s Greenwich Village with my first cell phone in a coat pocket.   And right there, on the street, my mother called me. Given the above history, you can understand what a “miraculous” and delightful experience that was.

Nevertheless, I no longer have a cell phone. I don’t want people to find me that easily.