Volume 20, Number 113, February/March 2017
Donít You Listen to The Telephone? by Margrit de Graff
“We missed you at Fred Cole’s funeral,” the lady standing outside our front door said, holding a pie in her hands. I had never met this woman nor Fred Cole, dead or alive.
I didn’t know what to say and finally stammered, “I am sorry, I didn’t know he died.”
“But don’t you listen to the telephone?” the woman asked, an eye brow raised. Then a tad friendlier, “I am Lucy Churchill, your next door neighbour, two miles up this road.” She looked down at the pie, then held it out to me, “I would like to welcome you to the district.”
“Oh!” I was surprised and delighted. “Please do come in!” I stepped back and held the door open. This was something else new to me - like so many unexpected experiences had come my way since arriving in Alberta to marry Jim De Graff - way out in the country.
Lucy Churchill looked at herself and my image in the hall mirror while she took her gloves off and repeated, “Don’t you listen to the telephone? We missed you at Fred’s funeral?”
What could I say? Obviously my new husband didn’t know this neighbour had passed away, or did he? Maybe I should suggest we drive around the neighbourhood to introduce me to at least the very next neighbours. Well, the “very next neighbour” was this Lucy Churchill and she lived two miles away - how far to other “close” neighbours? I already knew that there were 12 parties on our phone line, close enough to know they were out there, somewhere, but how far apart did they really live - and how drifted in were they right now? The county snow plough hadn’t come by, yet....
Lucy sat down at the kitchen table. The phone rang while I put more wood into the kitchen stove and put the kettle on. Out of habit Lucy made like getting up, but quickly sat down again. This was not her phone, not her kitchen, not her ring - but I didn’t reach for the ringing phone, either! I had sort of gotten used to the ringing - I hardly heard it, anymore.
After it rang for a while Lucy turned to me with wide eyes. “Don’t you listen to the telephone?”
“I hardly hear it, anymore. Is that my ring?”
“No, that’s the Knight’s. How will you ever know what’s going on in the neighbourhood? No wonder you didn’t know Fred passed away!”
I plumped on the next chair, deflated. I had never seen a contraption like that thing hanging box, twice as long as it was wide, it had some interesting appendages attached to it. It fascinated me when I first saw Jim cranking a little handle vigorously in an uneven rhythm on the side of the box. Then, leaning over, his neck extended, he held an earpiece on a dangling, twisted, long cord to his ear with one hand and with the other hand held on to a funnel reaching out towards his mouth. Not politely - I heard with surprise, for my Jim was a gentle man - he shouted into it, “Get off the line! Thank you!” He turned to me and said with a chuckle, “It’s hard to get through on the phone this time of day. As soon as the kids get off the school bus they rush to their phone at home and continue the conversation they had on the bus. Sometimes for hours. At other times they say nothing, but you can hear them breathe. Then one says, “Watcha doing?” “Nuttin’,” answers the other. You have to tell them you need the line or they will be at it until supper’s ready. Another difficult time to get a phone call done is after the school bus came by in the morning. As soon as the kids are off to school and the husbands had their breakfasts, the women get on the phone to gossip.”
“Is that the time I should ‘listen to the telephone’ to learn what’s going on in the neighbourhood?” I asked. Jim laughed.
“As good as any. But, you are not supposed to do that. Besides, everyone using their phone can hear when you lift up the receiver. If they mind someone listening into their conversation, they will let you know by saying, this line is busy! You are supposed to hang up at once and they will hear the click. If they don’t hear a click, they won’t be too friendly when they shout, THIS LINE IS BUSY!”“ I threw my hands up in defeat.
That was the introduction to my telephone education in rural Alberta in 1962. Rather fast I absorbed this crash course in party-line phone etiquette. I didn’t want to run into trouble with others on our line right off the bat after newly arriving in their midst. I was getting looked at with some suspicion as a ‘foreigner’, anyhow. I didn’t need to get on the wrong side of all these close-knit, long-established offspring of early settlers. I was thirty-four years old and had lived with a telephone - on its own line to each house - all my life. Even the log house my late first husband, Dieter, had acquired in the remote bush land of Northern Ontario in 1952 had a phone we didn’t share with anyone else. I had never heard of a ‘party line’ before.
So now here was my closest neighbour, Lucy Churchill, admonishing me by saying, “Don’t you listen to the telephone?” That, after Jim had pounded into me to not ever, under no circumstances, lift up the receiver when the phone rang, unless it rang; long-longshort-long. That was our call.
Since there were eleven different patterns of calls cranked out with the little handle on the side of the phone box, it took me a while to learn to differentiate between the variety of long and short rings. At first I thought the rings not meant for us would drive me nuts. Without intending to I sort of automatically shut out that steady ‘ringing in my ears’. I ignored it until one day Jim came home somewhat perturbed, “I tried to phone you from town to see if you need anything. Why don’t you ever listen to the telephone?”
When Jim was courting me from Alberta while I lived in Ontario, I was wondering why he always phoned so late, usually around 11:00 PM. Now I understood; he waited for his kids to be asleep before driving the twenty-four kilometres to a public phone booth in Lacombe. He didn’t want scores of people to waggle their tongues about him having designs on a gal from far away, speaking in an odd tongue. Curiosity kills the cat....