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Old-time telephone operators added charm to life

May 12, 2014

By: Lynda Hollenbeck

It's a sign of the times. I don't think I can go anywhere these days without my cell phone.
I may not use it wherever I'm going, but I have convinced myself that I must have it. Numerous times I leave the office, only to return minutes later after discovering I failed to put it in my purse.
However, I'm among the hold-outs in one regard because I still have a land-line phone at home. Others have tried to convince me that I'm paying for something I really don't need, but I'm not ready to give it up. Not yet.
It still consider it "the real phone." Logic isn't necessarily involved here.
My telephone memories hearken back to the days when we had Central, and in spite of all the fancy services available on modern phones, in retrospect it seems that it was a kinder, gentler time.
For people of later generations, their only knowledge of such a thing is watching reruns of the Andy Griffith Show when he and other characters would pick up the phone and ask Sarah to call So-and-So.
You could leave messages with the operator — a Sarah or whoever she was — who would relay them to others who might call you if you were not going to be available. It was a charming arrangement in many ways.
In Cotton Plant, the telephone company office was located upstairs in the Angelo house. There were several operators through the years, but I remember a Mrs. Quillan who would direct the calls to their intended location.
One time Mrs. McGregor's brother, whose brother lived in Missouri, called for her and was told by Mrs. Quillan that he needed to call back later because "Miss Frances and everybody else are at the ballgame and won't be home for a couple of hours."
You don't get that kind of service anymore.
In that particular time, many families had party lines, which is an unknown term to today's generation.
For the unknowing, I should explain that a party line doesn't refer to a bunch of folks lined up to have a good time. I'm talking about a shared telephone line.
I don't know if the telephone party line still exists. With current sophisticated phone options, I rather doubt it.
Today's phone customers can have call waiting, call forwarding, call trace, call return, call blocker, priority call, speed calling, three-way calling, caller ID, call notes and a whole laundry list of others. And, of course, there's everything but the kitchen sink on the electronic chains previously mentioned.
Back in olden times, these things didn't exist. There were only a few services available and one was the party line.
Here's the way it worked. Two or more families had different phone numbers, but still had the same phone line.
If memory serves me correctly, the people sharing the party line had different kinds of rings so they would know whether the call was intended for them or another household on the line.
Although there were frequent delays in making or receiving calls because someone in one of the other homes might be on the line — and some seasoned talkers for extended periods — there was also the advantage of being able to listen in on other people's conversation.
A party line was a gossiper's heaven on earth because no one could tell that someone was listening in unless there was a tell-tale click when the receiver was lifted or background noise gave the nosy person away.
I've never had this type of phone service. My mother would have been horrified to think that anybody might have had the chance to listen in on her conversations, so it was never even a possibility when I was growing up. But I knew people who did have it.
If one were willing to put up with the inconvenience, this was an economical way to have a phone. As far as I know, it was the cheapest service available and certainly was a far cry above having to go somewhere to use a public telephone.
And nowadays where would you find a public phone? I haven't seen a working phone booth in so long that I can't even remember the last time I did.
In the Andy Griffith re-runs, there were phone booths as well as the beloved Sarah, who helped keep the peace lots of times by passing on critical information.
Some things about the "old days" really were nice.

Lynda Hollenbeck is senior editor of The Saline Courier.
lyndahol@yahoo.com

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