The Business of Telephones

By Kathryn Bush

Telephones went from being rare and infrequently used for business and emergencies, to being omnipresent and frivolous, in my growing-up years.

When we first arrived in Neosho, we had one heavy black standard phone centrally located in the dining room.  It was quite angular, and had only an impressed circle in the front center, foreshadowing the shape and presence of the rotary dial that would one day replace the empty face of the phone.

If you picked it up, a woman answered, and asked you with whom you would like to speak.  It was always the same woman, and I later discovered it was an elementary school classmate’s mother, a widow who worked from her home.

It was from that phone that my parents informed my aunts and uncles that their fathers, my grandfathers, had died.  When the snow storm covered the roads, it was from that phone that my dad called his sister to say that he would come on the same train as my grandfather and his casket.   In serious tones, my father informed the operator we needed long distance.  He would be instructed to hang up the phone, and the operator would contact him when a long distance operator had been reached.

On that phone my father took the early afternoon phone calls about broken down newspaper presses in some nearby town, with the request to print that afternoon’s paper on my father’s press. That would trigger a speedy departure after a foreshortened lunch, as my father quickened to the emergency that a town might be without it’s afternoon newspaper.

Sometimes, Dad would call home with an urgency, to tell all the able adults to get the cars down to fill up their tanks, “there’s a gas war going on.”  These calls came when the price of gas had dipped below 20 cents a gallon.  Nothing could send my father’s mood soaring quite like the prospect of saving 3 cents a gallon on gas.

My father’s frugality definitely extended to the phone.  He could not tolerate phone calls that lasted more than 3 minutes.  “This is a business phone!” he would boom when he found one of us using the phone.  At first, we had had a party line, but the extra expense of a private line was justified from a business point of view.  He didn’t like the idea of those who shared the party line being able to quietly pick up the phone and listen in on other peoples’ calls, especially his business calls.

I think I started getting in trouble with my father over the phone when I was in high school.  Before that, my friend Kathy Terry and I lived close enough and had enough personal freedom that we never needed the phone, other than to make a quick call to finalize  or amend plans.   We walked to school together, and dawdled on the way home.  If we went one way, we could stop at the Big Spring park, a place of comfortable Ozark beauty and  streams that  got their chill from the depths of the limestone caves that surrounded the park.  Another way, we could stop on the hidden steps leading up from a little creek (pronounced crick) half way between our homes.  We could have our long, earnest conversations at our leisure, as no one expected us home until supper time.

At some point, when I was in Intermediate School (5th to 8th grade), my father took me to the open house of the new, mechanical, phone company building.  An entire room of widgets and levers would now somehow connect callers to answerers, without so much as a single human plugging in a single connector.  My father’s chest swelled with the pride of progress.  I wondered how my friend’s mother would make a living.   What neither of us realized was this mechanization allowed the phone company to charge by the phone call.

So, just as Kathy Terry was moving away, our “business” phone, still positioned in the center of the house, was soon to take on a new, special role in my life.  My new best friend, Martha, didn’t live near me, and didn’t have the same freedom to wander that Kathy and I had known. The Schultzes lived in a huge, Victorian, wedding cake “mansion.” It was the house we had all snuck past on Halloween night in earlier years, on our way to the theatre to watch classic scary movies.  The house had a lovely 3-story turret, with curved glass windows, ornate coal fireplaces, and a sweeping stairway through a high-ceilinged, oversize entryway.

In reality, however, it was a hardship house.  There was no furnace.  Martha had a fireplace in her room, so a sleepover always meant wonderful wood fires, burning to coals.  Her mother’s room also had a fireplace.  They heated the kitchen with the gas oven.  Her brother’s rooms were unheated altogether.

Her father was an archivist with the Jefferson monument in St. Louis, and was home only on weekends.  He was always working on the house to improve it, preserve it.  Year after year, however, they suffered through the winters without central heat, doing their homework in the small kitchen, with the gas oven glowing.  Apparently none of them knew their father was rich, and could have easily afforded to provide the warmth they needed.  [Cold comfort when they found out, although Ms. Schultz bought a fur coat and took several tours of Europe.]

However, the need to keep touching our social world made Martha defy the cold to reach their phone, isolated in the unheated portion  of the house.

Every evening, after her homework was done, Martha would collect a blanket,  and a bowl of freshly popped popcorn, and head out of the warmth of the kitchen to the elegant entryway of  the house.  She would walk past high arched windows and curving stairway banisters to their single, black angular phone with rotary dial, from which she would call me. It sat perched on a table by the front door, faraway from gas cook stoves or wood fires.

It didn’t matter to either of us how mad it made our fathers when they would find their phones “tied up.” We had the important business of female adolescence to conduct.  The need to talk to each other on the phone was so compelling, we would withstand all to do so.  Martha did so bundled up, with steamy breath.  I did so, with heightened awareness of my father’s whereabouts, hoping to avoid the glaring looks and angry words.  Both of our fathers could talk operators into breaking in on the phone conversations to report there was an emergency phone call waiting on the line.  Soon we learned to scoff, when those emergencies had turned out only to be scoldings.   Each and every tidbit of the day was discussed at length, even as my father would pace through the dining room, into the kitchen, grumbling “this is a business phone” with each passing.

Just as the technology of the phone evolved, so did the nature of its business.  Our last, long, earnest phone call was when we had both gone off to college, to be transformed into new beings:  she grasping onto feminism, me onto the peace movement.  We disagreed, without realizing we had each discovered a facet of the same prism.  I can’t even remember when I got my first “princess” phone, or a second (or third) phone extension in the house. Somehow they just eased into my life.

Now, Martha and I send each other emails to catch up. Neither of us use our phones or even cell phones to communicate – if we can help it.  My children ignore the “land line” altogether, rarely making actual voice contact with any of their friends.  Instead, they “text.”

These changes have been the natural extensions of a process that has gone on all my life, as telephones, once rare, became ubiquitous, and now race toward the rare once again.

Winter 2009

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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One Response to The Business of Telephones

  1. cjmadigan says:

    What a great piece, Kathryn, weaving together the historic tidbits of telephone hardware and social history. It brought back a lot of memories, including the photo of the PBX switchboard which I tried to master one summer working in my father’s factory but could never really get the hang of it!

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