Column, Looking Back

Remembering phones of yesteryear

We recently had some work done on our car and one of the staff members said that he had tried to reach me but the call “didn’t go anywhere!” I asked if he had dialed 802 before our landline number and he said he did. The only logical explanation for a call that “didn’t go anywhere” was a busy signal.

Judging by the youthful look of the employee I wondered if he had ever gotten a busy signal! My guess is that a cell phone is the only phone in this young man’s life. But the “beep, beep, beep” of a busy signal is exactly what the caller hears when we are on our phone and someone is trying to reach us. We don’t have call waiting so we don’t know when our number has been dialed. No doubt a busy signal is an annoying oddity in today’s world but I guess we like being stuck in the past.

We do have an old-fashioned answering machine but, of course, that won’t “kick in” if we are talking on the phone.

For someone, like me, who always thought that a phone was the greatest invention of all time it’s surprising that I haven’t craved the latest in the world of communication. When I was a teenager I remember wanting my own extension phone so I could close the door to my bedroom and talk to my friends about all the things teenage girls talk about! Back in the ’50s you didn’t buy phones. They were provided by your local telephone company. You selected one basic black phone, table or wall mounted, and the installer brought it to your house and hooked it up for you. The phone was hard-wired and it went nowhere! If you wanted an additional phone you ordered an extension and paid an additional monthly charge. Eventually the basic phones were available in colors. The first stylish phones were the princess and trimline models that came out around 1960.

My relative, Loyola, worked for New England Telephone and one Christmas she asked her boss, Bob Eaton, if she could get a pink desk phone in a box. She explained that my parents wanted to give me an extension phone as a Christmas gift. She added that the memo section of her order would state that the phone was “on premise”. He agreed and I found the phone under our Christmas tree. I was 16 at the time and it was the best surprise ever! I couldn’t wait for it to be hooked up so I could talk to my heart’s content! Some parental rules came with the phone but I still did a lot of yakking!

Back then I apparently liked phones so much that when I changed careers at age 25, I went to work for our local telephone company — New England Telephone. My boss was the same Bob Eaton who had arranged for me to get my Christmas gift at age 16!

Learning about the process of providing phone service was an interesting journey. I learned that telephone “routes and poles” were a part of installations. In the rural areas customers had to provide a phone number within about 50’ of where they wanted service. The telephone number had to be on the same side of the road. The “plant department” converted that phone number to the appropriate “route and pole” and the installers knew just where to go.

When that information couldn’t be provided it meant an engineer had to find the location based on verbal directions and with their busy schedules that could mean quite a wait!

I remember we served the Stratton and Bromley area out of the Rutland office and skiers often had to knock on their neighbor’s door to get their phone number. That didn’t always go over well. We used to tell them it was a great way to meet their neighbors!

Even more entertaining was their reaction when we told them that we only had a 4-party line available. We had to explain the “one ring” and “two ring” system. The installer would tell them which ring was theirs and to just ignore the other ring. If someone chose to be a nosey “line sharer” they could listen in on conversations. Back then,any type of line was better than nothing so the skiers could maintain contact with their family. I bet skiers in today’s world are thrilled that they don’t have to go through that rigmarole!

Now that you have read about what one had to go through to get phone service “back in the day”, you will probably count your blessings that you have a cell phone. If nobody answers your call it will go to voice mail. You won’t hear a busy signal unless you are calling people like me!!! Be patient when you hear the “beeps” and consider it a learning experience about the history of yesteryear’s phones.

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