Written by Ruthie Richardson for her column “Memory Lane”
Imagine any teenager you know wanting to chat with a friend and having to try again later because they got a busy signal. Do you think they even know what a busy signal is? And my definition of the word ‘chatting’ has no bearing on today’s definition of it. Next, imagine a teenager’s phone ringing and them having to actually answer it to see who was calling.
I can remember sitting on the couch in my living room back in little old West Derry and dialing the OX-bow exchange of one of my girlfriends so we could gossip about the latest scoop of the day. My finger would rotate that dial, one number at a time, and I would hear that click, click, click sound as the dial slowly returned to it’s place awaiting the next number. If I close my eyes, I can still see our old steel, five-pound phone sitting on it’s starched, crocheted doily on the telephone stand in our living room. I can also clearly remember the ‘beep-beep-beep’ on the other end of the line if someone at my friend’s house was already talking on the phone – the dreaded busy signal. How tired my pointer finger would get from dialing, and dialing and dialing those numbers, trying to get through. There was no ‘redial’ button, it was do it yourself. And if she did answer, there would be much whispering, along with all the giggles since there was no privacy to be found during anyone’s phone calls in our living room. It’s where we all gathered every night, and there was only one phone in our house, just like everyone else’s.
When I was very young, in the early 1950’s, there was even less privacy, for everyone in the entire neighborhood, since the only telephone services available were party lines. How can it be that I remember our original, four-digit number? It was 4562. And just for clarification for any younger readers, a party line was a telephone line you shared with three or four of your neighbors. Each neighbor was assigned a ring sequence, one long and one short ring, or two short ones, or one long ring. There was a whole series that old Ma Bell would assign to customers, and when someone called your number and your sequence rang, it rang in every other household in your party as well. And there was nothing to stop any of the other folks from picking up their phones and listening in on your conversations. I know this because when I was a little tyke my mom caught me sitting silently in the living room paying close attention to one of our neighbor’s chats. My mom was not pleased, and I was in trouble. This just wasn’t done.
I remember later, in our high school years, my ornery brother, Keith, getting the busy signal while trying to organize a party. Being the impatient guy he was, of course he would dial O. After she (and it was always a she) answered, “Operator!” he would give her the number he was calling and tell her it was an emergency and could she please break in on the call to tell them someone was urgently trying to get through to them. The operator always cheerfully complied, and Mr. Liar Liar Pants On Fire could complete his party plans. This was another infraction we would have gotten into trouble for, but mom never found out about it. I also remember my friend, Cherie, being limited to five-minute conversations during the periods her dad was waiting to get called into work. He was an engineer for the railroad, and didn’t always know his schedule. Big trouble for her if they tried to call and we were gabbing aimlessly for hours and he missed a shift.
I can barely remember what it was like to go to the store or out to dinner and being totally incommunicado. If you were away from the house, that was it, no one could reach you. Imagine that! After Doug and I were married and got a baby sitter for our little Nicole, we would leave the number where we could be reached, in case of emergency. And as for any calls we may have missed while we were out, that’s just what they were – missed. There were no answering ma-chines and no voice mail. If you didn’t want to be disturbed at home, you just took the phone off the hook. Caller I.D.? We identified the caller on the other end of the line by saying hello and waiting to see if we recognized the voice. The only call waiting was the line we stood in, waiting to use the phone booth.
Lately I have been thinking about today’s kids’ leisure activities and comparing it with what passed for fun when I was a kid. Our playtime as children revolved around our imaginations. Today, not so much. I see kids sitting on the couch now, lined up in a row and mesmerized by some little device or another, their thumbs twitching madly. The only time you could find us on the couch was when we were sick. I was always a reader, but even that activity had my mom scolding me that it was time to get my nose out of my book and go outside and play. We were always sent outside to find our own fun and to entertain ourselves, summer and winter. Our summers revolved around bike riding, and glorious adventures involving cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, pirate ships and haunted forests. We would play house, build little towns in the sand pile, play ball in the open fields, and put on ‘shows.’ In the winter we would sled ride, and build igloos and snowmen. We had board games and dolls and trucks for wintertime fun, too, and coloring books and cut out dolls. Many of today’s kids aren’t impressed unless the toy has a flashing panoramic electronic, 3D screen, or a joy-stick that interacts with them. We had to interact with each other.
Telephones weren’t the only technology-challenged aspects of our lives in the good old days. Take television for instance, and some days I wish someone would just take mine, but I digress. We had three channels; all black and white and all of them signed off the air at midnight with a little movie of Old Glory waving in the breeze accompanied by the National Anthem. The only thing you could watch after that was snow until morn-ing when you were greeted by the Conelrad logo. Most times the picture wasn’t very good, but there were several adjustment dials on the television itself that could slightly improve the picture: the horizontal, the vertical, the contrast, and the brightness. But we were forbidden to touch those; only daddy could adjust the TV. There was no ‘family’ hour viewing, either. No television executive was in charge of reviewing programming during the early evening hours to keep it ‘clean’; it was all family hour, all the time. There were no swear words, no revealing outfits, and no ‘adult content.’ For example, television programs only showed twin beds. Folks were never shown in the same bed, even if they were married! I’m not hesitant to use the word ‘wholesome’ because that’s exactly what it was, and I think we were all better for it. And as for cable, in those days the cable was the wire running from the antenna on the roof down to the tenna rotor, if you were lucky enough to have one. When you turned the tenna rotor’s dial on top of the T.V. it would rotate the antenna to bring in a clearer picture.
My mom and dad had a big old radio/wire recorder in the living room and mom had that radio on all the time. I can still hear her singing along to ‘Sugartime’ by the McGuire Sisters, or ‘Hot Diggity Dog Diggity Boom What You Do To Me’, by Perry Como, as she prepared some yummy dish in her little kitchen. I also re-member Daddy telling us stories about his childhood, before television had even been invented, and how he would sit on the floor in front of the radio listening to Amos and Andy, Fibber Magee and Molly, and how “The Shadow” knew. Our music came to us in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s by way of our transistor radios. I got mine as a Christmas present one year. It had a little ear-phone connected to the radio by a wire. I would secretly listen to Dick Biondi on WLS out of Chicago and Cousin Brucie on WABC from New York in my room late at night before I went to sleep. From Perry Como to the Isley Brothers, the lyrics were squeaky clean. During the 1960’s, some of Porky Chedwick’s stuff on WAMO contained some sexual innuendo, but most of us never got the connection. Poor Lou Christy had to redo his hit “Rhapsody in the Rain” because the original lyrics were ‘we were makin’ out in the rain.’ This was considered scandalous at the time and the second release changed that lyric to ‘we fell in love in the rain.’ I am glad that between the deafening decibels of today’s music and my gradual hearing loss I can’t really tell what they are singing about. I made the mistake of Googling song lyrics for several of the rap hits today and almost fainted as I read what those kids were saying. If you haven’t researched this, my advice is DON’T! I never thought I would be wishing for the old days where there was at least a modicum of censorship, but GEEZ, my ears were practically bleeding from the filth!
Google. There is another word we never heard of. It’s our new online Webster’s dictionary that has be-come a verb. I guess when we have to look something up we are just too tired or busy to turn the pages in an actual book. When we wanted to research something in the good old days, we would look it up the old Funk and Wagnall’s or get ourselves to the library. The only thing at our finger-tips was the Dewey Decimal System and Miss Verlato (the school librarian’s) patience. When it came time to do our term papers there was lots of legwork involved. The only good thing about that was that it was easy to borrow the car from my parents if I said I had to go to the library. A little after-library cruise through St. Vincent and Eat ‘N Park never hurt, either, and what daddy didn’t know would never hurt him. Another innovation – my little digital camera, I love it. And who would ever have imagined that you could take pictures with your PHONE? I don’t even think Captain Kirk had that technology! Snap, re-view, delete, snap again, download and print, all in a matter of an hour or so. I am so used to it I can barely re-member what taking pictures used to be like. But I still have my dad’s old Brownie Box camera to remind me. Doug and I had a Kodak Instamatic camera, too. It used a film cartridge and flashcubes that would turn automatically to give you four flashes before you had to pop on a new one. The film came in 127 or 35mm and when we used up the 12, 24, or 36 exposures we would run the exposed film cartridge down to Kasperik’s Pharmacy or Tragos’s Store and have them send it away for development, and the wait was on. You could usually get your photos back in 10 days to 2 weeks. Imagine telling today’s kids they had to wait 2 weeks to see their photos. Later on we got a Polaroid Land Camera and could develop our pictures instantly. They were little, curled up photos that were usually streaked because you had to rub some sort of chemical over them with a sponge that came with the film.
We have become so dependent of today’s ‘conveniences’, like the ATM machine and automatic deposits that sometimes we don’t even carry any cash at all. In the olden days if you forgot to go to the bank for cash you had two choices: stay home or run down to your mom’s and borrow a 10-spot. Cash was king; we had no credit or debit cards. If you wanted to buy something, it was cash on the barrelhead. If you planned on eating in a restaurant, you better have had some folding money in your wallet or you would be washing dishes. When Doug and I first got married we opened a Sears Revolving Charge, but that was it. I had heard about the Diners Club Card, but we didn’t know anyone who had one. I guess there was the American Express card back then, too, but we were sure that only James Bond had one of those.
Computers . . . they have invaded every facet of our lives. Back in my day (I can’t believe that statement comes out of my mouth so often), we didn’t have such contraptions. Boys could work on their own cars without hooking up the engine to a $100,000 diagnostic tool. And our cars didn’t come with full Dolby stereo systems and 10 speakers. The only thing available was an AM radio, and that was an add-on accessory you had to order separately from the factory at an additional cost. My laptop was at my Grandma Stewart’s house, and I would climb onto it while she told me stories. Bytes? Those were what mom put a baking soda paste on to stop the itching. And RAM was the big sheep at the farm that you better not turn your back on. Yes, I embrace my old fuddy-duddiness. My daughter rolls her eyes at me and tsk tsk’s when she tries to teach me the latest upgrades. No matter how much urging from her telling me everything I am missing, I think I will just keep my old ‘dumb’ phone and hope for the best, and I think I will leave it in the car next time we eat out. It’s fun to hide out and be incommunicado sometimes; makes the kids perk up and pay attention.
OK, I admit that I have to laugh at my grumblings as I type this story using the Word program on my lap-top, click spellcheck/grammar one last time, scan my photos and email it all to Cathi, my editor. If I made a movie of my life, I guess I could call it, “Dr. Strenge-tech, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Ignore the Geeks.” Maybe technology is not ALL that bad, but at least when the grid finally goes down, I can continue to write my stories. I will type them on my portable, manual Smith Corona type-writer . . . it’s still in the attic.
* * * * * Ruthie grew up in an idyllic and magical place – a 1950’s childhood, and she loves to share these memories with you. Stay in touch: email her at: Ruth-Elaine@comcast.net, look for her on Fac-book, or join our LMP online community to read her new blog!