They called them party lines way back when. Today when I mention a party line most people under 40 would think I was talking about one of those 1-900 numbers where women talk dirty to you.
Occasionally someone on the party line would talk dirty to you but it was just because you were interrupting their conversation and the dirty talk was a cussin’.
Party lines were still in wide use in the rural areas of eastern New Mexico when I was growing up. On a party line you could be sharing the same phone line with as many as four other families. We had a party line before we moved into town.
As a youngster I couldn’t quite understand why they called it a party line. No one was ever singing “Happy Birthday” on there when I picked it up and listened in to a conversation.
That’s right, when someone received a call everyone heard it ring. Each “party” had a different ringing sequence so you knew when the call was for you. But if someone got lots of late or early calls everyone got a wakeup.
Of course for a nosey neighbor living in the country and starved for gossip, a neighbor’s ring was too great of a temptation. Occasionally you would suddenly figure out that someone was listening in to your conversation. Some people would tap the disconnect button to make a popping sound in the eavesdropper’s ear. Working the dialer on an old rotary phone also produced an irritation to those on the line. Others with a meaner streak might keep a referee’s whistle by the phone.
We all knew who had the proclivity for eavesdropping and we all knew who stayed on the phone all the time because when you picked up the phone to make a call that was the person gossiping away.
Being on a party line I don’t think crimped our lifestyle in any way back then. We didn’t have a lot of calls to make or take and it worked pretty good most of the time. I think it was more of a stigma for girls on a party line because they were afraid they would be thought of as poor without a private line.
We were pretty poor but we felt better when we saw that the Douglases on the show “Green Acres” not only had a party line but they had to climb the telephone pole outside the bedroom window to answer the phone.
Back then we longed for our conversations to be private. Today we’ve got Facebook where we intentionally want our conversations to be public. The only difference I can see between party lines and social networking is these days we can take that long-winded person off the party line with the click of a button.
If this comparison wasn’t so “Back to the Future” it would be like “déjà vu all over again.”
Karl Terry, a former publisher of the Quay County Sun, writes for Freedom New Mexico. Contact him at: