Telephones

Most of my generation who grew up in the US have always been able to take telephones for granted. My own life experience with phones is more varied.

From 1967 to 1971 we lived in Bangkok, where I never used a phone. As was true for kids at the time all over the world, I didn’t need to. My friends lived nearby, and we all wandered freely in our neighborhood. There was no need to call to arrange play dates or swims at the neighborhood pool: we’d be out for hours, and parents never seemed to worry about where we were. If we were late for dinner, they’d walk out and find us.

Phones became a factor in my life when my dad and I moved back to the US. I stayed for several periods with my aunt and cousin, out in the country in Texas. The nearest town, Coupland, had a population of about 600, most living out of sight of their neighbors on patches of land that grew crops or cattle.

The telephone rang a lot, but most of the calls were for other people: we were on a party line. You knew the call was for your phone by the specific ring, eg ring-ring pause, ring-ring pause. If you needed to make a call, you never knew whether the line was free until you picked up the phone and heard a dial tone. If it was in use, you’d hear a neighbor’s conversation. You could learn a lot about the neighbors that way (especially if you picked up the phone very quietly). It was considered very rude to eavesdrop, but friendly to greet the other parties and maybe join their conversation. If you needed the line for an emergency, you could ask the others to hang up and let you place your call. Neighbors who hogged the phone line were judged to be inconsiderate.

Home with my dad in Pittsburgh, I began to use the phone to arrange to see friends who lived across the city, or just to talk. Like everyone, we had a private line at home. I don’t remember using the phone much myself, though it was a cliché behavior of teen and pre-teen American girls to be always on the phone. Families who could afford it got multiple phone lines into their homes.

In 1974, I was thrilled to get a modern phone: a Touchtone Trimline. No more dialing a digit, waiting for the dial to roll back, dialing the next one… all you had to do was punch in the digits, one after the other, and it made funny beeping and booping sounds (you could even play simple tunes on it). We had a second phone that hung on the wall in the kitchen, though we still had only one line – now I could interrupt my dad’s calls, or he could find the line occupied by me, on our own internal party line.

Kids would make prank calls to random numbers (“Is your fridge running? Well, you’d better go catch it!”), and there were obscene phone calls – impossible for the ordinary citizen to trace, in the 1970s. (Later, there were special codes you could punch into the phone, starting with *, to trace a number that had just called you. This changed many phone behaviors.)

Local calls were free, but calls outside your own area code, let alone the country, were tremendously expensive. Most American kids wouldn’t have noticed this except maybe for the occasional call to a grandparent. For me, it was a real problem. After my parents’ divorce, my mother had remained in Thailand while my father and I returned to the US. We could not afford international calls, so my only contact with my mother was via letters, when even airmail could take weeks.

When my dad, stepmother, and I moved overseas again, to Bangladesh, I was far from my US friends as well, and had to depend on unreliable mail service to stay in touch. This included my schooling: I had to do eighth grade by correspondence school, because there was not room for me at the American school in Dhaka. All this changed when I went off to boarding school the following year – but my dependence on long, slow, paper communications did not.


next: Lines of Communication: Woodstock School in the Telecoms Age

series: Global Telecommunications: A Personal History

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