Sunday, February 4, 2018

Along Party Lines

There is a lot of talk these days about our political climate, the rancor, the division, and the voting along party lines without crossing the aisle for collaboration and compromise. 

While I find it all distressing, my thoughts about party lines took a turn recently when I recalled the term having a totally different meaning and growing up with our telephone at home being on a party line. 

For those who are too young to recall such a thing, let alone a phone that isn't exclusively yours and in your hand at all times, a party line was the technology of long ago -- and as recently as 50 years ago when I was growing up. A party line involved having multiple telephone users on one line. Rather than being able to dial a number whenever you wished, you might pick up the receiver, only to hear someone else's conversation going on. Party lines often swept through neighborhoods. You would have to wait patiently (or not so patiently) for the parties to get off of the phone so that the line would be available to you. That would mean lifting and putting back down the receiver periodically. The idea wasn't to eavesdrop on someone else's call. That type of etiquette breach would never do. It was to find out if the line was finally free. I recall the joy my mom expressed when technology had advanced to the point where we didn't have to share a party line with our rural neighbors. 

It was about that same time when we switched from having a boxy type of phone with a rotary dial to a slim trim-line phone, still with a rotary dial. (Push buttons were the next advancement.) Instead of the dial being on the front of the phone and the handset resting on top of the boxy device, the dial was tucked underneath the handset, making the phone look like a more modern and decorative contraption. Phones were no longer basic black. We had one that was olive green and another that was harvest gold -- very cool colors of the 1960s and 70s. 

There was more than one way to use a rotary dial phone. As you stuck your finger in the hole corresponding with the number you wished to dial, you could leave your finger in the hole as you pushed it around in a circle to its dial position and then back, or you could push it around in a circle to its dial position and then remove your finger so that it circled back to its original position on its own. The boxier telephones' rotary mechanism had an interesting sound to them as the dial whirred back into place on its own.

Using a rotary dial made placing a call a little longer endeavor, but phone numbers weren't as complex as they are today. In the days before area codes, we simply dialed five digits when I was growing up. Even though our three-digit prefix was EL6 (for Elmwood 6), or later 356, we simply dialed 6 and then the last four digits of the local number. For the longest time, our home phone number was simply 6-8231.

Using the phone surely wasn't like today where people are on their phones while they're walking, driving, shopping, dining, taking care of their children, standing in line at the store, or while supposedly conversing with others in the same room. Using the telephone was rather an event back in the day when households had only one phone. Even without a party line, all of the family members would have to share the use of that one phone and that meant that teenagers couldn't hog the device. 

While it's ultra-convenient to have this whiz-bang, modern technology in the palm of our hands, there was something lovely about having to share a party line or at least a telephone and to put it into its perspective in our lives. We can never go backward, but it would behoove us now and again to take a break from our phones and other technological devices -- even if only for a few hours, and give ourselves time to truly exist, to be present to each moment, and to give our full attention to where we are, who we're with, and what we're doing. Try it, and see how it feels.

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