Another Red-rospective

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A while back, she requested yet another tale from my childhood.

I had to enter the dark, rusty recesses of my memory vaults to retrieve this one, so proceed at your own risk.

As you may recall, I’ve told you before that I grew up in a one-hoof town (to call it a "one-horse town" would be an exaggeration, because the entire town is much smaller than a horse) in a South African region known as the bushveld.

The fact that it had a postal code, a post office and three churches (one for each of the different Afrikaner denominations) definitely helped to enhance its status and to qualify the place as a town.

In this instance, the post office was the telecommunications headquarters for the entire district, because it also housed the telephone operators.

The telephone operators were the invisible forces in town. They were almost like radio announcers, because you never saw them, but you heard their voices whenever you placed a telephone call. They worked out of sight in a small room at the back of the post office.

I don’t remember ever going back there – it was off limits to mere mortals – but I must've been there at least once, because I remember the odd looking headsets the operators wore while sitting in front of an incredibly complicated looking switchboard with lots of knobs, coloured cables and such. One wrong move, it seemed, and they could electrocute not only themselves, but also blow up the entire town. It was quite an elaborate, dangerous looking contraption in the eyes of a child!

"Number, please?" they would bark in your ear (friendliness was often mistaken for insufficiency in the small town world of telephone operators) whenever you placed a call.

They knew everyone’s business (must have had something to do with those headsets they wore), but typical of a small town, discretion was non-existent, and everyone KNEW that they knew. So they were a little despised, but also secretly revered by most area residents. Whether you loved them or hated them, you knew they had Power, and for that alone they commanded fear and respect.

Everyone in town and on the surrounding farms shared different party lines (three or four, if memory serves me correctly). It probably makes me sound very ancient to many readers, but in truth, this happened less than twenty years ago. (Less than a decade, actually, because during my days in journalism school, I revisited the town with a childhood friend - my family moved away when I was in my early teens - and the operators and party lines were still very much alive, and well… in operation).

As you can probably imagine, sharing a single telephone line between several different families required some skill and special telephone protocol.

Whenever you wanted to use the telephone, you had to pick up the phone and ask: "Busy?"

If you heard nothing, it was a good sign that your particular line was clear and available for use, and you could then proceed by dialling the operator.

If, however, the line was occupied, you would get a curt "Yes, busy" in reply in which case you had to hang up the phone and wait patiently until people rang off. And believe me, whoever was on the phone would wait until they heard a distinct "click" before they continued their conversation.

Every household had a different amount of ringing sounds, because with a party line you obviously couldn’t pick up the phone every time it rang. For example, three long rings meant that the call was intended for our household, a short ring meant that someone had rang off, one medium ring meant that someone was calling the operator, two short and two long rings meant that it was a call for the neighbours, and so forth.

If you knew the ringing combination to others on your party line, you could ring them up yourself, without enlisting the help of the operator. Astoundingly high tech, 'eh?

Seeing that it was such a small community, everyone knew each other. Sometimes, while I was yakking on the phone with my best friend after school, the neighbours would interrupt and tell us – by name – to get off the line, often threatening to tell our parents that we had "played on the line" - which was forbidden, of course. Sometimes even the operator would butt in and order us to hang up.

Oh, you can imagine what fun we had on the party line! My friend and I would ring people up and pretend to be the operator.

"Please hold. You have a long distance call from Piet Retief", we would say in high-pitched voices, which we thought sounded awfully grown-up. (Piet Retief, by the way, is a South African town named after a historical Afrikaner.)

We would keep them on the line for a few minutes, then pick up the phone again and say (in those same high-pitched tones): "Operator! How may I help you?"

"Yes, I’m waiting for a long-distance call from Piet Retief." Our victim would reply (a tad impatient by then for having been kept on the line for so long. But waited, they did, because long distance calls were a very big deal, usually signalling important family news like deaths, weddings, or births).

"But my dear, Piet Retief died AGES ago," one of us would screech before quickly hanging up. We rolled around giggling about our prank for hours afterwards.

Much of the gossip in town was acquired courtesy of these party lines, because apart from the operators (who considered it their duty to listen in whenever they could), some people were notorious for eavesdropping.

One old woman on the other side of town was legendary for listening in on everyone's conversations. Apparently she devised a way to tie the phone to her ear so that she wouldn’t have the need to get a stiff neck or to take her hands off her knitting needles.

Thus she spent her days, phone taped to the side of her head (actually, I’m not entirely sure how she managed to keep it to her ear, but I may not be far off the mark by saying she used tape or rope) and listening in to all incoming and outgoing calls while knitting enough baby booties to outfit all the new-borns in Africa.

She never took the background noises into account (provided courtesy of her yapping lapdogs and the geese in her yard), and didn’t even bother to try and discreetly hang up the phone whenever her menagerie of poultry and pets started making a hullabaloo.

Until the day two of the local farmers unfortunate enough to be on her party line managed to get her to hang up in a huff.

They were getting sick and tired of her eavesdropping and gossip (because she started making up her own elaborate stories when people stopped discussing anything remotely confidential over the phone), so one day they tried some reversed psychology.

"Have you heard the news?" the one farmer set up the scenario.

(They said they could almost hear her perk up in anticipation.)

"No, what is it?" the other man asked, right on cue.

"Mrs. So-and-so (the eavesdropper) has passed away."

Before the other farmer could respond, they heard an audible gasp and then: "But I’m NOT dead!"

Of course, as soon as she realised that she had blown her own cover, she hung up the phone.

It was the end of her eavesdropping days…

No, of course it wasn’t.

Within a day or two – or however long it took for her shock/anger/embarrassment to wear off – callers could hear poodle yelps in the background again, and the vigorous click-click-click of those knitting needles…

8 Comments

Jeanne said:

Oh that's fab - "nommer assebliiiiiiiief??"! I can almost hear the old tannie saying "Maar ek is nie dood nie!!!" in indignation...

Nou watse Bosveld dorpie was dit??

miked said:

You know... i've said it before and I'll say it again. You're one hell of a storyteller. Great story, thanks for sharing it.

Helen said:

Oh honey, this wasn't just in South Africa. I lived on a farm in Iowa for a long while and I remember the party line and the grouchy operator. I remember the special ring tones and the desperation you sometimes felt when you just wanted to have a private chin-wag.

I am sooooo glad party lines are gone, although I used to enjoy listening to my home phone in the States-years ago, before encryption on cell phones got going, you could hear cell phone conversations around you using your home phone.

I had naughty neighbors.

Made life interesting.

Fatima said:

My goodness...I'm a South African from a lekker plaas dorpie as well...(Free State...*sigh*)
It's fun to see that you learn a lot about your country through other people's blogs. I for one didn't even know about these party lines on the phone. You make a great story teller :)
I'm definitely gonna keep coming back here....

martha said:

I want a party line... maybe then the phone would ring. But maybe it would be more dissappointing if it rang and it weren't for me.

deeleea said:

haahhaaaaa

I grew up on a partyline 2, actually we moved to a 'less developed' area when I was 13 and suffered with it for a couple of years!!!

All the stories about eavesdroppers and prank calls I think are true the WORLD over!

calla said:

great story!

have you ever read "starring sally j. friedman as herself" by judy blume? She has a lot of fun playing with the party line in the book.

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about
is a South African girl living in South Africa. That doesn't sound very original, we know, but you might find it remotely interesting when you learn that she has only recently returned to South Africa for the first time after a nine year, one month and two week (non-stop!) stint in the United States where she accidentally became an outlawed alien (also known, especially in immigration circles, as an 'illegal immigrant.' We prefer the term 'outlawed alien' ourselves). During her reversed exile from her homeland, she kept herself occupied by winning this website (but only after shamelessly bribing the judges) and thus being unleashed on the web where she slowly, leisurely became the World's Laziest Blogger; by being a nanny and by attending sci-fi conventions in search of other aliens. In the US, she also made her sailing debut, her international acting debut, tried and failed to learn the piano, and never learned to cook. She is hopelessly addicted to coffee, dogs (especially Labrador Retrievers), how-to books (with a particular fondness for her copy of the Time/Life A - Z Medical Encyclopedia), and she tends to grossly overuse parentheses (we're not kidding) during her attempts at writing, which you may - if you really have masochistic tendencies - subject yourself to by reading the words to the right of this column. If you REALLY and truly STILL want to know more, you can read her C.V. here.
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comments
  • calla : great story! have you ever read "starring sally j. friedman as herself" by judy blume? She has a l... [go]
  • deeleea : haahhaaaaa I grew up on a partyline 2, actually we moved to a 'less developed' area when I was 13 a... [go]
  • martha : I want a party line... maybe then the phone would ring. But maybe it would be more dissappointing if... [go]
  • Jessica : Funny!... [go]
  • Fatima : My goodness...I'm a South African from a lekker plaas dorpie as well...(Free State...*sigh*) It's fu... [go]
  • Helen : Oh honey, this wasn't just in South Africa. I lived on a farm in Iowa for a long while and I rememb... [go]
  • miked : You know... i've said it before and I'll say it again. You're one hell of a storyteller. Great story... [go]
  • Jeanne : Oh that's fab - "nommer assebliiiiiiiief??"! I can almost hear the old tannie saying "Maar ek is ni... [go]
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