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Telephones and Memories
by Newt Harlan

The other day while sitting at my duty station at the local watering hole, I noticed that almost everyone, including me, had a cell phone -- little bitty things that not only enable you to make and receive calls from wherever you may be, but also let you access the Internet, get text messages, play games and even take pictures. It’s amazing how much phones and the way we use them have changed in my lifetime.

The first telephone I can remember was at the old homeplace when I was a child of about 4 or 5. It was a wall-mounted crank telephone in a polished oak box, which hung on the wall in the kitchen. On one side of the box was a small crank and on the other was a horseshoe shaped hook, which cradled the earpiece. The ringer was mounted at the top of the front of the box, and just below it was the mouthpiece, which adjusted up and down. I still recall thinking how the box looked like a cartoon face, with the crank and earpiece for ears, the ringer for eyes and the mouthpiece for the nose and mouth.

My family didn't live at the old homeplace during this time, so I was only around the phone when I visited Aunt Emma and Uncle Dode. I remember sitting on the floor in the kitchen, licking the icing bowl or doing whatever other “chore” that Aunt Emma had found to keep me from underfoot, when the phone rang. It didn’t ring like ours did at home; instead there were a series of rings -- like three short rings, then a pause, then the three short rings repeated, until finally it stopped. I couldn’t understand why Aunt Emma didn’t answer like Mama always did when our phone rang. She explained she didn’t answer because it wasn’t her ring, that her ring was two longs and a short. Three shorts was Mrs. Hoffa’s ring. I didn’t really understand all this, but she gave me another icing bowl that needed attention and this got my mind off the problem.

The only time I ever talked on that phone was once when I was visiting with Aunt Emma and Uncle Dode for a week and got homesick on about the third or fourth day. That night after supper, Uncle Dode went over to the phone, put the earpiece to his ear, twisted the crank and said, “Hello, Central.” He waited a few minutes and when the operator didn’t come on, repeated the procedure. After the third or fourth attempt, the operator answered, and in an officious voice he told her he wanted to place a long distance call to Galena Park, Texas, and gave the number. (I later learned that most families considered long distance calling to be very important business that was best handled by the man of the house.) The operator told Uncle Dode that she’d place the call and ring him back when it was ready. (All this to call the twenty miles from Humble to Galena Park.)

Shortly, the phone rang with two longs and a short. Uncle Dode answered and soon was talking with Mama. After visiting with her briefly and telling her of some of my adventures, plus a few confidential things that I couldn’t overhear, he pulled a chair over so I could stand on it and reach the phone. I climbed up on the chair and he handed me the earpiece. I put it to my ear and there was my mama. Aunt Emma told me to be sure to talk loud because I was talking long distance, so I was yelling into the phone. Mama told me I didn’t have to talk quite so loud. Soon, after hearing my mama’s voice for a few minutes and finding out that all was well at home, I shed a few tears, said my “I love you’s and goodbyes,” hung up the phone and was all cured for the rest of my stay.

When I was nine, we moved into the old homeplace. By then Uncle Dode had died, Aunt Emma had moved to a place in town, and the old phone had been replaced by a more “modern” one that sat on the end of the counter in the kitchen.

The “new” phone kind of resembled those in use today, in that it had a handset, which you held to your ear and talked into, and a base, which contained the components that made it work. However, on the face of the base there was no way to dial your number. To reach your party, you picked the handset and waited for “Central” to come on, then gave her the number you wanted to reach. If she didn't come on right away, you jiggled the switch a little bit to let her know you were waiting, but you didn't want to jiggle too much because it made her mad and she'd let you know about it.

We had an eight-party line. I even remember our number, it was 72-J-3, and our ring was three longs. We shared the “J” line with the Charpiots and the Hoffas. The other terminal on the “J” side was at one of the Charpiot’s rent houses and the folks that lived there seldom had a phone installed. I’m not sure who the parties on the other side (“W”) were, since our phone didn’t ring on their calls and the only time we knew they were on line was when we picked up and they were talking.

Listening in on party lines was a great source of entertainment and information in those days. Although it was officially forbidden by parental decree, my two sisters and I worked out a system where one of us would listen in and the other two would act as lookouts, in the event a parent got close to discovering our game. Getting caught wasn’t a big deal anyway since it usually resulted in only a minor fussin’ at, and rarely a butt whippin’. I suspect Mama participated in the eavesdropping, since I often heard her telling the party line neighbors, “Y’all please excuse my children’s rudeness for listening in,” when the whole time we had been in another room, not even close to the phone.

Party line users weren’t the only ones who listened in. Everyone in town knew that Central was the center of information for the latest news, gossip and social goings-on in Humble. She was also the center for emergency help and information. When the fire siren blew and the volunteers rushed to the fire station, the rest of us picked up the phone and asked Central where the fire was. Same thing when the funeral home ambulance went out with red lights flashing and siren wailing -- just pick up the phone and ask. She knew. Anything you needed to know, from what was the school lunch menu today to when April Cochran’s baby was due to what was on sale at the grocery store this week, Central knew. Central was better than the local newspaper, which couldn’t listen in on every conversation at any time, and besides the newspaper only came out once a week and Central was always there.

Central wasn’t limited just to listening in, sometimes she would join in to conversations if she felt the situation warranted it. This was especially true when some juicy gossip was going around town and someone would get the facts wrong when repeating the story. Central would usually jump right in and get it straightened out before the wrong story got going; after all, she had access to the “facts.”

My parents often went into town and left my sisters and me at home alone. You could do that in those days. In fact, few people around Humble even locked their doors. My youngest sister, Pam, was the worrier of the family. If the folks went to town and their errands took longer than they told us they would or Pam expected them to, here she’d go, straight to the phone. “Hello Central, this is Pam Harlan. My mama and daddy went to town over an hour ago and said they’d be right back, but they’re not home yet. Would you mind going out and looking down and see if daddy’s truck is parked in front of Schott’s store?” Usually on the first call Central would just tell Pam that she was busy right then, but to call back in about 15 minutes and she’d go check. Sure enough, after the 15 minutes, if my parents weren’t home, here she’d go again, and unless Central was unusually busy, she’d actually go out on Main Street and look up and down and come back and tell Pam if she saw Daddy’s truck and where it was parked.

Shortly after I entered high school, the dial system was introduced in the Humble area and there was no longer any need for Central. I remember there was quite a bit of resistance at first because folks weren’t real good at dialing numbers themselves. (They preferred picking up the phone and saying, “Hello, Central, give me Harvey’s Hardware, or Gertrude’s Beauty Shop, or Aunt Emma.”) And they thought the new system was too impersonal. Of course “progress” prevailed and Central was relegated to placing long distance calls and interrupting on party lines when there was an emergency call. My sister Pam sure missed them.

And so it has evolved in the past forty something years, first the rotary dial phones, then push-button phones, then the Princess and Mickey Mouse and even phones disguised as football helmets. Then eventually came the first cell phones. Remember them? Those big ol’ things that rich folks or people on call for their jobs carried around in bags. I remember getting my first cell phone in the mid ‘80’s, only then we called them “car phones.” This made sense because it was more or less permanently mounted in the car. It sure was convenient not to have to find a pay phone or beg the use of a client’s phone when I needed to call my office. Now everyone has one of those little bitty things that sing songs and takes pictures and fits in a pocket or purse so we can take them everywhere we go.

Somehow I’m not sure that cell phones, as handy as they are, have done that good of a job replacing Central. I’m positive they could never serve the function of calming Pam’s worries when my parents were late returning from town. Even if Daddy had had a cell phone, knowing him, he’d have never turned the damned thing on.


Newt tells us about himself:

I was born, raised and educated in Texas. With the exception of a few brief sojourns and the 4 years during the Vietnam Era that I spent riding around on airplanes courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, I've spent the more than 65 years of my life within spittin’ distance of the place where I grew up. I managed to cram a four-year college degree into nine years and by virtue of that remarkable feat, I am a former student of six different schools, which sure helps the odds of rooting for a winner in sporting events. The academic standards committee had a moment of weakness and I was the fortunate recipient of a degree from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

I'm Southern to the bone. The sound of “Dixie” being played gives me goose bumps and I stand and remove my hat. My yard dog, B.J., controls the squirrels, cats, meter readers and peddlers around my place. I’ve picked cotton by hand, plowed behind a mule, churned butter, shelled back-eyed peas, and for the first 12 years of my life, went without shoes from April until October. Several of my friends regularly hold conversations with mules, but as of yet I can’t get the danged mules to answer me. I think grits are as much a part of breakfast as bacon, eggs and cathead biscuits. I think ain’t is a perfectly good word and don’t plan to quit using it just because some damnyankee dictionary writer arbitrarily thinks it ain’t.

I've been married for 30-some odd years and have beaucoup kids and grandkids. I'm now retired after having spent the better part of the past 37 years traveling around Texas, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast areas of Mississippi and Alabama, trying to sell steel products. My hobbies, in no particular order, include writing, grandkids, hunting, fishing and visiting the local watering hole to swap honest lies and research material for stories.

Write Newt by clicking here: CLICK

Here are more terrific stories from Newt Harlan:
Ol’ Red and the Armadillo
Southern Fried
Belly Waddin' Lunch

Read many more great stories listed on our USADS Articles pages.


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