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I can remember back in the 1960s when the phone company announced plans to automate our phone service. It sounded exciting to me even though I didn’t know exactly what it would involve. Local business owners thought the changes would lead to a Golden Age in our town. Old-timers began the think that the word was coming unglued at the seams.
With the new phone system everyone would have to learn and use phone numbers and dial the correct number if they expected their call to go through. We had never used phone numbers in our town. I was almost 12 years old at the time and didn’t even know that people in our town had telephone numbers.
In those days the clunky hand-operated switchboard for the town phones sat in Thelma Ames’s kitchen. She was the town’s switchboard operator and handled every call in and out of town. On rare occasions when Thelma went out, her sister Becky, who lived across the street, would come over to mind the switchboard.
Before automation, you didn’t have to know anyone’s phone number. You’d just tell Thelma who you wanted to talk to and she’d connect you. Thelma really didn’t need the job, since her family was pretty well off by local standards. They say the only reason she took the fairly demanding job was because she wanted to know all the town gossip. And that switchboard job supplied Thelma with lots of raw, unfiltered town gossip.
Like I said, whenever you wanted to call someone in town you’d pick up your receiver and nosy Thelma would come on and ask who you wanted to call. You understood upfront that anything you or the other party said on the phone could and would be overheard by Thelma Ames.
That kind of eavesdropping may seem like an “invasion of privacy” in our hypersensitive age, but it didn’t bother us much and sometimes came in handy.
For example, if Mother picked up the phone to call Marge cook over on the river road, Thelma might say, “Oh, Alice, I just heard Marge tell Esta Watts that she was going shopping. ”If you want, I’ll give you a call when Marge gets back. ”And she would. If you were interested, Thelma could even tell you what Marge said she was going to buy, and anything else she and Marge talked about.
In this age of iPhones, emails, texts, tweets and twitters, I’ still not back to the kind of friendly, personal service I used to get from Thelma Ames. And Thelma never charged for the extra service.
Since our family had an eight-party line back then, I always assumed there were other people listening in along with Thelma. I like to think that my public speaking career began with those party line calls of years ago. And even though I have gone on to speak to larger audiences in person and on the radio, I can only hope that my audiences today listen as often and as intently as my neighbors back home on that party line.
More and more I agree with those who say, “not all change is for the best.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly throughout
New England. Contact John at or 899-1868.
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