Sunday, April 27

Modern Miracles

The twentieth century brought on some pretty remarkable technology. One outstanding example was this communications miracle—

Now you could make a telephone call to any local number without having to involve a human “operator.” Long distance calls still had to be made by a telephone company employee, and got pretty involved and very expensive. The only equipment allowed on the Bell System was made by and installed by that company. Recently on eBay I saw a 1950s red desk telephone made by Western Electric sell for almost $200. It had a dial, too. Nostalgia doesn’t come cheap.

Until the late 1980s, we had a single-wire telephone line connecting our high ranch to our store at the lake. All the old-fashioned phones on the line had hand cranks for sending a ring signal. The line was about ten miles long, and maintaining it was up to us. Every spring someone had to walk the entire line to find and repair the inevitable breaks caused by heavy snow or fallen trees. I did not like that job, especially if the line broke below the dam where it crossed the river. And especially if a lot of water was pouring over the spillway, because you couldn’t get across the river unless you went all the way back to the boathouse and took a boat to the far end of the dam, then hiked back down to the river. Someone on the opposite side had to tie a metal washer to a string and throw it across with the wire attached to the other end. If you didn’t have a helper on your side, you would have to somehow hold onto the wire while using awkward tools to reattach it to the broken end of the line, which might be up in a tree. Another bad place was around the side of the lake in the hip-deep manzanita bushes—nearly impossible to wade through—and the fallen wire always got snagged in a gajillion places. After lots of repairs, the line shortened and weakened. Every splice degraded the signal a little more which meant that every few years you would have to replace very long stretches of multiple breaks with new wire. Ugh.

If anyone spun the phone crank while you were holding the two ends of the wire, that would really sparkle your buns. During lightning storms we would keep our distance from the phones because the lightning arrestors weren’t all that reliable and powerful bolts of electricity could fly across the room toward the nearest large metal object. The ferry landing phone at the far end of the lake was the only one accessible to the public; they used it to call for the boat. I put up professionally-made signs that warned people to stay away from the phone during lightning storms. They were nice metal signs, and all of them ended up stolen and are probably displayed in people’s dens.

To make a call you vigorously spun the crank on the side of the wooden phone box: one long ring for the ranch, two rings for the boathouse, and three for the ferry boat landing. We finally had to give up the phones and replace them with two-way radios. Why? We got tired of getting nothing but crank calls.


Susan said...

I think I remember Grandpa and Grandma's phone on the wall in Coarsegold. It was a big wooden box with a black mouthpiece attached. It had a separate listening device attached to the box by a cord and you had to hold that against your ear. There was a rotor you had to turn to get the attention of the operator. And it was a party line, wasn't it? We had more modern phones (they had dials like the one in your video) in Pine Point but we still had party lines.

But all that was for growm ups. My real phone was a tin can attached to another tin can by a string we had to pull tight. It still worked around corners too and didn;t cost us any line rental.

Tom Hurley said...

Ah, the memories of childhood can sometimes go a little awry. Yes, there was a phone on the wall, and it was connected to a ten-party line. But no crank. It had one of them new-fangled dial thingies. Perhaps the crank you remember was on the pencil sharpener. Or the coffee grinder. Or the Model T Ford.

Susan said...

I wondered if that crank memory was a true one! Now I know. It kinda fit with your story that they were only able to make crank calls too. He he.