On the Botna place, we didn’t have a phone, not one at the Paxton place either. At the Beh place, three rings and a short on a party line. Seven on that party line, I’m pretty sure. With a hand over the mouthpiece, one could eavesdrop on conversations of the other six. Mom listened in, not often but enough to know superficially what went on within a mile. The wall oak telephone at the Beh place was on the south wall of the kitchen above the old trunk Mom bought at an auction, one that served as a place to store wood; at one time, a lamb, often runt pigs. The operator for all the lines was in Irwin. The telephone operator’s place was on Main Street in Irwin, right down at the bottom of the hill on the west side, next to a confectionery store or a bar, not sure. If we were in town during the day, I would sometimes go into her place and watch her insert one cord in one line and flip a switch and ring so that two could talk. I found the contraption amazing. Not always busy, she was; so in between times, she would swivel around on the oak stool and visit with me. An emergency would wake her up in the middle of the night, so one had to be sure before bothering her.
Mother could call others on our party line without having to connect with the operator–two shorts, three shorts and a long, whatever. We kids only talked on the phone when given permission. Dad seldom did. Crank the handle once for the operator, or crank it for the code to connect to the Walkers, the Nordbys. A phone call was rare and often unwelcomed. No news is good news, not like today when the latest emotional tidbits are keystrokes. No one sat on a chair and jawed the afternoon away, for one had to stand up to talk into the mouthpiece. One could sit down and listen, for the ear piece was almost always long enough to sit on a chair, but if rubbering –listening in–that seal between the palm and the mouthpiece had to be as tight as a drum. One also had to be careful how one lifted the ear piece off its cradle, for if there was a lull in the conversation at that moment, that tiny little click was audible. Mom was good at both ends, but she just hated it when one of us slammed the door or started talking before checking what was happening in the kitchen. Then she would wave as if shooing away flies, and make this god-awful grimace.
Mom didn’t listen often, but the skills I observed became useful during my listening-in escapades to teenagers’ and ex-husbands’ conversations.
Being without a phone late at night babysitting a little brother while the folks went to town and when that little brother would not stop crying for whatever reason caused me nothing but alarm and panic. My sister didn’t know what to do either, that is if I asked her. And it was late, like close to midnight late. The road that passed by our house, as were most all of the rural roads then, were often nothing more dirt ruts caused by tractors and implements, wagons and horses. The nearest place that had a phone was the farmstead to the east and south; and I could see from the house that the lights were on. I couldn’t go down to Grandma’s for that was over a mile away and it was pitch dark outside, a sliver of a moon and that sliver draped by clouds. We had this old wreck of a thing called a bicycle that once in a while one of us rode around the farmstead but never on the roads–too full of ruts to negotiate. I pulled it out of the bushes to the west of the house and headed east. Halfway there, the pedal broke off and my foot slipped off, the metal gouging a gash into my left leg right on the shin, a gash long enough that the white scar still throbs today at times.
I don’t remember if I made it to the neighbors or if I turned around and walked the bike back up the hill, but it was hell to pay when the folks returned home. I think I called, for it seemed to me that they were more upset that the neighbors knew they were in town at the tavern than the fact that my leg was cut. No doctor, no stitches; bandages. Years later, after fishing with my soon-to-be second ex, I stepped off the boat onto the dock too soon and the sharp edge of the boat opened up that scar again.