Phoning home



The summer I was 20, I hatched the insane plan of riding the moped I’d purchased at my job in France through England and Scotland and over to my mother’s ancestral home in Ireland. Various near-disasters ensued, not the least of them occasioned by my ignorance of a war that was then raging directly along my path through Northern Ireland. But the daily challenge was the rain. My moped ran well through a light mist, but stopped dead in the frequent downpours that anyone with a grain of sense would know as a fact of life in the British Isles. By the time I reached the countryside of Donegal, I was cold, tired, wet, hungry, and despondent. The small cut I’d received on the ring finger of my right hand had opened and swollen into a dangerous-looking, throbbing purple oval. At the wayside pubs where I sought refuge from the rain, women were not allowed past the foyer. Finally, standing in a small entranceway where a pay phone hung on the wall, I availed myself of the desperate measure my mother had given me permission to take, should my adventure prove too much for me. I lifted the receiver, spun the dial around from zero, and asked the operator to place a station to station collect call to St. Louis, in the United States.

The operator said she would call me back. During the half-hour in which I waited, the gray clouds over the next hill gradually lifted to reveal a line of hesitant blue. Then the phone rang. “I’m sorry,” the operator reported. “All circuits across the Atlantic are busy now.”

I wiped off the seat of my moped and rode on.

One of the “period moments” in the last season of Mad Men featured Don Draper placing a person to person call to Betty Francis. Nobody makes those calls anymore, but just hearing the term brought me back to that moment in the pub. When I was at a safer remove from home, in college, our routine was for me to call home person to person, collect, whereupon my mother would say that person was not available and would call me back. This happened perhaps once a month, because even direct-dial calls were expensive. When she took a traveling job with a nascent computer company, my mother received a trunk line, or WATS line, which I’ve only recently learned stood for Wide Area Telephone Service. Those lines were what we now call toll-free, a designation that may soon pass away as cellphones, with their lack of distinction between local and long-distance calls, take over our telephone communications. At the time, having such a line was amazing, because no one called long-distance regularly; if we wanted our relatives to hear our voices, we mailed tapes of ourselves talking.

Just as amazing were the glitches in the system that yielded what we called, one glorious teenage summer in Southern California, the Free Line. This was an empty spot in the circuitry, into which teenagers phoned to flirt with each other. The boys all claimed to be blond, 6-foot-tall surfers age 18; the girls all claimed to have 36-24-36 measurements and to be 16-year-old blonde cheerleaders. My cousin made the serious mistake of meeting a contact from the Free Line for a date, over which a curtain will be drawn.

During my time working in France, I discovered another glitch, yielding a pay phone called the Free Phone on the Left Bank, where foreigners stood in a line around the block because for reasons unknown you could call the United States without charge. That this phenomenon lasted for months I have always attributed to French generosity rather than ineptitude.

All this language — collect call, person to person, station to station, WATS, trunk line — evolved during the first half-century of the telephone’s everyday use and has been slipping into archaism since. Already, growing up in a city, I was too young to know much about party lines. My father occasionally received a telex, but I didn’t know its difference from a telegram. I did know that if I stayed on the phone with my boyfriend for too many hours in the evening, the operator would eventually break in, generally at the request of my mother’s best friend who was willing to declare an emergency — such was the only way (other than common sense) to know that someone else was trying to reach the family.

A few of these terms do linger. On the list of “menu options” given me by a computerized answering service yesterday, I could dial 13 for one person, dial 12 for another, dial zero for assistance. Of course, I wasn’t dialing anything. Dialing was what I did in that Irish pub, four decades ago. But when someone’s not really on the job these days, we still speak of their dialing it in. What other language lingers, from those days of switchboards and pay phones? Indulge your nostalgia and let us know. The party line’s open.