Southern Folks: Telephone party lines always rang up a good time

Bill Stamps

I've always been a private person. My friends and family will tell you that. I'm not hiding anything. I'm just private. If it weren't for my wife, Jana, I doubt I'd ever have gotten on Facebook or learned how to email. That's as far as I go.

I'm aware that there's all other kinds of communication devices and applications out there. They're of no interest to me. Let someone else Twitter or Instagram or Snapchat or whatever else they're doing these days. I'm sorry, but the progress of technical stuff bores me to tears.

Truth be told, several years back, I hurled my cellphone out the car window and into the night. If anybody wants to text me or send me a funny message, I ain't there. I happen to like taking a walk or a drive and giving myself time to just think.

I guess it's good to be connected to the rest of the world. Me, I think that what little privacy there is left on this planet should be held sacred. I'm not sure why people feel the need to take so many pictures of themselves or talk so much on the phone. Hashtag, a bit much.

But, that being stated, from time to time, I post pictures of Jana and the dogs and me to my Facebook friends, just to keep a little skin in the game. That's another thing, I've never had so many friends in my life. I'm not quite sure where they all came from.

Back in the late '50s, when I was around 10, I lived with my mother and two younger brothers way out in the country in Middle Tennessee. Nothing but farmers. Families that drew their drinking water from springs on their properties, ate what they planted and took time to thank the Lord for the meals they were about to receive.

Sometimes, the only heat they had came from constantly stoked fireplaces and potbelly stoves. Stand-up fans, whirling around at full speed, and iced tea were the best you could do to cool down. A shirt, a pair of jeans or a dress lasted for years due to the hand-me-down system. They didn't live high off the hog, but almost all of them had a telephone.

Before they came up with phones that hung on the kitchen wall, long before Princess phones with a long, stretchy cord came to be, almost everybody had the same kind of telephone: a big, heavy, black, rotary one. Just one. They weighed about the same as an iron skillet.

Centered on the base of the phone was a circle of 10 numbers to stick your dialing finger into. In the middle of the circle of numbers, there was a little decal that read, "Wait for Dial Tone."

Most always, the phone was sitting atop a small table in the front hallway, a chair next to it. That's where you sat and talked on the phone. Everyone in the next room could watch TV and listen in on your side of the conversation at the same time.

If you wanted some privacy, you had to whisper. Whispers created curiosity, and the next thing you knew, Mama was up off the couch and checking on you.

If you needed to call long-distance, you simply dialed zero and an operator, a real live person, answered and made the call for you. Quite often, you got to know the operators and they you. I remember making calls to my grandmother, Miz Lena, and the operator asked me if my parents knew I was making it. Even over the phone adults were looking out for each other and their kids. Long-distance charges were expensive. Folks wrote more letters back then.

You could hear the phone ring from all the way back in the kitchen or even outside. Those phones rang loud, like the bells in school halls. Even if you didn't feel like talking, you answered it. Otherwise, the person calling might let it ring for several minutes before giving up. It could drive you crazy.

There was no way to know who was calling, so better to pick up. It could be an emergency. As soon as you got on the phone, a voice from the other room hollered out not to stay on it too long. There was an implied time limit. The attitude was "say what you got to say, then hang up the phone."

When they came out with the new version of the telephone, it was hard plastic, smaller, much lighter and more streamlined. Even in the country, we had our choice of colors: white, red, green or stay with black. We had just moved in. Mom ordered the green one. Uptown! It sat in the front room of our little trailer, on her desk, next to an ornate orange glass ashtray I won at a carnival.

Sometimes, progress doesn't work for all. Yes, we had a cool, green-colored phone, but we no longer had a private line. We were in the country. Progress hadn't showed up out there yet. We now shared our telephone line with three other families.

If they'd had "Eavesdroppers Anonymous," I would have been a charter member, standing up at the meetings and saying, "Hello, I'm Butch, and I'm an eavesdropper." But so would have the other three on our line. People living in the big cities have binoculars and look into one another's apartments. In the country, we party-liners listened in on each other's conversations. Not all the time but close to often.

The phone would ring as a sort of telephone alert that a call was coming in. It rang once for one of the party-liners, twice for another, three times for somebody else and four times for my family. We'd sit and wait to see how many times the phone rang.

One of the people with whom we shared our phone was an older fellow, a retired doctor, who was hardly ever on the line. His phone rang only once. He was hard of hearing and wore some kind of hearing aid. He'd scream, at the top of his lungs, with whomever he was speaking to.

At the same time, they were yelling back at him to turn up his hearing aid. When he did, it squelched! He spent the rest of his conversation trying to adjust it. You could hear him fumbling, sitting up in his chair. Breathing hard. More squelching. Sometimes, after several minutes, he'd just sigh, holler at them, "Goodbye" and hang up.

If the phone rang twice, the call was for a large family. I don't believe I ever heard the man of the house talk on the phone. His wife, Cathy? I called her Chatty Cathy. That woman could talk. There'd be kids screaming in the background, the TV blaring, and she'd take off nasal-yakking, nonstop, for 30 minutes or more.

She wasn't happy with the way her life was going and talked with her mother about it all the time. She ate potato chips, swigged on Cokes and smoked cigarettes during her telephone ramblings. Chatty Cathy wanted to leave her husband but couldn't. Too many kids.

Every once in awhile, she'd say, "Hold on, Mama." Then she'd tell the kids to "hush up," or she sent them outside. She'd come back and say, "These kids are drivin' me crazy."

When the phone rang three times, usually after the sun was down, I ran to the phone. My favorite party-liner, a young black woman, was being called. It was her boyfriend calling. I knew them by Baby and Daddy. That's what they called one another.

Their conversations were kinda steamy and most entertaining. Sam Cooke or the Platters would be playing in the background. Daddy would say, "Does yuh still love me, Baby?" Baby said, "Mmm-hmm." Daddy said, "I be over in a little bit, if yuh wants me to be." Baby would say, "Mmm-hmm." Daddy said, "Awright den, Baby. I sees yuh in a liddle while. I got somethin' fuh yuh." Baby said, "Okay den, Daddy."

I'm embarrassed to say that, from time to time, I made some less-than-flattering sound effects during their phone conversations. I guess I thought it was pretty funny. Besides, I couldn't get caught. Once, though, Daddy asked Baby, "Who dat is?" Baby answered, "Dat's one of dem Stamps boys playin' wiff da phone, and I know where dey live at." A big shiver went up my spine. I got right off the phone.

Shortly thereafter, a man climbed up the telephone pole, and we got us a private line. No more sharing our phone. No more eavesdropping. Technical progress had been made, and I was bored to tears.

Bill Stamps' new book, "Miz Lena," is now available in a limited-edition, signed and numbered hardcover. Contact him at or through Facebook.