Party Line Kept Community Connected

Funny story about Aunt Berta, the life of the town’s party line, until the invasion of dial telephones.

Party Line Kept Community Connected

Party Line Kept Community Connected

"Aunt Berta" finding a creative solution to the modern telephone. Illustration by Kevin Rechin.

 

Story by Ruth Amos
Lebanon, Missouri

A head full of curls and her favorite pair of red going-to-town high heels still left Aunt Berta a hair short of 5 feet tall, but to the five dozen or so residents of our Ozark town, she was as big a character as they came. Even as she aged, with her flaming hair fading and her beloved red heels forsaken for frumpy black oxfords, her raucous laugh, quick wit and gift of gab kept her a fixture of the community.

Aunt Berta just laughed and said she was never alone with her old crank telephone and the party line. This was back when neighbors shared a phone line. When your phone rang, everyone’s phones rang, and a combination of long and short rings identified the party being called. But none of that mattered to Aunt Berta. When she heard the phone, she’d pick up, listen and join in. Nobody on the party line minded; it was just how she kept in touch.

Then, in the summer of 1959, the phone company put in dial telephones. People still shared party lines, but now only one phone rang when a call came through. Aunt Berta was devastated. She could still eavesdrop, technically, but she’d never know when to do it.

Almost overnight, Aunt Berta changed. Without the constant contact the old crank phone and party line provided, she felt isolated. We all called her often and told her to call us anytime, but she just replied sadly that she knew we meant well, but it wasn’t the same as being part of the community.

Well, a few weeks went by, and suddenly Aunt Berta was back to her chipper old self. No one could figure it out for days, and then we caught her picking up on our phone calls again. Somehow, even though her phone didn’t ring, she knew just when a party line call was coming through. After many mysterious looks and smug smiles, Aunt Berta finally confessed her secret.

It seems that one day, just as she reached for the phone, the receiver vibrated. She picked it up and heard her neighbor say hello. Bingo!

So she fetched one of her old favorite red heels. With the toe balanced on the receiver and the heel teetering on the edge of the counter, the vibration from an incoming call to the party line would send the shoe clattering to the floor. Better yet, she could hear it from any room in the house.

So once again, Aunt Berta and her red shoes were the talk of the town, and everyone had a good laugh to boot.

Ed Iannuccilli March 26, 2014 at 7:39 pm

I remember the party line quite well. Not only did we have three other parties on our line, but we had only one phone for three families in our house. Quite a carnival.
Your story is full of humor and wit, and it brought back many memories.
Thank you.

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