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The Landline

We still have what is known as a "landline." Although with the advent of the cell phone, I doubt many people still have this relic of communication from the past anymore. And yes, it is a rotary phone which is slow, doesn’t allow key commands, and only does one thing…make and receive calls.

But, I love to hear the dial turn. And when I used one all the time, I could rapidly stick my index finger into the slots without even looking - whipping through the phone number in record time and only limited by the return of the dial. When it rang, you really were excited. It didn’t ring that often. But, it was a friend or relative and someone you usually wanted to talk to. I can remember running to the phone in an attempt to pick it up first. Sliding on the vinyl floor in my sock feet and almost breaking my neck as I surpassed the stopping place in our kitchen. We had custom colored phones too. I mean, what more could you ask for? In my parent's room, their phone was a kind of army green. In our hallway, it was baby blue and in the kitchen, it was yellow…bright yellow. The kitchen phone took the most abuse. I remember we had a step stool next to it so you could cook and talk at the same time. This meant the phone needed cleaning regularly. Also, because it was a wall phone, we’d routinely smash into it and the hand-piece would come crashing onto the floor. Luckily, it was built to last. When one of my mom’s friends would call and they wanted to complain about their “male-chauvinist pig” husbands in private, she’d take the extra-long cord and hide in the adjoining half bath. Closing the door almost completely in the hopes that the kids would give her a chance to blow off steam and laugh with her peers. That was always short-lived because we were always asking what the next meal was going to be and who had control of television channels.

The hallway phone, the baby blue one, was the one I used the most. It was just outside my bedroom and I can remember the agonizing fear of rejection and calling a girl for a date while using that phone. Getting through six numbers only to freeze on the seventh digit. Paralyzed like a person who is afraid of heights and makes the mistake of looking down. Second-guessing myself, thinking I’d try again later, eventually not following through. But, I also used that phone to call my friends to come over and go sledding after the first snow of winter. To give my friend Dan Canadeo a call and see if he wanted to take a bike ride to the Bark River where we could fish for rock bass or bluegills. These were hasty calls. Send the message and meet me outside calls.

The army green phone in my parent's room was their phone. We were not to use that phone and it was for special calls. Calls in the middle of the night came on that phone. Those calls you really don’t want to get like when my grandfather Hitchcock died. I remember the call woke us all up and we knew something bad had happened. Hearing our mother crying at the other end of the hall reinforced the bad news.

When my dad and I would go deer hunting in northern Wisconsin, we stayed at an old farmhouse and had to use what was known as a "party line." This was no party. The party line meant that you shared the phone line with a number of neighbors. Kind of like they were your family members and you had to be polite and wait till they finished before you made your call. I remember wanting to call my girlfriend and checking every 15 minutes only to hear, "We are still talking, please get off the line and try again later!" Hours later, when I finally had a chance to call her, I'd hear a click and know someone was silently listening to our conversation. I guess for some people, this was their social media!

When I went off to college, we had an old phone booth at the end of our hall in my dorm. To call home, I had to call collect, wait and listen as the operator connected with someone at my parent's house. And then yell past the operator to one of my siblings, “It’s me, Mark, accept the charges!” And it was always so good to hear their voices even though I was glad to be away from home and with others of my own age.

You had to know the phone lingo back then. Most operators were pretty professional and took their jobs seriously. You could call collect, reverse the charges, ask for information, and a number, or sometimes if you were lucky, get a sociable operator who would share a laugh with you.

Years later, even after cell phones had taken over we kept our landline phone. It was the one communication device that our parents liked to use. When it rang, it was usually the parents. I relished those calls. Our landline is in the kitchen and I would usually close off the two doors connecting to the rest of the house. Sit on the floor and talk for hours. Mom always wanted to hear about what project I was working on and always told me how proud I made her and my dad. Of course, mothers dish out painful advice and there was no shortage of that either. If it wasn’t too late, dad would say a few words at the end of the conversation, “When are you coming down to visit? I hear they’re really hitting the spotted bass on the Colleton River. We could take the boat out this weekend?” Gradually the calls became fewer. I ended up having to make more than I received after my father died and my mom developed dementia. But, it was still wonderful to talk to her and we could still reminisce about the family…she still remembered that very clearly.

Today, the land-line doesn’t get the use it once had. We usually let it ring and just check our voicemail later to see if it was something important, but usually, it is just a sales pitch for a product we can live without. With the passing of our parents, the landline lost its luster. Its ring doesn’t bring me excitement for a long, heart to heart conversation anymore. It hangs on the wall like an artifact of our past that we can’t part with even though the cell phone has taken over about 99% of our phone conversations.

Yet, I always hope that someday, maybe that phone will ring and an operator will say, “You have a collect call from Virginia and Bob Albertin, will you accept the charges?”


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