In the very late 40s and early 1950s, I must have become aware of the telephone but can’t recall the first time I ever used it. We had one in my grandmother’s house—where I and my parents lived—and I will forever recall our number: 262-J.
I lied. Just as I typed that number—262-J—my earliest recollection streamed back. It was the 16th of January 1951. I’d been anticipating my sixth birthday the next day, but the household was in disarray. Chaos, actually, though where chaos fell on a six-year-old’s scale of human behavior would be guesswork. Someone had phoned for help, because my grandfather had had a heart attack. I remember him carried out to an ambulance and driven away. That was the last I ever saw of him until the funeral several days later, when someone lifted me to look at him “sleeping” in a funny padded box. That night is my first recollection of the telephone, and a few days later I attended my first funeral. No wonder the memories are vivid; fragmentary but vivid.
Phones in the 50s were heavy. Find one and you’re ready for wrist curls. Not only did they weigh a great deal, they were connected to living human beings called “operators”, women, often unmarried, who staffed a switchboard, the nexus of a lot of wires that connected us with other subscribers across the street and, for all I knew, around the world.
In major metropolitan areas, there were banks of these and dozens of operatives, alert to your needs, poised, ready, anxious even to anticipate your presence and politely inquire “Number, please” when your light came to life on the board. Two years later, in 1953, we got our first TV and I subsequently saw enough Saturday morning movies on WGN to understand how these operators pulled wires from a panel, plugged one end into you and another into the destination of your call.
Some who read this (the old ones) will wonder why I bother writing this. Others (the young ones) will think I’m making it up.
Being connected then, more than sixty years ago, was clumsy, club-footed and cumbersome. We were desperate then for connectivity. Today, I’d welcome any chance to disconnect. Verizon called today to remind me—several times, in calls, voice mails and text messages—that my bill is in arrears; that unless I correct the situation within twenty-four house, my service will be disconnected. Apparently, they see this as a threat! Do you suppose they’ll be surprised when I don’t give a shit?
Our old number—262-J—gives some idea of how few telephones there were, even in suburban Chicago. The switchboard was in Argo or Summit, the village next to Bedford Park, where I lived at 7727 West 65th Place in the home of my paternal grandparents, Roy C. and Clara F. Ramsey. We shared a line—they were called “party lines”—with another family, the Pakulas, across the alley. Mrs. Pakula was about the same age as my grandmother and, like her husband, a Polish immigrant. Since my grandmother was born here to immigrant Polish parents, she spoke the language but, unlike Mrs. Pakula, her generation strove to Americanize, to learn the language and blend. So, when they met at the alley on garbage pick-up days or other times, Mrs. Pakula spoke Polish and my grandmother replied in English; just one of many curiosities to a child like me in a multi-ethnic suburb of what was still America’s second largest cities. I heard many languages as a child, but understood none of them—even when I heard them on that party line.
There were three different levels of telephone service. The most expensive was a private line, one that was exclusive, always there, like the ever-present operator, to connect you with the world. There were two types of party line: one with two subscribers and another with four. I can’t imagine how troublesome it was to compete for time with three other families. Once or twice, I do recall the Pakulas breaking in to a conversation, telling me that I had monopolized the line far too long.
Some years later—I don’t recall exactly when—telephone service improved. We got new phones, with dials, and operators shifted to long-distance lines. Party lines were eliminated and we got new, more complicated numbers with exchanges. We became GLobe 8-3035, which says a lot about the ability of the human mind to remember numbers: seven were simply too many, so the first three became the exchange, a name we could recall. Eventually, even those names became numbers, and those numbers have grown longer until the point that I can easily punch the number of my checking account into the phone banking system. This morning I punched more than forty numbers, twenty of them from memory, to verify the balance in my checking account and learn if a deposit had been credited. Admittedly, many of these were prompts from the automated system, yet this is what they call progress. I don’t.
When did this lust for connectivity link Agincourt with the world?