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Charles Lamb: Old-time telephones had some advantages

563-W. That was our phone number when I was a child. There was also a 563-J, which was another person’s number. When you started to make a phone call, you had to listen first to see if anyone was talking on the line. It was a party line, and two families had to share its use.

Sometimes, in case of emergency, you’d have to interrupt and say, “Could you get off the phone so I can call my doctor?” But most of the time you just impatiently waited. I used to pick up the receiver every 30 seconds until Mom would say, “Stop. They can hear you trying over and over; it is rude.”

I still know my first phone number. That adds to other useless information stored in my brain.

When I moved to Oklahoma to go to seminary, I served a small church on weekends in a small village named Cement. Everyone had the old type of phones in which you turned a crank to make it ring in the operator’s office. Bessie would answer and I’d say, “Ring the Shrewsburys, please.” She would plug my cord into theirs. Of course, then she had to listen to see when we were through so she could unplug it.

It was a wonderful service! For instance, I might say, “Ring the Shrewsburys” and she would reply, “But they aren’t home today. They’re over at the Kindalls. Shall I ring there?”

Or I could ring her up in the morning and say, “Bessie, I’m going calling this afternoon, so I won’t be home until supper. If anyone needs me, I’ll be at either the Jones or Randall homes.”

Once my wife went to see her parents for a week. One day before her return, she phoned to tell me she couldn’t come home for a few more days because she had a “vars.”

“A what?” I asked.

“A verse,” she replied. I couldn’t understand.

Suddenly Bessie interrupted: “She has a virus, Mr. Lamb, a virus.”

The last year I lived in Cement, the phone company put in automated dial-type phones. People in town objected; we liked our personal phone system with Bessie. All to no avail. Modern isn’t always better.

My home phone speaker was on a stand. A hook on the side held the receiver, which was attached to a cord. You spoke into the speaker, and held the receiver to your ear.

Once rotary phones became popular, the speaker and receiver were all on the same unit.

Later came push-button phones. Not long ago, a teenager asked to borrow a phone in a home that still had dial-type phones. After going to the room where the phone was located, she returned to say, “I don’t know how to use this thing!” Without push buttons, she was at a loss.

Of course, now we have cellphones. When I first got one, I would hold it in front of my mouth to speak and then put it by my ear to listen. It was hard to understand that people could hear me when the phone was not in front of my mouth.

Cellphones have brought some disadvantages. Many people have discontinued their land phones. In those cases, they are no longer listed in the phone books. You can’t find their number, so unless they’ve told you, there is no way you can call them.

Oh, for the good old days. I still miss Bessie and my personal operator answering service.

Charles Lamb, a retired minister, works part time as assistant to the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Youngstown.