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PHONES OF OLD HAD A TOUCH OF HUMANITY

PHONES OF OLD HAD A TOUCH OF HUMANITY

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The first phonograph record I can remember hearing was a 10-inch Victor made by a Jewish comedian whose name is lost in the haze of intimate history. It was what the Victor record catalog called a ``Comic Monologue' and its title was ``Cohen On the Telephone.' Cohen did not know much about telephones, and the only scrap of the monologue that I recall will give you a fair sample of the piece: ``Vot number do I vant? Vot numbers have you got?'One end of a telephone conversation has been staple device for monologists for years, and the telephone itself has often been the subject of humor. It makes communication easy where otherwise there could be no communication.

The ``party line,' common in rural areas and sometimes found in a town, was a frustrating system by which two or more subscribers on a line could have the convenience of a telephone, but only one party could talk at once. A vigorous gossip could keep the line busy for hours, while others on the line fumed with impatience.

Every subscriber on the line could hear another on the line; there was no privacy. The full conversation of caller and callee was available to party line subscribers.

The basic use of the telephone has not changed but many other things about it have. Today there are telephones of every size and shape, most of them probably made in Taiwan or Hong Kong, and they can be made to do everything except parch peanuts. Some years ago I had a telephone that spoke in a synthesized voice to anyone who called me. Its vocabulary was limited to two responses. It could advise the caller that I was not available at the moment. (It could not take messages.) And it could give the telephone number of a friend whom I might be visiting, if I punched in the buttons for such a number.

I have been an ardent champion of the push-button system ever since it was invented. The dial telephone was (and is) the klutziest, most bothersome method of calling a number that could be devised.

The method I like best is one that was used when I was a tad. It could be (and often was) warm and cordial. In this method you simply picked the receiver off the hook and a familiar voice said ``Operator,' or somewhat earlier, ``Number please.' You then told the operator (who was called ``Central' in my youth) the number that you wanted to call, she would ring it and there you were.

It would have been possible under that kind of personal service only for a person to call a number, have it answered and to engage in even the briefest conversation without either party waking up from sleep. It happened to me and to Pitman Wilkerson, the callee.

I was sound asleep one night a number of years ago when, in changing my sleeping position, an out-flung arm hit the telephone and knocked it off the bedside table. It hit the floor with considerable clatter. It stirred me to nothing more than faint consciousness and I instinctively fumbled and found the instrument and put the handset to my ear. The operator was already identifying herself repeatedly and I gave her the number of Wilkerson's Funeral Home, one of two mortuaries that I called daily for obituaries.

``Pit' Wilkerson answered and I said what I always said to him ``Ya got anything?' Pit said ``Nothing but that Mrs. Hugh Brown. You got that this afternoon.' We said goodbye and I restored the telephone to the table. Martha, who had been fully awakened by the noise, told me the next morning what I had done. I remembered it foggily. Later I saw Pit and asked if he was aware of the late-night call. He was not.

Only a few (it seems a few) years ago many people, well actually 99 subscribers, had single or double digit numbers. My father's grocery store was 17, our house was 65. The Reidsville Review was number one, not because it was the town's newspaper, but because Mr. Bob Oliver, one of the paper's proprietors, also owned the town's first telephone system.

Every town and almost every college had its own switchboard and operator or operators. In small villages it was usually in the home of the operator. For example, in Summerfield the switchboard was in the home of Mrs. Lee Delapp Harris, and she was the operator. Frequently no number was called in villages. The caller spoke to the operator, saying, something like ``Call Ed Jones' house' or ``Call Uncle Billie Ware's store for me.' ``Central' knew everybody and everybody knew her.

At times the operator could help in unexpected ways. Once, long ago, I called the home of my friend Buck Link. His home number was 10. No answer. I called later. No answer. Then the operator came back on the line and said ``I think the Links are out of town.'

The use of ``Central' as a personal appellation was immortalized in a tear-jerking turn-of-the-century ballad: ``Hello, Central, Give Me Heaven.' Ah, the good old days. Heaven was not even a long distance call.

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