Don’t leave me hangin’ on the telephone?

Remembering the (bad) old days.

Photo by Katrin Hauf on Unsplash

A grade school classmate, Marny, now a Facebook friend, was irked that a new area code was being overlaid on her current one.

MARNY: They did this several years back where my brother lives, and my brother learned he had to dial 11 digits to call his next door neighbors! Now it’s happening here!

ME: We’ve been that way for several years here in central PA. It was, believe it or not, an improvement for us! We went for many years before the final switch, having to dial the area code for an inter-LATA call (aka “local long distance”) but not an intra-LATA call (“local”) — even with the same area code. How did you know without looking at a map from the phone company? When you got a “brr-Brr-BRR!” error if you picked the wrong option! So we needed to dial eleven digits to call my late in-laws from home, but seven if we called from work. Now we just dial eleven. Well, ten, actually, because who calls long distance on a landline these days?

We went into discussions about having to choose whether to just get local service or “extended” local service —I’d totally forgotten about those days (and I used to work for a local phone company!). And then there were the old landline habits that Millennials seldom experienced and GenZs know nothing about.

ME: When Deb worked at the university and had student helpers, she had to explain how landline phones worked. Not the buttons (these weren’t rotary!) but the 1 before the number — the kids thought it was arbitrary and silly.

MARNY: The “1” gets the caller into the long distance system. The alternative is “0”, which uses an operator to place the call, even though you dial all the numbers. It would be for something like person-to-person where you would only be charged for the call if the person to whom you want to speak is available and takes the call.

ME: I would LOVE to see you explaining all that to a GenZ! 😁 They would think you were making it all up.

When I worked for Sprint/United Telephone in Carlisle, PA, we still had some of the old (OLD!) analog switching units in use in the downtown office. I could stand outside the “closet” and hear the difference between local and long-distance calls going through. While I was still there in 1994, almost a floor of analog switches got replaced by a digital unit the size of a household fridge, with several times the capacity. And then there were the even older landlines…

MARNY: My grandparents in rural Wisconsin were on a party line! To call someone else on the same line, you picked up the receiver, listened to make sure no one else was on the line, dialed the last five digits of the number you wanted, then hung up so the other person’s phone would ring. After about 10–15 seconds you picked up your phone again and hoped the person you were calling was on the line. I always thought it was rude to dial a friend’s number and then hang up the phone.

ME: Deb had a party line growing up, into her high school years! Problem #1: her dad was a pastor, and sharing a party line was NOT a good thing when people called with problems (Dad had to get an extension line installed from the church office so he could take “work calls” at home). #2: although Deb dated in high school as much as I did (not at all, IOW) her younger sister was VERY popular with the boys… and a party line was NOT conducive to teenage conversations. For some odd reason, Dad never came up with a solution to that one.

DEB: Our line worked like what Marny describes, only we didn’t actually have to hang up, we just did a “hook switch” where we put our finger on the hook for a couple seconds and then lifted it. But I could see how a kid would think they were “hanging up.” Or maybe their phones were different.

Also back in the old days, you were only supposed to use phones from “The Phone Company” (there was only one) and you got charged for every phone (not line, EACH TELEPHONE) you had.

MARNY: My sister moved her bedroom up to the room in the attic (formerly the guest room; her old room became the guest room). Then she ran a phone extension line into her room. That was when you were charged for the number of phones you had and Daddy found out when he saw additional charges on the phone bill. He was pissed! He also made her take out her extension.

Yes, The Phone Company knew when you’d been bad or good…

Any stories anyone else wants to share?



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Jack Herlocker

Jack Herlocker

Husband & retiree. Developer, tech writer, & IT geek. I fill what’s empty, empty what’s full, and scratch where it itches. Occasionally do weird & goofy things.