I swear to you, I am not making this up.
When my sister and I were teenagers, about 1978, we lived in Lawton, Oklahoma. She and I kept a notebook, which we just called “The Book,” full of all the funny stuff we thought up, all the gossip we heard, all the complaints we had about our teachers, etc. One entry, in Nicole’s handwriting, was sprawled with anguish across an entire page. It said, “NO MORE PARTY LINE!”
It was a flaw in the phone system at Southwestern Bell. I don’t know if it was just in Lawton, or all through the system, but the way it worked was…
- Dial your own number
- Click the switchhook and listen for busy signal
- Hang up
- Your phone would ring in a couple of seconds
- You pick it up and…
You heard two busy signals in quick succession, followed by about one second of silence, then another two busy signals, another silence, etc. The thing was that everyone else in town who did the same thing heard that sequence, and in the silence in between, could hear each other.
It was the ancestor of the chat room. Typically on a day during summer vacation, which was the best time since your parents were at work, a “conversation” would sound something like…
“What’s your” buzz-buzz “name?”
“Where do” buzz-buzz “go to” buzz-buzz “school?”
“What do” buzz-buzz “you look like?”
“Can I” buzz-buzz “have your” buzz buzz “number?”
I mostly didn’t talk, but just listened. It was better than Gong Show reruns (mostly), and during the heat of the day, it was more fun than going outside.
The Party Line.