The Party Line

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.

This is a DTMF telephone keypad like the one we had in the late 1970s.
This is a DTMF telephone keypad like the one we had in the late 1970s.

  1. Oh, but the story gets better. If you were a “precocious” 12-year-old girl (and oh, I was, I was), you could also arrange to meet fellows you met on the “party line”. Our hookups typically took place at Pizza Inn on Cache Road. This one time? The guy had a scar on his face extending from his earlobe to his jugular. Good times.

  2. This was very entertaining!!! When I was little we had a party line, too. But it really sucked because it was a “shared” line. If Patty next door was chatting it up with her boyfriend we couldn’t use the phone until she was done! It was really annoying!

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