The Prairie Spy

Alan “Lindy” Linda

The other day, someone was complaining about cell phone service. “Hah!” I replied. “You should have grown up with the first rural party lines.” Had they, they might not be quite so upset over what we have now.

You have to understand, though, that growing up in the fifties, the first telephone systems in America—once they reached the rural areas—were regarded with awe bordering on worship. Cranking one and speaking to someone seemed God-like.

One of the first things I remember being told—and believing—was to stay the heck away from that crank phone on the wall when it was storming. At the young age of five or six, the level of the warning that mom gave us was equivalent to a preacher warning the congregation about the devil. “You stay away from that phone, or you’ll be sorry!”

Sorry meant there was the potential for a butt warming, something we dreaded not so much because it ever happened, but more because as time went on and it didn’t happen, it loomed over us larger than ever. “A good butt warming” was the devil we were afraid of, not the one that lived in the crank phone on the wall.

Then one evening, as we were listening to the Jack Benny show on the radio, two things happened: First, the clap of a close lightning strike nearly deafened us, and two, a blue ball of fire the size of a grapefruit dropped down to the linoleum floor from the telephone and sizzled its way across to the opposite wall, shrinking as it hopped along.

Mom looked up, but barely missed a stitch as she kept sewing yet another patch on someone’s pants. The I-told-you-so smirk on her face is mostly what I remember, as we kids scrambled away from the static display rolling across the floor.

I don’t remember what dad did. Not much. Since I as the oldest was barely five or six, I’d guess this had been happening regularly enough to both them and the neighbors that neither one of them got too excited. Apparently, this was viewed as yet another demonstration, or proof, of how good life was. That ball of electricity was the frosting on the cake. Better living through electricity.

But, once my brother and I turned into teenagers and discovered girls—in particular, Elaine H.–, lightning wasn’t the biggest problem. The biggest problem was Aunt Leah, who operated the switchboard in town. Well, maybe Elaine was the problem. She was a great flirt, and we were both madly in love with her, and for the first time in our lives, that phone on the wall had a reason for being there.

Any time we heard two longs and a short, we knew it was for us. That was our ring. Any other combination, maybe it was for the Harrisons who farmed down the road, or Hendersons, a little further away, or any of the other seven or eight with whom we shared one set of telephone lines. Maybe, it might be the Hendersons calling the Harrisons, and dad might listen in to see if they were getting ready to bale hay. Anybody could listen in to anybody else, as long as they were on our line. There really weren’t any secrets. Everybody was equal in income and religion and stuff, so no one, as I remember, got too upset. Often, if someone else picked up and listened, it was one less chore to do to get the word out about the country school Christmas program, and stuff like that.

But Aunt Leah, she was a force to reckon with. Plus, she could listen to everybody.

We’d crank one long ring to get the operator, hoping Aunt Leah wasn’t on the switchboard. She almost always was. That was how she knew what was going on all over.

“Yes? What do you boys want!” She’d say, as soon as she heard our voice. Ah, good grief. Aunt Leah’s on duty.

“Would you please connect us to Bill Horstman? Please?” Oh how the manners flowed from us when we wanted to get past Aunt Leah.

“And exactly what do you need to talk to Bill about?” Aunt Leah would demand.

“Dad wants to know when he’s going to combine oats,” we would bluff.

“Your dad never combines oats with Bill; he combines with Johnsons.” Like I said, she knew EVERYTHING.

“Is your homework done?” Whoopee. We could bluff her on this one. She wasn’t that great at arithmetic.

“Well,” we’d reply, saying something like: “Can you help us with this problem, Aunt Leah? If ten horses each have one colt every other year, then who’s the president of Guatemala?”

And she’d connect us. For a while. Then she’d break in and say: “That’s long enough,” and cut us off.

And you thought cell phone service had problems.

(Again, if you’ve read this far, you’re invited to Lindy’s birthday celebration March 30 at the Mills Cultural Center. Snacks! Don’t bring anything but yourselves.)