My first Telephone call
When I was really young, I remember that going into town to call my grandmother in Kansas was a very special adventure. I don’t remember what particular occasion was tied to my first memory of this, perhaps our trip to Kansas for Christmas. We didn’t have a phone at the farm in those days so when we needed to talk to someone by telephone, we would have to make the long 14 mile trip into the small town of Flagler, Colorado.
In Flagler there was a telephone exchange where several ladies worked at connecting people on the telephone. For my parents to call my grandma, they had to ask the operator in Flagler to connect us to the operator in Burlington, Colorado, our county seat. The Burlington operator would then have to connect us to the Colorado switchboard. Then the Colorado switchboard would connect us to Kansas, and the connections would continue on and on, until we finally reached Grandma.
Of course all this took time and we were paying by the minute, starting from the time that the first connection was made. The public phone in Flagler only took coins, so we brought a jar of coins with us when we started on our long-distance telephone quest.
The telephone exchange in Flagler was a small building on Main Street, pictured here. We went up a few steps to the porch, and the telephone was attached to one of the walls under the arched entryway. All four of us stood around the telephone while the connection was being made.
Once it was made, my mother said all the important things. Then Kenny and I were supposed to say our two or three words, and then we would hang up. I bet the conversation only took a few minutes, but there was always considerable time required make the connection between eastern Colorado and southern Kansas. A long-distance call was an adventure!
Grandma’s Very Cool Telephone
Our Grandma in Satanta, Kansas, had an old crank phone that was actually inside her house. I was very curious about using it. The telephone seemed like magic to me! My mom was a telephone expert, and she would go over, turn the crank, and start talking to the operator, an old friend from her childhood.
Then she would tell the operator lady who she wanted to talk to next. Sometimes it would be an obscure secret word or two like “Oscar 22.” And other times she would simply say she she wanted to talk to Jane. Sometimes she would be talking to Jane, and then as the time passed, she would be talking to more and more people on the party line. Other times she would just pick up the phone and listen to whatever conversations were going on. (That was supposed to be a breach of etiquette, but everyone seemed to do it.)
We finally get a phone at home
When I was in seventh grade, during the 1960-1961 school year, the telephone company told the farmers living north of Flagler that if the farm families would set up the telephone poles and string the wires to each farmhouse, the telephone company would support and maintain the network. The farm families jumped at the chance to have phone service, and putting up the telephone lines became a community project. Of course the farmers were experts on installing fences, and they already had a lot of the equipment needed to build the telephone network: post hole diggers, wire trimmers, big trucks, etc. The telephone lines were up in no time. (Kenny was pretty sad about the project, because Mommy and Daddy felt that I was old enough to help the men, but Kenny was not.)
One of the few things I remember from the work was that Daddy, Jack Scheidler, and several other men took a break and went to Jack’s place to get some water from a garden hose. Jack happened to be wearing really loose fitting bib overalls. His pocket was gaping wide open. So Daddy took a drink from the garden hose, and then stuck it into Jack’s pocket. Boy, Jack was mad at Daddy, but everyone else just about split a gut laughing at Jack’s reaction.
We got 15 – 20 miles of telephone line put up in record time during the fall of 1960. Then the telephone company came in during the spring and summer of 1961 and installed the phones in our houses. And so we joined the 20th century, on a party line with about half a dozen neighbors.
When we needed to use the phone, we would pick up the receiver and listen carefully, to make sure that the line was not being used. Then we would dial a three or four digit number and a local person would answer. If the call was outside the local area, we would have to call the operator by dialing 0 (zero) and then we would have to tell her where we were calling. Or we could use the obscure codes that the phone company had set up. Like xx to call Limon, yy to call grandma.
A few notes on telephoning in the Navy
In the Navy Bootcamp, using the telephone was a real problem. The link gives a full description and all the details of that situation! Once I left boot camp, telephone problems in the working Navy were a bit different. As long as I was stateside, I could have a normal phone call, but once the ship was at sea, I was out of luck. (In an emergency, if we happened to be in friendly waters, like the time when my Dad had a heart attack while I was on a training mission, the Red Cross could send a message to me on the ship. That way I could at least know the bare bones of a situation.)
Of course, whenever I was on Navy duty overseas and our ship reached a port, I could call internationally, but that was very expensive. I could also call through the HAM radio network if I could find an available HAM operator, although that was quite problematic, as the connections would fade in and out, and there was interference, and there would always be limits on how long I could talk.
My parents get a cell phone!
In the 1990’s, my parents got a new-fangled cell phone. It was quite large, with a strong carrying case and a short battery life.
The closest cell tower was in Hugo, Colorado, about 30 miles from their home. Reception was really difficult, but it would do in an emergency.
Today I have an iPhone. The battery still runs down way too fast, but other than that it’s a real marvel. I enjoy getting multiple video calls a week from the grandkids. A Christmas celebration via Zoom, with participants from around the globe, and nieces and nephews that I don’t get to see often enough, is a special treat.
The world has really changed since my grandmother’s time. She journeyed west to Kansas in a covered wagon, and now we we are landing vehicles on Mars, and talking with multiple members of our extended families on video calls.