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Posts Tagged ‘telephone’

Step back with us, won’t you, to a time when your triumphs and problems were your neighbors’ business

… when a series of rattling spins and clicks provided a dramatic prologue to every conversation …

… and when a hero to all sons of western New York was making convoluted, enigmatic introductions like this one every week on network television.

(There is a classic Blumenau family story involving Rod Serling, and perhaps someday I will tell it; but not now. There will be time enough at last.)

This week 50 years ago, we find the youth of 1107 Hope Street celebrating a victory distinctly of its time and place:

Sept. 11, 1963.

Sept. 11, 1963. Whitey Ford and Alvin Jackson cruise to complete-game wins for New York’s baseball teams, who are, respectively, in first place by 13 games and in last by 39 1/2.

Ah, yes, the days when all phones were anchored on desks or walls — and if you wanted another one, you had to have Ma Bell’s minions come put it in. My dad remembers:

I do know that AT&T was a total monopoly when I was growing up, and they owned your phone and the wiring and all, and you rented it each month.  If you wanted two phones, you paid more and rented two phones.  And they could tell from some electrical measurement if you had doctored your system (added an illegal phone).

For many years, the only phone at 1107 Hope Street lived on my grandfather’s desk, in a niche on the first floor just outside the kitchen. There wasn’t much in the way of privacy.

My dad: I would wander across the street to Springdale Methodist Church to telephone girls to ask them out on dates because I didn’t want anyone to hear!

My aunt: Your grandfather and father once had a lot of fun making noise while I was attempting to talk to a male caller. I don’t recall nagging to get another phone, but I probably should have, if only for the privacy reason.

My aunt on the phone, circa 1958.

My aunt on the phone, circa 1958.

Of course, what the kids saw as a lack of privacy, the adults saw as an opportunity. My grandparents used to time my aunt’s phone calls with a kitchen timer and bell, to keep her from tying up the line for too long. (My aunt says she would tiptoe into the kitchen and turn the timer back to buy more time on the phone.)

Finally, in the fall of 1963, my grandparents agreed to end the phone wars and have a second phone (not a second line; just a second phone) installed on the second floor, in the hallway between the bedrooms and bathroom.

It wasn’t a concession to the kids, but a way to make their own lives easier.

My dad: Think about it: they were getting older, and at that time there was no voice recording, so if you didn’t make it downstairs in time, you missed the call and spent the next 3 hours wondering who called!  I think that’s all there was behind it.

My aunt: As your grandparents only splurged on items for practical reasons, I too believe the second phone was installed because your grandparents found it more difficult to sprint  down the stairs to answer the phone.

October 1980. There was a small cabinet in the hall between my great-grandma's and grandparents' bedrooms, with a phone on top. My great-grandma is marking her 94th birthday with a phone call to someone, sitting on a clothes hamper. The door behind her leads to my grandparents' bedroom, I believe.

I’ve used this pic before. Here’s my great-grandma using the upstairs phone on her 94th birthday in October 1980. The phone is almost certainly a Western Electric Model 500 — in black, as you can see.

I do not know whether my grandpa — a tinkerer and a curious sort — ever figured out how to dial one phone from the other, creating his own benign variation on the call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house scenario. It sounds like the kind of thing he would have taken advantage of to save himself a trip up or down the stairs.

I also do not know whether my grandfather ever owned an answering machine. I cannot for the life of me remember his ever having one.

(The one thing I do remember about my grandparents was that my grandma was deaf as a stone post, and her hearing aid used to whistle when she was on the phone, maybe ’cause she’d cranked it up high. I can still hear the sound.)

By the time my family left 1107 Hope, Ma Bell was no longer a monopoly, and the company’s hold on phone installation had been relaxed.

I don’t remember for sure, but I think my grandfolks’ subsequent home in the Rochester area might even have had *three* phones — one in the kitchen, one in the bedroom area and one in the basement.

I dunno if that’s true, though. Sounds awfully profligate for people who clung so strictly to a single phone for so many years.

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If the Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon administrations had wanted a look at my grandfather’s phone records, they wouldn’t have needed a secret court order to get them from Ma Bell.

They would only have had to send someone to stand outside his window and peek in at his calendar — a task so simple, even the bumbling Watergate burglars could have pulled it off.

(I think.)

My grandpa was in the habit of documenting many, and maybe all, of his long-distance phone calls on his calendar. Not only the outgoing calls, but the incoming ones, too.

And if one ran long, that was usually noted, as well. (What d’ya suppose constituted “long” in his frugal view? Fifteen minutes? That was probably when he started pacing and checking the clock.)

For instance, after a blessed event in the summer of 1973, he used some of the free space on his calendar for the following notation:

July 31 and 32, 1973.

July 31 and 32, 1973. The Yankees are in first; the Mets are in last. Life is funny.

I don’t remember — or perhaps I never knew — who my grandparents knew in Trumbull, a town a little farther east in Fairfield County. Apparently someone in Trumbull was a close enough friend to merit calling with some big family news … but not close enough to be identified on the calendar by name, like everyone else.

And apparently my Great-Aunt Eleanor got an especially long call. Perhaps she had news of her own to share.

I sometimes wonder why my grandfather kept such careful track of his long-distance phone calls.

Perhaps he’d had a bad experience with Ma Bell — maybe he’d been charged for eighteen phone calls to Brazil once — and he wrote down all his phone calls from then on, so he could use that record as evidence in case of future disputes.

Or maybe he wrote them down so he could keep tabs on his phone costs, the same way a modern cell-phone user might take pains not to go over their texting limit. Maybe a long phone call to Rochester in the first week of the month meant a foreshortened one in the third week. Money doesn’t grow on trees, after all.

(I am imagining my grandpa in the cell-phone age, shrugging his shoulders and explaining in a bemused tone: “I get free calls on nights and weekends now! So I stopped writing ‘em down. Didn’t seem like I needed to any more.”)

The recent news about the Obama administration commandeering vast amounts of telephony data from Verizon arouses age-old suspicions about just how closely our government is keeping tabs on us.

It makes me wonder what the notoriously venal Nixon administration would have done with those phone records.

And — while I don’t overmuch care how closely The Man is watching me — I wonder whether The Man ever had occasion to check in on William Blumenau of Stamford, Connecticut.

I cannot imagine in a million years that the federal government or its operatives ever had reason to find my grandpa on their radar screens.

Hard-working, middle-aged, politically conservative and disdainful of public protest, my grandfather (and my grandma, and my great-grandma) would have been absolutely the last people to cause the slightest bit of trouble.

The Man would have had His hands full dealing with all the people trying to kick out the jams, tear down the walls and bring the war home in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He would never have cared about the occupants of 1107 Hope Street.

And yet … if today’s government can execute such a sweeping grab for the personal information of its citizens, who knows what might have happened in the past? Does anyone really think this is the first time, legal or not?

I am sure my grandpa never had his own file. But perhaps he was part of a larger one … a row of figures in some paranoid data grab, or a footnote in some foot-high pile of papers.

I kinda wish he were. Not because he was any sort of rebel, but because the inclusion of Bill Blumenau in any list of people to watch would have demonstrated the absurdity of keeping those sorts of lists without a laser-tight focus — as the Obama administration seems to have done.

That’s all speculation, anyway.

For now we’ll return to what we know — a middle-aged man for whom long-distance calls are something of a luxury, scrawling dutifully on his monthly calendar, keeping a detailed record of his communications that the government will never see.

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