Telephone nostalgia

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(Host) Commentator Will Curtis has a new phone that’s made him feel a bit nostalgic.

(Curtis) Recently we got a new telephone in the house. It talks to me. I won’t be surprised if some evening it tells me to go to bed. It’s like having another person in the house. It wants to communicate.

I personally think there’s too much communication. Take the answering machine. In the old days when someone called and you were out that was that. If they really wanted to speak to you they called again. Now I come home and there’s that red light flashing. I have to listen, puzzle out what the communicator wants and then I have to make a call.

My mind keeps returning to the dear days of 50 years ago when things were a lot less complicated. Back then in Hartland Four Comers telephones weren’t black and they didn’t even have a dial. They were wooden. They had a handle on the right side with which you “rang up”, a mouthpiece into which you spoke and an earphone on a cord that hung on the left side of the box. The whole thing was attached to a wall in the middle of the house where everyone could get to it easily.

Back in the early 1900’s an ingenious Hartlander, Mr. English, decided to start his own telephone company. He did all the engineering, wound the wires, I was told, and built the exchange efficiently manned by Mrs. Jenny English. The telephone exchange, the size of cupboard, still exists in Hartland’s Historical Society.

Mr. English’s company, I remember, was pretty easy going. Mrs. English closed down the operation at night and in an emergency a caller had to go through the White River Junction office. In places the telephone lines were strung from tree to tree and in winter someone had to strap on snow shoes and get out and see that the lines were intact. Of course everyone in your district was on the same line, but everyone had his or her own number of rings. I still remember our number: 3 rings and then a 4.

The telephone was a great way to keep up on town gossip. Everyone could listen in although it was considered bad taste. Often you could hear heavy breathing while making a call. But some things were respected by all. A long continuous ring meant fire. Nobody picked up the phone until it ended. Then Mrs. English would tell us where the fire was.

The Hartland telephone company kept the community together. It had a community aspect so lacking today. When one of Hartland’s residents had been long hospitalized in Boston, and was returning home, Mrs. English rang a long, long ring then announced that “Paul’s ambulance will be in the Three Corners in half an hour!”

We were all there to cheer as Paul came home.

Will Curtis of Woodstock, Vermont.

Will Curtis is an author and naturalist. He spoke to us from our studio in Norwich.

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