Every time I see that old black phone staring at me in my basement, I often think about the arrival of the telephone to our home in Hermitage. Oh if that old phone could talk, what stories it could tell. I can still see the CNT man coming to our house with his waist kit of tools and the black telephone, which would soon be installed in hallway of our house. He had already connected the phone wire from the pole to the house, then he installed the little black box in our basement and it was down to the final step of connecting the phone.
Mother kept us all outside. The CNT man was a stranger and considered an important man. She didn’t want any of us in the way or dirty up the house when he was there. Father had made a little shelf in the hallway prior to the CNT man coming. It was there that the telephone would be perched and permission and instructions had to be granted before it could be used.
I remember hearing the man say, “We have a dial tone.” He was talking to Gander or to the switchboard operator in Hermitage for our number to ensure everything was working. Oh what excitement that telephone created. With a phone, we wouldn’t have to run all the way up the barasway to speak to our buddies. All we had to do was to call them on the phone. Our world was about to be changed forever. Mother wouldn’t have to go to Freeman Crewe’s store to order her groceries, nor would she have to go down the harbour or over on the Eastern side to see where father was when he wasn’t home for supper. We could call the girl that we had a crush on and listen to her voice on the phone and she would not know who it was. Call display was not on our black phone. This was going to be good.
As the CNT man was leaving the house, I heard him tell mother that our number was 2286 and that we were on a party line. I didn’t know what that was at the time, but a party line sounded pretty good to me. He also told us that our ring would be two short and one long. That was the cue to know when someone was calling our house.
We were all excited to get our first chance to use the phone, but the thing was intimidating. We had not done this before and didn’t quite know the correct way to answer the phone or to make a call on it.
We all took our turn at dialing the phone. All we had to do was to remember the number, stick our finger into the holes, and dial. It was simple. There were times however, when we dialed the wrong number because our finger went into the wrong place. I remember someone carrying on a conversation for five minutes once before they realized they were talking to the wrong person. What a laugh that was.
Mother gave us our first instructions- be polite and talk nice because you never know who might be calling. It could be the minister, the mayor or a merchant or some other well respected person in the community. Never knows, it could be someone outside the harbour. We had relations in Corner Brook, Port Aux Basques and Halifax and father had a brother and sister in St. John’s. They all had phones for awhile. Maybe they would call.
I remember the time that I took my first call. I let the phone ring a couple of times, making sure that it was our ring-two short rings followed by one long. I was nervous when I picked up the receiver. I heard a voice ask me who was speaking and remembering what mother had said, I replied in a grand, proud voice “Wade Porsons”. Porsons with an o sounded more polite than Parsons with a. But it soon became a bit of a joke around our house and I had to get more practise in answering the phone.
As time went on, I soon found out what the party line was all about. The phone would ring and instead of being two short and one long, it was one short, followed by one long, followed by another short. That was the ring of someone else in the lane. That was their cue that someone was calling for them. Then there was two long and one short. That was the number of another neighbour. We were on a party line. Other people were using the same lines that we were using and if we picked up the phone, we could hear them talking. Well you know what they say. Curiosity killed the cat. So there were times when the phone call was not ours to answer, but we did it anyway, for devilment. We didn’t talk, we just listened in. I could hear someone on the phone say, “you hear that? Someone just picked up the phone. I wonder who that is now?” the voice continued. We listened for some gossip, but there wasn’t much.
It wasn’t often that we did that. Mother was the keeper of the phone and she knew most of the time what was happening with it and used it quite a bit. We all used it for homework and other stuff that I would not confess, and father would use it for his wake up call at four in the morning. All I could hear after the phone rang was, “Going out this marning?” and the answer was generally always “What kind of marning is it? Or “ How is it, any wind?” and that would be the end of the conversation.
There were other times when I could hear father dialing the phone. His big scram fingers would barely fit into the holes to dial the number. I could often hear him read out the numbers as he dialled, “eight, eight, three, two, four, two zero,” He often cursed the phone book because he couldn’t “make out” the name and numbers. Years on the sea had been hard on his eyes.
Yes, I have many memories when I see that old black phone still sitting in my basement. It seems as if there are still some unfinished conversations still in that long black cord that had often been stretched to its limit. I can still hear mother’s reaction when her long distance call had been cut off or when someone picked up when she was talking. I can also recall how nervous she used to get when there was thundering and lightning and the phone would ring sometimes during the night.
I can also remember when someone on the party line left their phone off of the hook and after listening for a while to figure out who the guilty party was, we would run out the lane to tell them to hang up their phone.
I can remember grandfather using the phone once. We all wondered why he was talking so loud, but we soon figured out that he was talking into the ear piece. As he hung up the phone, I could hear him say “so long ”. That is what his goodbye sounded like. Then I remember him placing the receiver over the face of the phone instead of across the phone as it should have been. It was funny, but grandfather had not grown up with phones.
I remember another time when father had vented his frustrations over the phone. It was over something that had happened on the fishing grounds. In frustration, he rendered our black phone useless. It was replaced later with a red phone as I recall since there were no more black phones at the CNT building. We were moving up into the world, not everyone had a coloured phone.
As time went on, the novelty of the phone wore off and it and the rings were just a part of the sights and sounds of our house. But then there was talk of semi private and private lines and colored phones. We were already one step ahead, thanks to father. But the private line was a ways off. For now we would have to be content with a party line. There would be another day when the CNT man would come around again.