Friday, September 26, 2008


( PCP )
The large wooden box on the wall started to ring. It wasn't our ring. And, it wasn't a party line ring. A party line ring that said to all that heard it, every body pick up and listen, that would be the ring that was used when there was trouble way out in the country. The kind of ring that said, the Potter farm has a fire out and the wind is pushing it to the North East, please come help if you can. Or it might say, any body seen the mail man ? He's an hour late and I am afraid he might be stuck in that large mud hole over by the state line again.
No, this was a ring that was meant for someone way at the end of the line, someone in Oklahoma.
The hard drawn and plated wires ran from pole to pole and even sometimes from tree to tree. Both wires were held to the pole by a glass insulator. Subject to the stresses of heat and cold, the wires would stretch and shrink, each situation, both heat and cold had their problems, for those communications wires.
The telephone in each home was in a large wooden box that hung on the wall, usually in the living room. Mounted prominently on the wooden box were large bells that rang loudly to announce when a call was coming in. Not just your calls, but the calls of everyone on that party line. Your ring might be two longs and a short ring and your neighbors ring might be one long and two shorts. These rings were accomplished by a handle on the side of the wooden box that hung on the wall.
How quickly the handle was cranked, determined the volume of the ring, so sometimes, it was possible to know before you got to the telephone, whether or not it might be an emergency call that was arriving. This ring was slow and deliberate, in it's sound.
Every one on a party line knew the ring for every one else on the line. If the person being called lived closer to town where the call originated from, it was louder, then if someone picked up the receiver, it didn't weaken the signal too badly. However if the call recipient lived at the end of the telephone line and others picked up the receiver, then the signal could be lost entirely.
On a party line ring, the signal could be lost quickly as more and more people picked up on the line. It was common practice for someone that was near half way to the end of the party line to give another long party line ring and relay the emergency message. That way as the signal was lost from so many on the line, the message could be heard all of the way to the end of the telephone line.
Within minutes, the ring for our telephone came over the line. It was the family at the end of the line calling. The signal was so weak they couldn't hear all of what was being said. They asked that we call the switchboard to see what the message was and relay it to them.
They had a telegram waiting for them at the train station. The telegram was not from the war department. That was important, for the National Guard unit in Mena was deployed to Korea. A telegram from the war department might mean the loss of a loved one. Their son was deployed with the Mena unit.
We could hear the old rattling car as it approached down the mountain road, long before we could see it's dim yellow headlights. We had walked out to the road to let the neighbors know that our hearts were with them as they journeyed to town to get the telegram. Lighting the lantern so they would know that we were there before the headlights found us, we waited. The driver didn't stop, just simply nodded his head, to acknowledge our presence. Their faces were long with concern. A telegram was often serious bad news in those times. The whole family was making the trip to town to get the telegram. You could read it on their faces, this just couldn't be good news.
An hour and a half had passed. We were sitting on the front porch of the old log cabin, quietly talking in the dark, concerned for the neighbor family. Then we heard it, and recognized the sound. They were returning from town. Walking out to the road we had the lantern lit and the car slowed to a stop. The good news just couldn't wait for the car to come to a full stop.
It was a Red Cross telegram. He's been wounded and is in the hospital. He might get to come home in a few weeks !
Those old telephone wires are long gone, but that mountaineer spirit that causes us to help and care for our neighbors lives on today. Wireless communication seems to be leading the way presently, and mountaineers are just loving it to death ! All of those cell phones are not clipped to the waist band of a pair of dockers, some are in the bib of denim overhauls. Recently, as I waved to my neighbor who was on his old ford tractor without a hood, mowing hay is his meadow, he was making a turn and I could see that, as he waved to me, he was also talking through his blue tooth ear bud, to someone on his cell phone ! Later in the day, I happened to meet the rural mail carrier who seemed to sit at the mail box a bit longer than usual. He was text messaging his lunch order in to the light house drive inn restaurant ! Multi tasking, Ouachita mountain style !

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