The Way Things Were

When I first heard the words “One if by land and two if by sea” I had to unlearn the phrase, “If it rings once, don’t pick it up; if it rings twice go ahead and answer it.”

I am, of course, referring to the telephone and the days of the “party” line. This is a term that was taken for granted in the 1940’s and beyond. Until now, I never gave it much thought. Did people use that line to arrange parties? Of did they have gabfest parties using the device?

I had to go to Google (My! How things have changed!) to learn the answer. The ‘official’ name of the phone service that was enjoyed by many is ‘Multiparty Line’. The more sophisticated folks might remember it as a ‘Shared Service Line.’ In either case, it was a step up from the phone used on Steiner Street in San Francisco. “I Remember Mama” was an early television show that featured a wall phone that one had to crank to get the operator’s attention. Mama would then tell the operator the name of the person with whom she wished to speak. If memory serves me right, a similar phone was used in the television show featuring John Boy Walton.

This trip down memory lane is the result of some feedback I received yesterday. I think most nostalgic pieces of the ‘Good Old Days’ go back farther than me. We didn’t keep our Model T in the parlor during the coldest days of winter. Come to think of it, we didn’t own a Model T in my lifetime. The first car I recall was a 1943 Chevrolet.

I’ve often stated that my father’s life spanned an unbelievable era of technological growth. Having been born in 1891, he grew up in the horse and buggy days. Early on, the fastest and safest means of long-distance transportation was the train. But in 1910, he and his brother road a motorcycle from South Jersey to Pittsburgh in search of work. He told me that most of the roads were dirt (with lots of mud). He also said that some roads were composed of wooden planks. He didn’t tell me how many farmers had to be paid before they’d turn their pike and let him and his brother drive through.

Dad lived to be eighty-three. If you do the math, you realize that he died in 1974, which means he lived long enough to fly in a jet plane and watched – in living color – as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon.

My life began at the end of World War II. My mother didn’t have to wait for Dad to get home from the war to get pregnant. In truth, she’d been pregnant in 1942 when my youngest older brother was born. I came along in 1944. We both beat the Baby Boom by a couple of years. I like to think we were part of the Ka- generation… as in Ka-Boom!

The changes I’ve seen during my life aren’t as symbolically significant as what Dad experienced, but, in many ways, even more extreme. Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear… (Sounds like a plug for the web site of Ivan Shreve – a good place to visit to learn about the movies and television shows of my youth.)

There are several things I recall from my early childhood home. First, I remember the coal furnace and what Dad had to do to keep us all warm. Our cellar could not be called a basement. The floors were very uneven; the concrete may have been poured long after the house was built. There were two rooms in the front of the cellar that were actually situated under the front porch, and one long open area toward the rear of the house. One corner of the cellar was the one-car garage that was barely large enough to allow the driver to get out once the car was inside.

One of the rooms in the front was referred to as the coal cellar. It had an opening on the one side which was used to place a chute from the truck that delivered the coal. I can never remember the coal being delivered – I was probably ushered to another area of the house so I wouldn’t get in the way or get bathed in coal dust. Dad would then have to periodically take buckets of coal out of that cellar to feed the furnace.

Every night before he went to bed, Dad had to dampen the fire. I think that meant he had to spread the coals inside the fire chamber so it didn’t produce quite as much heat and lessened the chance of it causing the house to catch on fire. I’d guess the most difficult part of the process would’ve been doing it in such a way that the coals continued to smolder all night. If the fire went out, the morning ritual would have been much more difficult.

First thing in the morning, Dad had to add more coal and get the fire blazing again. This had to be done every morning throughout the winter months… before Dad left for work. Dad’s work week was forty hours from Monday through Friday, plus four more hours on Saturday. While Dad worked five and a half days per week, many men were working six days a week. Most women were back in the home. Rosie the Riveter was laid off once the men-folk returned from the war.

In case you’re wondering, the other room in our cellar was called the tool room – only because that’s where dad’s tools were kept. I’d guess the original intent of that room was for the storage of fruits and vegetables.

Another thing I remember from my early childhood days is the radio. Our radio was taller than me. Since I don’t recall my height as a five-year-old, I can only guess at its true dimensions. I’d say it was at least three and a half feet tall, two feet wide, and a foot deep. The bottom section held a huge speaker. The top third of the radio housed a myriad of vacuum tubes. The face of the device was simple. There was an on/off switch, a volume control knob, and a tuning knob. It picked up AM stations only.

One of Dad’s favorite words was frugality. As a result, the radio was rarely turned on. I’d guess the radios of his youth ran on batteries – prior to the electrification of America. He may have also been thinking in terms of avoiding the costly repairs if one or more of the vacuum tubes burned out. I do recall that when the radio was turned on, it took a while before any sound came out of it. Because most of Dad’s favorite shows came on in the evening, I was probably in bed before the radio was fired up.

In later years, even after we finally got our first television – a 13 inch beauty in a cabinet bigger than the old radio, Dad still preferred the radio. While we were watching Captain Video, Rocky King, Commando Cody, and I Remember Mama, Dad was listening to Fibber McGee and Molly, the Great Gildersleeve, Burns and Allen, Jack Benny, December Bride, and many of the other shows that didn’t think television would catch on.

Another of Dad’s favorite shows – for many years after television had convinced most of the radio celebrities to join Milton Berle – was a locally produced ‘talk’ show called “Party Line”. Ed and Wendy King took phone calls on various topics. The voices of the callers couldn’t be heard, so Ed and Wendy had to relate what was being said to the radio audience.

It seems that this post has come full circle. I started it with a party line and I’ll end it with a party line. Obviously, I have many more memories of my childhood. Look for them in future posts.

PS: I’m adding another post to my ‘Sermons’ page. It’s a video that most people find inspirational. It puts a new perspective on dying.


3 Responses to The Way Things Were

  1. Ivan G says:

    Whenever I get nostalgic about “the party line” (we never had one, but my grandparents did) I always dig up an episode or two of Lum and Abner: “Aye grannies, Abner, I b’lieve that’s our ring…”

  2. wordwon says:

    Well, well, I’ve found someone almost as long winded as I
    You are around three years my senior but our recollections are quite similar. As for the party line thing, that was still alive and well in Indiana well into the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. It took Ma Bell a little longer to catch up in most rural areas.
    Oh, and the coal furnace. I grew up in Chicago and we, too, had a furnace that had to be tended by my father. Our coal chute was one of the basement window that had been enlarged with a metal extension on the inside so the coal would fall more in the center of the storage area.
    I ‘do’ remember the deliveries. A large dump truck would come down the street one house at a time. The bed would always be in the up position because it would stop at just about every house on the block. The tailgate had a hand operated trap door that the driver could open to let a narrow flow of coal to drop into a large canvas bag he would carry on his back. He would repeat this over and over until the coal bin was full. He would then charge by the bag.

    Another thing I remember was how black the guy was from all the coal dust. I always wondered what he looked like on his first stop of the day.

    I used to love the old radio shows. Especially Amos and Andy. Our first TV was much like your. A very large cabinet with a small, round green screen.

    I remember watching The Howdy Doody Show opne afternoon when mom said, “Come on, we have to go to the store.” I protested loudly but when she said, “Don’t worry, it will be here when we get back.” Well, I felt better then.

    When we got home, I turned on the TV and much to my surprise, there was no Howdy Doody. Something else had taken its place. When mom said it would be here when I got back, I thought that when we turned off the set the show would stop too. Then when I turned it back on, the show would start again. Little did I know I’d have to wait another 55 years for that technology to hit town.

    Write on ……..
    Ed B.

  3. wordwon says:

    Oh yes, if you’re interested, I have a blog you might find interesting – From Buckboard Carriages to Rocketships –

    Ed B.

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