In the world in which I grew up, a ringing telephone was meant to be answered. You had to answer it if you wanted to know who was calling, and you assumed that the call had some reasonable – even important – purpose. That was true most of the time.
The telephone denoted a place, being tied there by what we now call a “land line.” A person was not expected to be available to the phone 24/7, and when making a call, the polite person would consider what his party might be doing before dialing. Calls were not made early in the day, during meal times, or after 8:00 – maybe 9:00 -- at night. You didn’t call people who were sick, sleeping, or that you knew to be busy. Mostly you called – and received calls – from people you knew.
Our phone rang frequently. It could a business call, a family member, or a friend with information (gossip). Or it might be your best friend asking, “Can I come over?” or “Can you come over?” Some calls were brief; others involved a visit. Occasionally – but very occasionally – the call was an emergency or bad news.
“Come quick! It’s Mother,” my grandfather’s voice said over the phone in May 1955. Mother dropped the phone and went running the block from our house to his. My grandmother didn’t recover from the stroke she suffered that evening.
The point is – you just didn’t not answer your phone. You didn’t take the chance of ignoring the call. My mother’s comment on a ringing phone was: “Someone might need me.” But on the other hand, when my children were small, she also advised: “Let the phone ring if you’re busy with the baby. Anyone can call back.” So true.
Of course, in my growing up days, we didn’t have “Caller ID” or answering machines. Those are “modern inventions.” If the phone rang and rang without answer, you assumed your party wasn’t home because you knew they would answer if they were. That’s just the way it was. We had no facility for screening calls. We answered all of them.
The recommendation when making a call was to let it ring ten times. It was polite to give your party plenty of time to get to the phone.
Ordinarily callers were polite. You hardly ever encountered rudeness. Sales calls didn’t happen over the phone, though I do remember more door-to-door salespeople than we have today. Of course, harassment and mis-use existed, but most of us experienced very little of that.
Nowadays, of course, a growing number of us carry phones on our person. We still have a land line in our home – but one of these days we will let it go. The majority of calls received on our house phone are unwanted solicitations from strangers.
For Mike and me, our training is to answer a ringing phone and it’s tough not to, but we’re getting wise. The other night, the phone rang and I checked “Caller ID.”
“It’s SMU,” I announced to Mike. His alma mater calls every other week to ask for money. You know, I don’t care how respectable the worthy causes you support, they prey on you when they perceive you are older. They hope you have forgotten that you just gave.)
“I just sent them money!” he said.
It rang four times and quit. KW
[The pictures here were taken about 1960. The first is my parents' house in Orofino. The second clearly shows Uncle Pat helping a few little kids with Christmas presents, but on the left you can see the telephone.]