Storytelling: She's got hang-ups similar to her father over phone options

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Under the newspaper's "Almanac" heading recently, I noticed that Alexander Graham Bell had received a patent for the first telephone on that date years ago.

A computer search revealed that he beat Elisha Gray by hours. Since this all happened in 1876, it appears the beast is here to stay, Actually, there are several such beasts in my house -- some attached by a cord, some not. One even has a dial and frayed wires behind it, tacked to a cellar support beam.

But back in the 1940s, when I was in high school, the telephone was one of those things that everybody had -- except my family. My father refused to pay money for something he said we didn't need, as we could walk to a neighbor's, pay them a dime and make any really important phone calls, such as for a dental appointment. He must have known, ahead of his time, about teenagers who believe they need to spend hours on the phone -- and this was before cell phones (another story for another day).

My grandmother, some 10 miles away in West Deer, had a phone on her farm kitchen wall. It was an interesting contraption that rang combinations of long and short rings, which were signals to pick up the ear piece to find out what was happening down in one of the coal mines or just to "listen." Her "ring" was 2-2, meaning two long rings, then two short.

In Hampton, where I lived, there were many "party" lines, but we couldn't hear the other phones ringing, so the entertainment value was somewhat lessened. But still, to pick up the one-piece receiver to make a call and hear the neighbors talking -- that was fair game!

My father would not pay for that privilege, however. Any baby-sitting jobs of mine had to be acquired by families calling our long-suffering neighbor and then waiting for me to be contacted and getting back to them to accept or refuse.

There was a war on, my dad said, and copper and other metals were needed elsewhere instead of being used on a phone for us.

That's when I found out that we lived on the edge of the franchise territory; neighbors and friends to our south were Bell Telephone subscribers and we could use them to call our dentist from there, but neighbors to the north were customers of the former North Pittsburgh Phone Co., which could be used to contact Grandma free of charge.

Once I earned some money baby-sitting, my first purchase was an old Underwood typewriter -- bought for $5, I think, from a retired teacher. My career as a writer was ready to begin (and end) with a letter to that mysterious corporation, Bell, offering to pay for the extra copper wire needed to extend its territory from the last house to ours, just beyond the franchise limits. Surely, this letter would bring us a phone!

I watched for a response via the little red signal flag on the mailbox for months, and eventually, I think I did get a stock answer thanking me for my interest. It cited franchise rules and the war effort regarding copper wiring, while offering no promise of a phone.

Would anyone really read the letter today, I wonder, or would a computer even bother to spit out an impersonal answer?

I've spent hours recently trying to reach knowledgeable people from the successor to that phone company, explaining that all I want or need now are the basic functions of a phone, computer Internet service and a television set. I don't need wireless gadgets in every room and in my purse while getting hundreds of television channels and constant sales messages hounding me on any screen.

I've found out, however, that it is probably not possible to live so simply. And so I wonder, am I finally becoming my father's daughter? And was he right, after all?


Garnet Roth of Baldwin Borough, a retired secretary, can be reached at PG Portfolio welcomes "Storytelling" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.Tony Norman is off today.


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