I Remember Dialing the Phone

There was a wall-mounted, black rotary phone in our "den" when I was growing up. The den was a tiny room at the front of the house that was eight square feet, at the most. It contained the shotgun cabinet, a drop-front secretary desk, a door to the outside, an arched entrance into the dining room and that rotary phone. In fact, it still has all of those items in it. The only change that’s been made is it’s been painted a couple of times and new carpet. To make a phone call, you simple picked up the phone, listed to the handset to make sure the family you didn’t share it with (a "party" line) wasn’t already using it, and then you stuck your finger – or a pencil, if you were feeling fancy – into the hole with the corresponding number and rotated it clockwise until it hit the stopper. Then you lifted your finger out and went to the next number. Repeat six more times.

If I got in a hurry and put my finger in the 4 instead of the 3 and moved it even slightly, I had just fucked up everything. I have to start over. Waiting for the rotary to return from the stop was eternal. Especially if was a zero, which required a nearly 170 degree rotation. 1 was the closest to the dial and therefore the shortest to wait for. Our prefix was 337. Every number we ever dialed started with 337. After that, each phone in the community was numerically assigned. Apparently our family’s was the 865th phone number assigned.

When I needed a phone number of a friend, I could simply dial -0- and ask the live operator. If you picked up the handset and your party line was in use, we had three options: 1) listen in on their conversation until they were done; 2) hang up loud enough so they knew someone else wanted the line; or 3) ask them if you could use the phone quickly and then they could have it back.

I frequently have nightmares about being unable to use my phone or repeatedly dialing the wrong number. It might be a throw back to all those years using a rotary and knowing precious seconds could tick away if there was a fire or someone cut off their finger if I mis-dialed 9-1-1. Why they ever assigned emergency services 9-1-1- back in the days of rotary phones, I will never understand considering 9 is just next to the zero.

5 thoughts on “I Remember Dialing the Phone”

  1. I think the 9 was to stop you calling the emergency services by accident. We were taught how to find the 9 in the dark and to keep your finger in it as it went all the way back (for 999).

  2. Those old phones lasted forever. FOREVER. I also remember the long wait for the dial to go back. Was so happy when we got a fantastic new push button phone! Woohoo!

  3. FR3-0075. The fact that I can still remember our number blows my mind. I’m sure it was the first number in my life I ever had to memorize.
    I remember calling the operator one night when my mom went out to dinner and I woke up thinking I was alone because my babysitter was gone. It was dark and i was afraid to go to any room except where the phone was…in the kitchen..and that’s where I had run first, so I had no way of knowing my brother (14 years older) had come home and was asleep in his room, having let the sitter leave. The operator was so kind and and when I hung up abruptly (my mom came in the door) she called back to see if I was okay. Wow. Thanks for the flashback.

  4. We were watching Shark Tales the other day, and there’s a part when the Robert DeNiro shark is trying to threated the Will Smith fish over the phone, and the octopus picks up the other phone to order a pizza. That started me thinking – my daughter will never get the “I’m on the phone! Hang up!” message. She’ll never get to listen in on anyone else’s calls. We don’t even have a house phone at all – just cell phones. And she won’t even miss it.

    Maybe that’s where I get all my internet road rage – pent up frustration from all those years of waiting for that rotary to swing back. It’s such a comforting kind of sound, though…

  5. One of the things that made us buy our first (which is also our current…) house was that it still had one of those hard wired, black, rotary phones down in the basement. Inconvenient as hell for dialing out, but there’s just something so cool and nostalgic about those old phones. Plus, hello, a 60 year old telephone that still works? My 2 year old cordless just bit the dust and the longest I’ve ever managed to keep a cell alive is 3 years…

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