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I can go you one better Ted
May 9, 2012 - Stephen Browne
This morning I was reading my colleague Ted Rowe's very entertaining reminiscences about telephones over my morning coffee and I had to chuckle.
(See: "Phoning it in" http://www.marshallindependent.com/page/content.detail/id/533948/Phoning-it-in.html?nav=5007 )
Ted remembers a bit further back than I do. I remember when there were such things as party lines back in the '50s, though I never experienced having one myself.
But then in 1991 I was invited to move to Poland to teach in a high school in a small town about 25 km from Warsaw. I lived with a Polish family in a town called Brwinow, which was surrounded on three sides by another town that was mostly forest, called Podkowa Lesna where the school was. (Podkowa Lesna means, appropriately enough, "horse-shoe forest.")
The family I lived with as composed of a grandmother, mother, and daughter. Only the daughter spoke any English at all (though grandma was fluent in French) so I started picking up Polish pretty quickly.
Now although a typical wait to have a telephone installed in your home back in the communist days was about 14-15 years, this family did have a phone, and it was a party line. That was not intentional. The family had reached an agreement with their next-door neighbor to string a wire to a second phone in their house. The village operator was in on it and agreed to use two different patterns of rings for each house.
(This by the way, is the trick to finding who was a communist party member back then. You consult old telephone directories to see who got phone service atypically quickly.)
The entire Polish phone system was pre-WWII vintage. After a heavy rainstorm it wasn't unusual to have the phone service over wide areas knocked out, sometimes for weeks. And you didn't have a personal phone, you had a house phone. The number was to the house or apartment and you couldn't take it with you if you moved. So apartments with phones were in high demand, though after you moved in you'd continue to get calls for the last resident for some time.
Ted remembers when you could dial (dial!) any phone in Marshall with four digits. To call anyone in Brwinow you had to call the operator, who was sometimes taking a dinner/smoke/coffee/bathroom break, and ask for a THREE digit number - in Polish of course.
This is one reason I became a writer, the only way I had to communicated with friends and family in the States was to write long letters. My poor mother couldn't call unless she had a guest who could speak Polish to talk to the operator.
That sorted itself out after a while though. As a foreigner, from America no less, I became famous in fairly short order and all my mother had to do was say "Pan (mister) Browne" and the operator would know who to ring.
Of course Poland modernized with breathtaking speed after the fall of communism, but I'll always be glad I had a chance to experience something like what my parent's generation knew.
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