Apr 132015

When I was a child our family experienced a strange series of events involving a telephone. I was probably about 10 when this happened so it must have taken place in the early 1970’s.

One day I answered the telephone in our house. Our phone was a landline, probably a model 500, and owned by the “phone company.” The caller hung up immediately. Not an uncommon experience, of course, but it began to happen several times a day, for days on end. It became obvious to all of our family members that we were the victims of some sort of crude harassment. One of my parents, probably my father, decided to contact either the police or the “phone company.” To their credit, Mountain Bell took action, and put a “tap” on our phone line. Here is where the story gets weird.

The representative of Mountain Bell told my father that what we must do upon receiving any phone call was to pick up the receiver and immediately put it on a pillow. From there we were to make no noise in the house at all, and in fact whisper as we spoke. We were to keep the phone on the pillow for several minutes, at least. A bit of a hyperbolic over-reaction in my opinion! I don’t think telephone receivers have ever been that sensitive. We had to call all our friends and ask them to cease and desist from calling our house for several days. In some way, the relative silence of the open phone line would facilitate the “tap” of the phone to determine the caller. In the end it turned out to be a female friend of my mother’s, a woman who we believed had become mentally ill.

The really strange part of the episode is that the Mountain Bell representative told my father that the “tap” occurred almost instantaneously, and that the receiver-on-the-pillow protocol was essentially overkill. The weirder thing about this was that the Ma Bell rep told my father that this was “secret” information, and that we should keep it a secret!

This makes total sense, as if one made a long distance phone call back in the old analog days, the “phone company” would need to know the number to which the call was made, and the duration, to properly bill the caller. Back then “long distance calls” were a BIG FUCKING DEAL as they were expensive, and not to be utilized frivolously.

For many years, I’d watch TV or movies in which the “bad guy” made a telephone call and had to be “kept on the line” for some dramatic amount of time, though he usually delivered his key lines just before the “trace” was made. Complete and total bullshit, of course, but it goes to show how effective the corporate propaganda of Ma Bell was back in those days. But why would they engage in such a propaganda campaign in the first place? Why would Hollywood voluntarily go along with it? It’s the same sort of thing as not showing a tension wrench used to pick pin tumbler locks. Perhaps some taps recorded the caller’s voice, and could be used in court as damning evidence above and beyond the originating telephone number. Perhaps Ma Bell chose to err on the conservative side, and promoted the fiction that ALL tapped called needed to be of a substantive duration.

For those in Seattle interested in analog telephones and switching equipment, there is a telephone museum in South Seattle, though they do a terrible job of self-promotion.

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