One long and one short; Grandma is sitting in a straight backed kitchen chair with an old work dress on covered by a stained white apron. She has a toothpick in her mouth, chewing as she listens to the dial phone above her head. Silence reigns above the intensity of Grandma’s concentration on the earpiece. Why does she never speak into the phone? Perhaps you’ve never heard of the party line; the social media of a couple of generations ago; one long and one short was the ring that meant it was for Grandma and Grandpa.
Party lines were one phone line that connected several farms or residences. The only way to know the call was for you was by the distinctive ring assigned to you: three short rings, two long rings, one long and one short, etc. The absolute best thing about the party line is that you could listen in anonymously to everyone else on the single party line. You could pretend to be J. Edgar Hoover (I think Grandma was wearing one of his old dresses, or was that just a rumor?), or any politician currently in the nation’s capitol. The secrets that came from listening were legion.
Mostly it had to do with recipes for duck blood soup and canning dill pickles. “So Stella puts three shots of vodka into the soup; no wonder they have it so often.” “Be careful of Tekla’s pickles at the potluck tonight, three people have gone blind after snacking on them.” But there were also the racy tidbits of gossip that could be gleaned with the ear. “Berta is pregnant? They were only married last month. No wonder she was in confession so long at church last week.” “I won’t say she drinks but her husband found her trying to can a live chicken.” “I don’t see what she sees in him; he can’t polka and no one has ever seen him drink.” The most exciting disclosure was the “emergency break in.”
During the emergency break in, one of the ladies listening would suddenly announce she had to report a predicament necessitating the original caller to hang up so that the authorities might be summoned. The excitement level of the heretofore spies would peak as they all put the phone in the cradle and waited the appropriate amount of time to start listening in again for the juicy piece of news that was sure to be the emergency. Pies would burn in the oven, clothes would go unfolded and cows would go unfed; the emergency, or more precisely the luscious news, trumped life. Would it be a tractor accident with broken bones? Someone so ill they needed a hospital rather than another enema? A stolen wagon, a missing bull? Or, their lips to God’s ear, an awful adulterous affair of astronomical amplitude that necessitated the sheriff before the husband was pummeled with a cast iron skillet?
After one such incident of breaking in, Grandma, the eternal monitor of all news Sherman County, hung the phone up with a disgusted face. The grandkids were hopeful of tidbit or rumor that Grandma could share, but nothing was forthcoming. Finally the old Polish lady let out a snort of derision, “Stella’s emergency was calling to see what dress Lois was wearing to the wedding Saturday.” Yes, sometimes the payoff for a spy is minimal.
Party lines fit in well with our theology of prayer. We don’t have a one on one relationship with God. Included in our prayers and relationship with the Lord are numerous people; “…a great multitude of people no one could count” (Rev 7:9) as the New Testament puts it. Christians are on this party line to God where we speak with God and also others; in other words, it’s not God and me but God and we. We cannot have a personal relationship with the Lord without others. “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right.” (James 2:8) Listen to others in prayer as God listens to them.
Are you listening J. Edgar?