If you, like me, were growing up in a rural area in the late forties, early fifties, you might remember having, in your home, a party line. It meant that a group of homes shared a telephone line, and if you picked up your phone to make a call, you might hear a conversation taking place. If you did, you hung up and waited a while for their call to be over—or you didn’t. Sometimes…I listened in. You had to be quiet, hardly breathing, stealthy, and the reward for this was a kind of invisibility. It felt as if I disappeared, and, being unseen, I could walk into the middle of two other lives and be…a spy, a secret listener.
Even if the call wasn’t interesting, it was still somebody else’s life, something not meant for me to hear, a time of privacy. They might hear the click of another user, but it was a soft sound. “Did someone pick up?” “I didn’t hear it.” “Hello?” “There’s nobody there.”
And, they were right. I became nobody, unseen or heard, and all the accounting of incidents and giving of advice and the anger or pity or laughter or tears were secrets that no one else was supposed to hear. If felt powerful and daring and even dangerous as I stood there, taking quiet breaths and overhearing a conversation about linoleum.
If I got tired of listening, I would slowly and silently hang up. It’s usually summer in my memory when I think about those daring moments. It’s daytime, and I’m not at school, and my mother is walking through the kitchen dropping words behind her like bread crumbs. “Jerry, you were listening.” “No, I…”
“You’re not supposed to listen. How would you like it if….” “No, I just…tried to call Buddy, but he wasn’t home.” “Sure, oh sure.”
She knew I wasn’t trying to call Buddy Bendull on the next block or Bill Waldren across the street, because we never called each other. We sought each other out by a more ancient system that avoided any contact with adults. I would walk or bike to Buddy’s home and stand there, outside, in his yard, and I would call out to the house. It was always the same four notes: “Oh-oh Buddeeee.” For my other friend I needed only three: “Oh-oh Billlll.”
I don’t remember learning that. I just knew it, and it’s still very clear to me, that feeling of being at home, making a model plane (just the easy plastic kind - my brother made the intricate balsa wood airplanes), or lining up my lead soldiers on the blue rubber-tile floor upstairs, or reading, or…. And I’d hear the voice, and the three notes meant for me: “Oh-oh Jerrrr.”
It was a good sound, a little song pulling me away from what I was doing and promising a bike ride (speeding dangerously on the gravel roads) or a walk to the lake if it was warm, or the channel across the street fishing for carp with worms or small balls of Wonder Bread, or best of all a softball game, if we could gather enough kids, girls too sometimes, and we would walk down the road to where the farmer’s field began.
Mr. Hart grew corn, but usually left one of his fields fallow each year, and this became our rough diamond with pieces of wood for the bases or somebody’s hat. If there weren’t enough of us we’d play bounce or fly: just one batter, all the rest of us fielders. The batter would toss the ball upward and swing, and if one of us caught it on a fly or on one bounce, then we became the batter.
I remember one summer when I lost my timing. I couldn’t toss up that ball and swing and hit it. I missed every time. This embarrassed me and made me mad – and finally, frightened that I had lost this skill forever. I think the fear invaded me so that I was trying too hard. The next summer I was afraid it would happen again, but it didn’t. I wonder if I could hit it now. I’m going to dig around in the garage. I know there’s a plastic bat somewhere and a Wiffle ball. I hope this doesn’t hurt my shoulder. “Oh-oh Jerrrr.” Come on out and play.