It seems everyone I know in the country is struggling these days with his landline. My sister-in-law has had the same telephone line for 50 years and the roots of a maple tree have grown right over it. Talking to her reminds me of the old days of the party line when you had to shout to make yourself heard. You can always tell when the wind is blowing at her place because the phone cuts out completely after three minutes.
Bell’s service people have been out many times to diagnose the problem, which is actually pretty simple. The cables are ancient and need to be replaced all the way back into town. But that isn’t happening anytime soon because Bell’s debt to equity ratios are in the same state as all of the old carriers across the continent. They simply can’t afford to fix the problem.
My line is no better. Static crackles over every conversation. Bell has never been much help with the problem. They used to send a fellow out to check the relay box at the end of the road.
“Full of mouse nests,” he would say and the problem would get better for a few months. Then he retired and we learned to clear the mouse nests ourselves. Then the static became so loud that the mice moved out.
My friends ask why I don’t just give up the landline and accept that cell phones are the way of the future. I’m reluctant to do that for a very silly reason. You see, my number begins with 445 which dates me as one of the older residents of the community. My landline has the patina of old age and long service. In a community that sets rigorous standards for what constitutes a local resident, I like to think my 445 gives me favoured status.
There’s certainly no other reason to be attached to this old phone. The service has never been good and the only people who are willing to listen to my complaints live in Mumbai. When I first moved up here in 1978, I shared a party line with four other families. The voice at the other end of the line often sounded like someone shouting at you across a ploughed field. We gave up the party line to get the Internet at the turn of the century, a decision that I made with great reluctance and now regret bitterly because I had to abandon the most reliable news service I have ever known. The last ‘party’ on my line was my bachelor neighbour, Kenny Jardine, who was joined at the ear to the widow Helen Kenwell up in Maxwell. Long before Internet chat rooms, I could log on to The News with Kenny and Helen every morning just by picking up the phone. Traffic accidents, barn fires, marriage collapse, coyote predation, new equipment purchases . . . Kenny and Helen were first with the news and free with their comments.
I gave up this useful and colourful free service for the Internet, which turned out to be a pale and lifeless substitute. Dial-up became obsolete pretty much the day after it was hooked up. A version of high-speed finally came to us about eight years ago, but it still won’t deliver a movie reliably on a Saturday night and the news comes from every part of the globe except the Pretty River Valley, which is the only area of any interest to me. Helen and Kenny are both gone now and I have become dangerously uninformed.
When I was a boy on the farm we had 26 people on the party line. Information came out of that phone by the gigabyte. Our farm sat on the area code boundary between 705 and 519. You could make a local call for 15 miles to the east but a call across the Airport Road meant a long distance charge. There were two farmers on opposite sides of that road who devised an ingenious system to beat the telephone company. They could each see the other’s barn doors from the front yard and they invented a semaphore code to send messages back and forth. Left door open meant I’m coming to you. Right door open meant you come to me. Both doors open said ‘yes’. Both doors closed said ‘no’. Both doors open and red flannel underwear hanging from the crossbar meant “Emergency! Get over here right away!”
It will take that kind of creative thinking to solve the problem of telephone communication in rural Canada. It can’t come soon enough for this unhappy customer.
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca.