It was 1952 and the rotary telephone was just beginning to replace rural party lines and the need to ask a live operator to dial the desired number. And cell phones were something prisoners were allowed to use to make their obligatory single call presumably to a lawyer or their bookie.
In October of that long ago year, boys and girls at my rural Colorado elementary school were ushered into the gymnasium where a giant dial telephone was on display. One by one, we were called forward to learn to operate the rotating dial and, when answering, to recite the mantra: “(Your family name) residence, (your Christian name) speaking. May I ask who’s calling?”
We even received a little booklet to take home: ‘The Telephone and How We Use It.’
That afternoon, we were sent home chattering excitedly about the eight-foot-wide telephones which we expected would soon be arriving to grace the cramped confines of our stick-built and brick houses and wondering aloud at the supper table how a team of robust delivery men were going to get the huge device through our front door.
Imagine our disappointment when an incredibly shiny, incredibly black, and incredibly tiny, telephone arrived. I can’t recall who brought our instrument (as my father had christened it). I just know it appeared one day and rang and my mother answered with a blended greeting that sounded like ‘Yellow.”
I was mortified to discover that my mother did not know how to properly answer a rotary telephone. To my knowledge she never learned. And yet somehow autumn turned to winter and winter turned to spring and pages fell from the calendar. And the years flew by until it was suddenly 1957 and I was twelve–which meant that I was almost but, my thirteen-year-old brother insisted, not quite yet a teenager.
But being twelve didn’t stop me from listening to Elvis and singing along with Ricky Nelson and Little Richard and The Coasters and Jerry Lee Lewis and the Everly Brothers.And playing air guitar to Chuck Berry tunes.
Not to mention (but I will) listening to The Trashcans and the Benzi Crique and Wet Noses. All slightly off-center musical groups who recorded 45 rpm records in the late 1950’s.
How do I know about these obscure recordings?
Every Saturday our local radio station (KFKA) featured a live music give-away contest. In order to win a ‘mystery’ record, contestants had to be a first to call in to the station at precisely 1:10 p.m. The station’s call letters were 1310 and, in military time, that translates to 12 noon plus one hour and ten minutes which added together is 1310.
Remember, in 1957 World War II (which ended in 1945) was still a fresh memory. So military time made perfect sense to all Americans including us youngsters.
Anyway, my brother and I figured out that using our rotary telephone we could effectively dial the studio number by rotating the first six digits then inserting a finger in the zero hole, rolling it around to the finger-stop, and holding it there until 1:09:59 p.m. Then letting it go at the exact second the contest was announced.
The full studio number for KFKA was ELgin 6-1310 which in today’s modern phone lingo would be 356-1310, because the ‘3’ hole was once shared by the letters ‘DEF’ and the ‘5’ hole was accompanied by the letters ‘JKL’). The letters ‘EL’ represented a city-wide exchange for Greeley. We didn’t get a cool exchange code like SHadyside or THornwell or YUkon or MAyfair–just plain-old everyday ELgin.
Elgin, by the way, is a Scottish name associated with a town in Scotland famous for its churches and breweries.
Anyway, our dial-six-and-hold-the-final-number strategy worked like a charm and so efficiently that we won twenty-eight records in a row, the two of us taking turns bicycling to the station to pick them up. And we might have gone on indefinitely, winning and claiming records, but the nosy receptionist at the studio’s front desk soon recognized that the same two boys were showing up week after week, fresh from the farm, in overalls and engineer boots. So she soon put an stop to our habit of collecting the studio’s precious ‘throw away’ records–the expendable no-hit wonders by nameless forgotten artists.
“Aren’t you ashamed?” she asked me on the day she pulled the plug.
“No, ma’m,” I answered in my mind although aloud I said, “Yes, ma’m,” and promised to go straight.
And so it came to pass that our rotary scheme was shut down and we were reduced to using the instrument as a means of communication which was not as much fun as you might think. In practice my brother and I shunned the telephone for the next few years until we discovered girls and then just try and keep us off the line.