In the old farmhouse where I grew up, our most sophisticated form of communication was a black rotary telephone. For a while, it was on a party line, meaning that one ring (say, three short notes) meant the call was for us, and another (two long) denoted one for our neighbors across the street. This could not have been the most efficient arrangement, given that the phone was vital to my father’s sawmill business and at any one time teenage girls lived in the house.
My mother served as my father’s bookkeeper and secretary, which meant that she fielded most of the calls. If an incoming call was deemed of low import, she would take a message, but if it were vital, she would put the phone down (no ability to put someone on hold, so the receiver would pick up the various sounds of the kitchen – the washing machine rumbling, the iron hissing), walk to the back door, and bellow, “YOO-HOO! Armstrong’s on the phone!”
The sound would travel across the septic tank, over her garden, into the maelstrom of activity at the mill, where it had to compete with the whining saw, the flap-flap of the shingle mill, the roar of the motor, the thud of logs rolling off a truck. From there it would reach into my father’s broad but not especially keen ears. He would raise his hand to signal a halt to activity, then begin his long stride back to the house.
“Yoo-hoo” never failed. Though not an especially loud person, my mother had taught first grade, and she knew how to get attention when she needed to. “Yoo-hoo” also was employed on the rare occasions when my father didn’t arrive for supper at the appointed time of 5 o’clock sharp. Usually this was because a visitor out at the mill was chewing his ear, as he would say. Then she would walk to the back door and yell, “YOO-HOO! Your supper’s getting cold!”
If, on the other hand, some urgent piece of business required an outgoing call, my father would lope into the kitchen, sawdust and diesel fumes trailing in his wake, and say to my mother, “Get Baker on the phone.” (He referred to most of his friends by their last names.) My mother would immediately drop whatever she’d been doing, sit down at the hulking metal desk in the kitchen corner, and pop open the metal address book looking for Dick Baker’s number. She would dial the appointed digits and, when Baker or whoever it was answered, say in an apologetic rush, “Oh, oh, hold a minute, here’s Warren,” and my father would pick up the receiver.
He never said hello, but always started with “Yeah,” as though returning to an interrupted conversation. “Yeah,” he would say, “I got those oak planks you wanted.” (When I was a grown, married woman, he would occasionally call me up himself and start with, “Yeah, this is the old man.”)
All of these phone calls, whether incoming or outgoing, he took standing up, receiver to his left ear, his voice projecting toward the window, as though the listener hovered there on the porch. Although he, too, was not an especially loud person, on the phone his voice boomed, until the conversation wound down and he mumbled a sign-off like “All right, see you later.” Then he would leave the house, through the sinkroom and backroom, putting his hat back on his head.
For now, the phone line was dead, until one of our friends called to “tie it up,” as my mother would say (turning on the kitchen timer), or until it my father returned with another urgent request for his wife.