Rotary phones and the Ides of March

FILLERS

BY JOHN CULLEN

I wonder how many people under the age of 40 know how to operate a rotary dial phone.

For decades these antiques, built like a tank, transmitted messages around the world. Unlike today’s cellphones, whose cases are so prone to cracking that many people buy damage insurance for them, the old rotary phones were nearly indestructible.

And unlike today’s phones, which you own and replace every two or three years, the old phones were owned by the phone company and lasted forever.

We still have one in our house, but it hasn’t been used since the late 1980s, when we switched to hand-held cordless phones. We got rid of our landline completely a couple of years ago because our use of it was dwindling and we didn’t need it any more. Calls from family and friends went to our cellphones. The only calls we received on the landline were telemarketers. Now they’re creeping into our unlisted cellphones as well.

When our family came to Storm Lake in 1956, you called the operator to make a call. Then, probably around 1960, direct dial came to Storm Lake and we could make local calls directly without using an operator. Long distance still had to go through an operator.

A lady from Northwestern Bell, the telephone monopoly that served the Midwest, came to school and told the students in an assembly how to use the new-fangled dial telephones. Our telephone exchange was Regent 2-xxxx. It was abbreviated to RE2-xxxx, and years later, RE2 became today’s 732 prefix.

Before the iPhone this rotary dial phone was the way to communicate.

We didn’t have area codes then for long distance. You dialed 0 on the phone and an operator would place the call for you. Operators — they were all women — were located in the telephone office on Lake Avenue, across the street from today’s School Administration building (then the Post Office). There were about six or eight of them working the switchboards day and night. In large cities, where there were dozens of operators, supervisors often moved quickly through the aisles on rollerskates.

School children who toured the operation were taken into rooms where huge electro-mechanical switches clicked as people throughout town dialed their calls. I don’t know if those switches are still there. They’ve probably been replaced by a desktop computer. The building is still owned by the telephone company, CenturyLink. Before that it was known as Qwest and USWest. Until the government broke up the telephone company monopoly in 182, Northwestern Bell was one of eight regional subsidiaries of AT&T, which controlled telecommunications in the U.S. There were a few small independent telephone companies, but AT&T ruled the roost.

The old dial phones didn’t need electricity from the home, so they still operated when the power went out. You picked up the receiver, listened for the dial tone — a slight hum — and dialed your call.

Push button phones were introduced in this area in the 1980s, after Northwestern Bell updated the system here to accommodate the new technology, but they cost more to rent each month so a lot of people didn’t switch to them.

ANOTHER TIDBIT: How many under the age of 40 know what the phrase, “Beware the Ides of March!” means?

It’s significant today because March 15 is the ides of March, recalling the assassination on this day in 44 BC of Julius Caesar, the dominating Roman emperor who was stabbed by traitors in the Senate, including Marcus Brutus, who he thought was a friend. Caesar’s last words were reportedly “Et tu, Brutus?” which in Latin means “And you, too, Brutus?”

Those years of Latin I took in high school weren’t wasted.

Happy Ides!