One Ringy-Dingy, Two Ringy-Dingy: The Fun Days of Phone Before Cellphones

One Ringy-Dingy, Two Ringy-Dingy: The Fun Days of Phone Before Cellphones


I am of a “certain age” that remembers prank phone calls, heavy phone books, payphones (do any exist anywhere these days?), and calling the operator.

And, gasp, rotary phones. We had two rotary phones, one on the kitchen wall, and one down in the basement. You had to obtain phones ONLY from the phone company at that time. If you screwed up a number, redialing could be quite painful. I wonder how many people just dialed the operator and had her (yes, they were invariably of the female gender) to connect them.

Lily Tomlin as a phone operator

I worked at one place, before the days of voice mail, where the switchboard was required to page people they could not put through. The woman who worked evenings, Helen, used to be an operator for the phone company, and I could swear her voice was exactly like the female voice you used to hear when you dialed a disconnected number: “The number you have reached, 555-555-5555, has been disconnected. No further information is available.” I wonder if they used her voice for that recording …

Now, prank phone calls are still alive and well and have adapted to the new technology (check out the Judge Judy and Dr. Phil soundboards), but ironically, such technology, especially caller ID, makes it quite easy for such calls to be traced. In the days before caller ID, it was open season for bored suburban kids whose parents were not home. Once my mother started working in order to make up for the loss of income that occurred during the rampant inflation of the seventies, we were sometimes at home, unsupervised. Supposedly too old for a babysitter.

We didn't do the usual, “Is there a John there? No. Then where do you go to the bathroom?” ones. One of my brothers and I prided ourselves on our geeky esoteric knowledge of Star Trek and Greek mythology. We would call people (and organizations; for some reason, we liked to call The Church of the Nazarene) asking for characters in Greek mythology like Zeus and Agamemnon or obscure Biblical figures like Miriam the sister of Moses.


We found a guy who had an answering machine (still a rarity at that time) and left messages that Troy was falling or that Lieutenant Uhura was trying to obtain a signal from his number. Nothing obscene (I did call someone once and make a farting noise into the phone, and one time we held the phone up to the flushing toilet, if that qualifies).


At least we weren't doing drugs or having sex or going to the bathroom outside (a major social evil in our house) when Mom was at work. I consider our activity, actually, quite creative, though I'm sure, to our prankees, incredibly annoying.

One time we almost got busted. On one episode of The Brady Bunch, Jan, poor Jan, is trying to fake she has a boyfriend, George Glass. In order to orchestrate her ruse, she calls the operator and asks her to ring back the number, claiming she though something was wrong with the phone. The phone rings (no one is there; I would think it would the operator), and she fakes conversations with George.

Jan Brady on the phone

My brother and I decided to duplicate this ruse. My brother was always able to pull off the more elaborate ones (I would tend to start laughing). He put on his “sexy woman voice” (hear Ginger Grant on Gilligan's Island, but slightly deeper and huskier) and dialed the operator. Instead of compliance, the operator began asking questions. I could hear my brother saying, “Well … um … it's not just working properly.... I think it is the bell.” My knees felt weak. I asked him after he completed the call what had happened, shaken. He looked perturbed, his face flushed. “She was asking me all these questions, like, what seems to be wrong with it?” For God's sake, it worked on The Brady Bunch!

No more prank calls that day. I thought the operator would call back when Mom got home. We would be so totally in deep trouble. Deep. Mom got home from work, in her usual crabby mood, and about ten minutes later, the phone rang three times, then stopped. She looked at both of us. “Have you two been fooling around with the phone?” she barked. “No,” I replied, trying to sound perplexed. Mothers always know. She had no evidence to convict us, other than a certain look in our eyes (she always claimed she could spot liars that way).

Confused man receiving prank phone call

In hindsight, I dread to think what we would have concocted if we had been able to use youtube or other media for our outlandish pranks. I laugh about the incidents now, but then I think also about the horrific harm caused by cyberbullying and the like, in many cases, by unsupervised kids.

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