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Senior Correspondent

The Original Ring Tone

The world seems to be obsessed these days with the cell phone and its offspring of apps, digital cameras, e-mail and mobile video – much of it announced by that annoying electronic noise, the ring tone.

Most people, be they motorists, supermarket shoppers or clerks, security guards, or kids riding bicycles, seem to be on the phone – or at least checking their phones – for a good part of their waking hours. Some, with animated gestures, appear to be talking to themselves until you see the gizmo clipped to an ear, its intense blue light flashing importantly.

What can they be talking, or twittering, or texting about all day and all night from every possible place, I wonder. How did we survive, for God’s sake, when there were only clunky landline phones with operators that connected you to another person’s phone or put you through to “long distance”?

As one who grew up on a farm in Northern California in the ’30s and ’40s, I remember the telephone as a device to be used for serious business only. (I must admit, I still regard it pretty much the same way today).

In those days, our phone and those of a dozen of our neighbors were linked on a single farmers’ line, two wires that snaked from one farm to another, tacked to power poles, oak trees, fence posts and the occasional barn. The farmers themselves were responsible for cutting away tree limbs and wild blackberry vines whenever they posed a threat to the line.

Our phone number was 19-F-4, meaning that it was Farmers’ Line No. 19 and that our “ring” was four short blasts. Our nearest neighbor’s number was 19-F-21; their ring was two longs and one short.

A call, particularly late at night, was ominous. It almost always meant that someone was very sick or worse. Everybody on the line knew everyone else’s ring, and most families – including mine – would “listen in,” eavesdropping on the late-night bad news (an early form of “social networking”).

To ring up a neighbor who shared the line, you had to turn a little crank that protruded from the right side of the phone box to correspond to their ring.

Not quite the same as a few bars from your favorite rock band or Broadway show, but the ring tone of its day, nevertheless.

Fred Zehnder, a former Emmy-award-winning broadcaster, continues to actively work as publisher of both the weekly San Leandro (Calif.) Times newspaper and the weekly Forum newspaper in neighboring Castro Valley.

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