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Wisconsin’s Severe Storms Spark Memories

June 14, 2017

The news from family and friends about the storms that were unleashed across the state this week,and the lack of electricity (in some cases for many hours), made me think back to memories from my childhood.  Below is a few paragraphs from my book, Walking Up The Ramp, which recalls with fondness the way storms played out in my past.

The folks out in the country where I grew up were friendly. We called each other by our first names.  In those winter months when people don’t get out as much, it could seem as though one were living all alone on those country roads. At other points in the year, one might get the opposite impression. People seemed to know too much. I have long contended that if you don’t tell people about your life, they will invent one for you. This lack of privacy in a small town is part of growing up in a rural area. ‘Ma Bell’, as the phone company was once called, was perhaps the biggest gossip in town.

I grew up in a time when ‘party lines’ connected a small group of people. The party line was an arrangement in which two or more telephone customers were connected directly to the same local loop. (Prior to World War II in the United States, party lines were the primary way residential subscribers acquired local telephone service.) Here is how it worked: in order to distinguish one line subscriber from another, operators developed different ringing cadences for the subscribers, so that if the call was for the first subscriber to the line, the ring would follow one pattern such as two short rings, if the call was for the second subscriber, the ring would sound another way, such as a short ring followed by a long one, and so on. Since all parties utilized the same line, it was possible for subscribers to listen in on other subscribers’ calls. 

In other words, one of the ways to find out the comings and goings of those in the area was to pick up the phone and find out if anyone was talking. Then, you had to be very still so as not to alert the other participants to the call that you are listening. One could always find out some news. Of course, any such news gleaned from another family’s calls was always shared in the house, with the understanding that we act like it were the first time we heard it, if and when we heard it coming from someone from outside the house!

For my family at least, listening in on the neighbors’ phone calls was not something that we did often. When the weather was wild outside, with the snow and wind making drifts that mounded around the house, my Mom would want me to listen in on the party line, and find out the news. She wanted to know the conditions of the roads and if people were making their way home safely. Gently and quietly, I would lift the receiver so no one could hear the click, and pick up the needed news. It might be noted that President Nixon was tapping phones in Washington at the time that I was eavesdropping on conversations in Hancock. I claim the “Everyone Else, Including the President, is Doing It” defense. The major difference between what was going on at my house, and what was happening at the White House was that our illicit deeds were not being audio taped. You could say that our calls all took place within the space of those eighteen and a half minutes of accidentally erased material!  In reality, Mom and I just hoped Dad could make it home for dinner on roads that were not blocked with drifts. 

Perhaps the most interesting aspect to the mid-century telephone was not when it was in use, but when the summer storms made the metal appliance ring and jangle. My parents never allowed anyone in the dining room during the massive summer storms, as it was not uncommon to have blue flashes of light to come forth from the phone as it hung on the wall as it drew the lightning. It was awesome to see, thought it made some in my family really nervous.

So while Hancock was rural, and at times even rustic it was also special. Living out in the country meant that experiencing a day and night without power at least once each winter due to an ice storm was just as common as the summer evenings when the whippoorwill birds would call. In the summer when trees would topple over somewhere in the area and take out our electricity, big decisions had to be made. One of those concerned the ice cream in the freezer. Was the electricity going to be out so long that it would melt since in those days ice cream always came in a light cardboard box? Might we need to eat it before it melted and made a real mess? Oh, how often we failed to have faith in the speed and efficiency of the power company! With spoons we would set out to make sure Mom’s freezer would not be covered with melted sweetness.

Memories of my family days are now like the yellow and faded photographs that are placed in an album or stashed in a drawer. They serve to remind me where I came from, and allow me to journey backwards with an easy smile. Like for millions of other Americans there is something about Sunday dinner that takes my memory back to the days when my parent’s home was
the scene of just about the perfect place that anyone could wish to be. James and I have talked about the difference between the notion of home and what is a house. A house, to our mind, is
a structure designed to be a place where one can live in relative comfort. A home though is quite different. A home is a place where people share their lives, where memories are made and
preserved. The old home place where I grew up now is no longer a home. All that remains now is an empty bunch of lumber and nails stitched together. After my parents’ passing, and everything was sold off in auction, it was as if the spirit just left the place. My childhood “home” now is a place located in the memories I keep from those days.

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