Whitesburg KY

Spreading gossip through ‘party line’

Points East

My dad used to say that he knew exactly how to turn a mouse into an elephant. He said all you had to do was turn a mouse loose in the head of the holler and by the time it got to the mouth of Blair Branch it would have big long ivory tusks and a snout that could drink the creek dry and everyone in the county would dread to see it coming because the word would spread like fire in a field full of broomsage on a windy day.

We never had a telephone at our house, on Blair Branch, until I got out of college and got a job that necessitated phone service, because I had moved back home with nowhere else to go. This was 1971 or ‘72. I forget exactly when.

Anyway, I signed up and luckily, according to Ma Bell, qualified for a party line even though they were more than reluctant to run it up our house. I believe I’ve told you that the farther up Blair Branch you went, the meaner it got, and we lived in the last house. Technically that’s not true because John and Ida Adams and their bunch of young’uns and Hiram and Alta Stamper and their bunch lived on up the mountain above us. But you have to admit, it’s a good line, true or not.

Anyway, our first phone, on Blair Branch, was a “party line” shared with several other “subscribers” willing to pay the bill. Almost anytime you picked up the receiver, someone else was on the line and all you had to do to pick up on the local gossip was pick up the phone, cover the microphone end with your hand, and listen in.

Someone on the line would know the last time little teenaged Sarah bought Kotex and declare her pregnant if she hadn’t been back to the store. “What on earth are Henry and Mable going to do now that Sarah is big bellied? I want to hear Mandy explain that one.”

My dad’s answer to the problem was to have daily conversations with my Uncle Raymond who lived some 15 miles from Blair Branch. They had to fight and argue themselves, with the old maids, to get an open line, into whatever party phone lines they had to respectively contend with but when they talked. My dad said it went like this:

Dad: “Hello Ray. Don’t say nothing you don’t believe in.”

Uncle Ray: “Why’s that Elmer?”

Dad: “Well a certain gossip is listening in so we might as well put anything we say in the newspaper.”

And Dad was right because that listener wrote a social column for The Mountain Eagle at the time and listening in to other folks’ phone conversations was her primary source of news. And if it couldn’t be put in the paper, she would call everybody she knew and spread the gossip.

So Dad and Uncle Ray, the next time they were visiting in person, decided that they would make up a big tale and share it the next time they were on the phone,

A couple of days later, Uncle Ray finally got through to Dad and the first thing Dad said was, “Well she finally shot him while ago, just like I told you she was going to.”

Uncle Ray asked, “When?”

Dad said, “About 10 minutes ago.” Then they started talking about the weather.

That evening Dad went out of the holler and stopped at a local grocery store where he was told that Joyce had killed L.C. for romancing other women and that his funeral was going to be at Blair Branch Church, but they hadn’t set a time yet. Dad said, “That’s funny. I just saw him about 10 minutes ago and he looked mighty healthy to me.”

When he got back home, Dad picked up the phone and sure enough two local gossips were in heavy conversation.

One of them said to the other, “You can’t believe a word Elmer Adams says.”

The other one asked, “Why’s that?”

The first one said, “That tale about Joyce shooting L.C. was just a big lie. I saw him a few minutes ago out in the garden hoeing his ‘taters.”

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