Chapter Two:

Party Lines





Johnny was right about the Chevy being better than a saddle pony in many respects.

There was a big mesquite tree which overhung the road to the west of our front yard and that’s where Johnny parked the truck every night. It was always standing in the same spot the next morning. Unlike a horse, we never had to chase it around the pasture and try to put a bit in its mouth when we needed a ride. We just stuck a key in it and started it up.

Once the initial thrill of ownership subsided Johnny quit polishing the chrome and adding decorative dodads. The harsh South Texas climate quickly baked and oxidized the new paint and the truck’s maturity began to show.

It was like watching a beautiful woman age. As her supple skin turns to lined and creased leather the admirer’s lusty adoration slowly becomes respectful appreciation.

In our part of the world in those days a pickup truck was a lot more than transportation. It was a working companion, a trusted friend, a reliable servant and a prized possession. A man’s relationship with his pickup was as close to marriage as anyone ought to get with a machine. It was intimate and personal.

After they’d spent a little time together a fellow’s truck seemed to take on his personality. If the owner was neat and clean his truck would be. If he wasn’t, his truck would most likely be a mess. From the very beginning Johnny’s old Chevy was always friendly and honest. There was no pretense or false front. What you saw was what you got.

There was always a chain in the bed if you needed to be pulled out of a bog or a ditch. There were also tools and a coffee can full of recycled staples in case a fence needed mending somewhere down the line.

Before a full month had passed everyone within a ten-mile radius of our home recognized the truck on sight. And, everyone knew all the places where it should or shouldn’t be parked when it wasn’t under that mesquite tree. Such was the nature of people in small rural communities - they looked after one another.

No one gave a second thought if they saw Johnny’s pickup at the Texaco station, the feed store or at one of the areas few cafes. But, if someone saw it parked anywhere else - say at the home of an unattached young maiden - then eyebrows got raised and the local telephone lines began to hum.

Everyone had "party line" telephone service, which meant several households shared a line. You determined whether an incoming call was yours by the number of rings. For instance, at our house we knew the call was for us if there were two short rings and a long. Folks at the next house down the road answered two long rings…etc. …etc.

If you wanted to place an outgoing call you picked up the receiver and listened to make sure none of your neighbors were already on the line. If they were, you were supposed to hang up and try again later. But, you could simply put your hand over the mouthpiece (So they wouldn’t be bothered by your breathing noises.) and listen to their conversation - strictly for the purpose of determining exactly when the line was clear, of course.

Human nature being what is has always been, some folks just naturally listened more closely than others. Subsequently, things got "accidentally" overheard. Not only did some folks hear things they had no business hearing, but they had a habit of repeating those things.

This probably wouldn’t have been so bad except that more often than not, being the good neighbors that they were, they tried to "improve" whatever they had heard. In the repeating they just couldn’t resist making whatever they had heard sound just a little bigger and a little better…bless their hearts.

Polite folks would call this embellishment and exaggeration. Others might refer to it as gossip.

The fact that the Chevy was easy to spot caused Johnny some consternation early on. One sultry afternoon he happened to have driven over to man’s house about five miles away to discuss some impending work. This particular fellow had a large family, including several daughters, the eldest of which was roughly Johnny’s age.

Since he had arrived late in the afternoon, the man’s wife graciously invited Johnny to join the family for supper. Always up for a good feed, Johnny accepted and indulged himself in the hospitality.

After the meal the family gathered on the front porch, drank iced tea and enjoyed the coolness of the evening - a common custom in those days. During the course of the visit several neighbors happened to drive by, waving as they passed down the road which ran in front of the man’s homestead.

Whether Johnny and his host’s oldest daughter did more than perhaps exchange cautious glances and a few friendly words is unknown to me. But, I am certain whatever passed between them lacked the color and intensity of the scuttlebutt his visit ultimately generated.

The hour was relatively late when Johnny returned home and parked the old Chevy under its tree.

Dad was waiting on him.

A spirited conversation ensued. Most of the details of the discussion have now escaped me, but I remember thinking that Dad sure had a lot of information about what my big brother had been doing. I wondered how this could be since he had been gone and Dad had been home all evening.

The mystery was solved when I learned several of our thoughtful neighbors had phoned to report where they had seen the truck and then casually added their assorted opinions regarding the girl.

Among other sub-topics, they had expressed themselves rather vividly concerning her womanly virtue, the social standing of her family, her taste in clothes, religious preference and the company she had kept most recently.

Being a small child at the time I was bewildered that a couple of glasses of iced tea produced such excitement and intrigue.

Judging from the sound of the exchange between my father and brother I wasn’t sure if there was about to be a wedding or a killing. As it turned out, neither happened.

Nonetheless, I learned an important lesson from the episode - a telephone can outrun a pickup truck every time.





Read Chapter 3