One of the minor players in last Saturday’s screening of To Kill a Mockingbird was the wall telephone in Atticus Finch’s kitchen. Fashioned from oak with a little shelf on the front to take notes, the telephone’s box-like case had a handheld receiver at the end of a cord that hung on hook that stuck out the box’s left side, an adjustable arm with the mouthpiece on the front,and a small crank on the right side.
I’ve always loved these farmhouse phones of old. For years we had one in our Dunvegan kitchen. It was real, but had a rotary dial hidden inside the oak case that had once contained the phone’s battery and magneto. We seldom used it to dial out, but many a call was answered on it over the years. However, this was make-believe. Seeing Atticus and Calpurnia, his housekeeper, make calls in the film got me wondering how the whole system worked. So I asked our old friend Ken McEwen who was farm-raised on the 7th of Kenyon.
The first thing Ken pointed out was that not everybody had one. But everyone knew everyone else… the operator included. So if an urgent message arrived — say a telegram with news of the death of a relative out west — the operator would contact a nearby neighbour and they would take the message across the fields. “Phones in those days were not used for idle chatting,” Ken told me in an email. “Unless it was about a urgent matter, you simply walked across the field and spoke with your neighbour.” As a young lad, Ken didn’t use the telephone. “At our house, my mom was the one dealing with most phone calls,” Ken told me. “Dad seldom used the phone.”
Ken’s recollection is that lifting the receiver off the hook activated the phone and sent a signal to the operator. In those days, there weren’t enough wires for each subscriber to have a private line, so ‘party lines’ were used with up to four subscribers per line. “Each party line had an identification number, think ours may have been 608 (ring four),” Ken wrote. “So I assume someone on 608, say number one, would turn their crank two, three or four times to reach neighbours.” The one thing Ken is certain of is that if, “anyone else on your line on lifted their receiver and put it to their ear, they were privy to your conversation.”
These phones were powered by two batteries, which as Ken recalls had to be changed by a Bell repairman periodically. “On our road, he disposed of them by throwing them in the Scotch River, just upstream from where we swam,” Ken related in his message. “Don’t know if the word pollution had been coined at that time.” One thing that’s for sure is that a numberof expressions have emanated from this wall-hung wooden wonder: ring “off the hook,” to “hang up” on someone and perhaps even “turn my crank.”
If you are of an age to remember these quaint wooden wall phones, I’d love to hear your recollections. I’m still uncertain if, to contact the operator after lifting the receiver, one had to turn the crank as well.
Jigs’s comfort food
In his email signoff, Ken wished me a Happy St. Patrick’s day. He and his wife Tina Mae modeled pan-Celtic inclusivity by celebrating St. Paddy’s with corned beef and cabbage dinner… and a wee dram to wash it all down, of course. A tradition he remains true too even today.
It’s not my favourite fare. But my father also loved this simple, one-pot meal of salt beef, cabbage, potato, carrot and turnip, as do countless residents of Newfoundland and Labrador. Jiggs’s Dinner is their version of comfort food.
Why “Jiggs?” Well, the name comes from the main character in a syndicated American comic strip called Bringing Up Father that ran from 1913, to 2000. Jiggs was an Irish-American construction worker who refused to give up his working-class lifestyle when he won a million dollars. Jiggs’s favourite meal was corned beef and cabbage and he would sneak off to a local pub called Dinty Moore’s and eat his fill. As one website I consulted concluded, “it’s a pop culture reference, now long out dated.”
Celtic concert matinee
If you like Glengarry-style Celtic music and step dancing, the Dunvegan Recreation Association has a concert planned for this coming Saturday, March 25th that will feature young Glengarry performers and dancers from the MacLeod School of Fiddle, Piano & Step dance. The event will also showcase the talents of eight Dunvegan-area youngsters: Cole, Dawson and Oakley Williams; Kenzie and Shelby McRae; Lauren & Olivia Fraser; and Cadence MacIntosh.
The original plan was to exclusively feature The MacLeod Fiddlers, the school’s on-the-road team. However, music director Ian MacLeod had a change of heart. “As several families from the Dunvegan area have children studying with us,” Ian told me, “l decided to do the concert with the whole school of music.” He explained this will include four different levels, plus individual performances highlighting other musical talents including vocals, piano, highland and step dancing. “It will still be a great concert, Ian concluded, “and the senior road group will perform twice.”
The concert will be held at the DRA hall, 19503 County Road 24 and starts at 2:00 pm. But I’d show up a bit early to stake out the seat(s) you want. Last, but in no way least, admission to this Celtic music celebration is free. However, you are asked to bring a donation of canned or packaged foodstuffs for the Alexandria food bank. In lieu of food, money is also welcome.