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Ramona Residents Getting Private Lines : The Party's Over for Phone Eavesdroppers

November 28, 1987|ANTHONY PERRY | Times Staff Writer

Barbara Duggan remembers how word of her marriage to a young soldier in 1941 spread quickly throughout Ramona and Julian.

She had called her cousin on the telephone and within a wink everybody knew. After all, the phone was a party line.

"I told her, 'I got something to tell you but you have to come over to the house,' " Duggan said. "She said, 'You went over to Yuma and got married, didn't you?' Well, that did it, within a half hour everybody knew my secret."

So rapidly did word travel that by nightfall residents had organized a shivaree--that ritualized harassment inflicted on newlyweds via kettles, horns and other noise-inducing devices.

"There were no secrets with a party line," said Duggan, now 67 and living with her husband, R.R. Duggan, in their home along California 78 on the way to Santa Ysabel. "People knew who you were dating, who had been invited to dinner, and just about everything else. It was kind of nice."

Forty-six years later, Pacific Bell is pulling the plug on party-line service in Ramona, effective Tuesday. Duggan and 173 other surviving party-liners will get private lines whether they want them or not.

Once the rule, party line phones are now the rare exception, as the long and computerized arm of the phone company reaches into the rural recesses in the name of efficiency and economy to eliminate this turn-of-the-century technology.

With the passing of the party line goes some of the social fabric that has kept rural areas different and, some would have it, just a bit more cohesive and neighborly than towns and cities, where party lines were eliminated more quickly.

"I never said anything I wouldn't want my neighbors to hear anyway," said Pearl Haase, 66. "It made me feel better somehow that they were close even if they were miles away. I've been perfectly happy with the party line."

"I never gave a damn what my neighbors said on the telephone," said Robert Rogers, 78, who was a farmer, a dishwasher, a cook on a tuna boat, and an operating engineer before retiring. "I hardly ever listened."

For a long time the Duggans shared their line with a family-run construction firm. The owner asked that they stay off the line in the mornings and evenings so he could make his business calls.

"That was no problem for us," Barbara Duggan said. "He was a neighbor and we were glad to help. It went both ways. One day I said on the phone I needed feed for our three pigs. Pretty soon everybody was calling up offering to bring over feed."

The 174 party-line customers in Ramona are part of an endangered minority. Out of 7.8 million residential phone lines operated by Pac Bell in California, less than 0.3% are on a party line.

Nationwide, in 1950, 75% of phones were party line. In 1960, it was 40%, and in 1965, 27%.

In San Diego County, party lines are still found in Pine Valley, Mount Laguna, Warner Springs, Pauma Valley and Julian. Pauma Valley is slated to go all-private in April.

Residents of Ramona (which has 8,900 phone customers) have had the option of private lines for several years, albeit at a higher cost.

For the most part, the surviving 174 are elderly, on fixed incomes and possessed of a self-reliant streak that says if they got along without something for this long, maybe it's not needed anyway. Many live outside the more populated parts of the community, east toward Lake Sutherland and the Witch Creek area.

"I suppose this is one of those changes we'll have to put up with in the name of so-called progress," said Michael Ciuzak, 69, a retired civil service employee from North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego.

It is a rare party-liner who does not have at least one story to tell about teen-agers or others hogging the line incessantly--it was common long ago for as many as 12 phone numbers to share the same line. But a party line could also yield some homespun fun.

"We had this one old gal who liked to listen to everybody's conversations," said Gus McKinley, 69, a retired farmer-rancher. "So one day I mentioned to a guy on the other end about this yard sale where you could get great bargains. But I didn't give an address.

"She about drove the wheels off her car looking for that sale. People thought she was a nut case."

A computer installed this spring in the Ramona telephone switching office is meant to allow the party line customers to get private lines without paying more.

A two-party line has been $4.60 a month, and a four-party line has been $4.80 because of the remoteness of the locations. There was no additional charge for local calls.

Under what Pac Bell calls measured-rate service, the monthly bill for a private line will be $4.45, which includes the first $3 worth of local calls. That should be enough for three five-minute local calls a day, about normal usage for the current party line users, Pac Bell says.

Lifeline rates for low-income customers are still available, at $1.23 a month, which includes 60 local calls. Calls 61 to 70 are a dime each, after that, each call costs 15 cents.

The death of the party line, of course, is not the only sign of modernity creeping into Ramona. Early this year, Pac Bell started a second prefix (788) to join the historic 789.

"We got a Jack in the Box and a McDonald's now, you know, and there is word about a Sizzler soon," said McKinley. "Ramona is right on top of things, getting to be a real town. Don't go in to see it much myself, don't like towns."

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