We just bought a new phone. The old one had been fading out or breaking up, and most lately, cutting off. The answering machine was separate but, despite insisting on over beeping whenever announcing a missed call, usually took the messages pretty reliably. People would leave their greetings after telling us that we must have a lot of calls because the machine just beeped and beeped. But we didn’t.

Now we have a new one that stores my kids’ numbers, does redial, takes messages without beeping to death, tells the time and doesn’t have a cord. What will they think of next?

I admit to remembing the old system and even a really old number: 76-21. The number was requested of the operator, after asking after her health, as 76 ring 21. At our house that meant if the thing rang two long ones and one short one, you could pick it up and it would be for you. Of course, it was commonly accepted that you picked up (very quietly) any time at all if you were looking for some entertainment.

If you, however, were carrying on a conversation and heard more breathing than should accommodate the person you were talking to, you could say, in a superior tone, “Some people just can’t mind their own business.” There might be a soft click as the guilty party acknowledged the crime. And there might not.

Once I was babysitting my younger siblings when one decided to drink some lighter fluid. As his rosy cheeks suddenly turned a pale blue. I called the doctor who said he would be right there, a trip of about five miles. But first, “Give him some vegetable oil,” he advised and hung up. Within a few minutes, up drove a neighbor from down the road, yelling, “Did he drink the oil?” It all turned out just fine but I wondered from then on if she listened to all calls.

When we first moved to Vermont, we lived in the “telephone building” in Stowe. We rented the downstairs and a mom and her two teen-age daughters lived upstairs. The three of them operated the switchboard for the whole town. When one of the daughters was on duty and the mom was out of the house, I would slip up there and sit at the “long distance” board while Loraine handled the local calls. There was a point of honor about not listening in on the long distance calls because they were assumed to be important, some even involving the military. But everybody else was fair game.

As I recall, the conversations were usually pretty dull: “How’re ya doin’,” “Not bad, How’re you doin’” “What’s new?” “Nothin’ much, what’s new with you?” The balance of the conversation most likely involved health: the caller’s, the answerer’s, the neighbors’. There probably was much juicier stuff but at my tender young age I failed to pick up on it. If there was hanky panky discussed, it was wasted on me.

We didn’t live there very long so my eavesdropping career was short lived. The girls and their mom moved away and a gaggle of cranky old ladies took over the job.

I’m sure they recognized and relished every bit of hanky panky that came their way.