Saturday 19 May 2012


Most of us who grew up in a rural district know all about the telephone party lines. They were no doubt the source of more scandals that all of the presidents and prime ministers combined. To those who don't know was a party line is, well, it's like having up to six extensions on your regular phone and when someone calls, there are up to six listeners; except they won't all be in your house. All calls were identified by the number of rings that could be a series of short ones, long ones or a combination of both. For example JC's family was issued two long rings for its number while the neighbors' consisted of two longs and a short. Better yet the next neighbor was a pair of longs and a pair of shorts which would tend to coincide with the words of a popular country comedian of forty years ago.

JC recalled a time about twenty years ago when his sister rented a farm house. She shared a party line with four other users, some (four in total) who tended to be rather nosy. Whenever Sis answered a call, there were always at least three distinct clicks indicating three other listeners. JC and Sis actually made a game out of it. He would phone, Sis would answer, and after the eavesdroppers were on line, JC would say something like: "We've got company." To which two or three of the more timid listeners would hang up. Then JC would pause for a moment and say: "We've still got one; is that you, Marlene?"


 Norm was a successful farmer in the Canadian midwest; successful enough to indulge in a rather expensive pastime: flying. Although the primary use of his airplane was pleasure he often used it for business trips that were beyond a reasonable driving distance. Such that it was, he had planned a business trip down to Missoula one day and on the evening before the planned trip, his neighbor phoned.

"Say, Norm, I understand you're planning a trip down to Missoula tomorrow morning."

"Sure am. What's up?"

"I was wondering if you might be able to stop at the airport in Helena and pick up a shipment of dope for me? I got a real good deal there."

"Sure," Norm responded. "I've got to stop there on my way home anyways; I'll be glad to pick up your dope."

Now before I go any further, the term: Dope, while to the average person carries an illicit drug connotation, it means something totally different to an aviator. Older aircraft, a lot of home-built aircraft, and most of the ultra-lights are covered with fabric. Fabric is Grade A cotton which is stretched and wrapped over the ribs and framework of the aircraft. To get it to shrink and cling tightly, it is treated with dope.

Dope is usually laquer or varathane based and different formulas are used to do specific jobs. Clear dope is used to shrink the fabric and make it taut. Silver dope primer is used to waterproof it and that is followed by colored dope in the individual's choice of color.

That sounds innocent enough...

Norm's neighbor worked for some time as an aircraft maintenance engineer and after returning to the farm, kept his papers valid. Being an aviator himself, he enjoyed flying but he also liked to work on his own aircraft. He was in the process of recovering his small vintage Piper and innocently asked his neighbor, Norm, to do him a favor.

Norm and his twelve year old son departed early the next morning. Carefully following their flight plan, they crossed the border and reported to US Customs and Immigration at Havre. Cleared, they continued on their trip and made it to Missoula without incident.

It was a long day but business was concluded in good time. The stop at Helena, thanks to the prior arrangements by Norm's neighbor, was brief and they were able to make it back to the open prairie well before dark. Once again, according to the flight plan, Norm landed at the municipal airport where he was expected to clear Canadian Customs. Norm had done this at least a hundred times before and knew the procedure as well as anyone but when he approached the terminal, he was rather surprised to see several official looking cars, lights flashing, forming a gauntlet to the terminal itself. Somewhat perplexed he proceeded to the designated area, shut the engine down and removed his headset and seatbelt, instructing his son to do the same.

They opened the doors, deplaned and were instantly surrounded by officers of every description: RCMP, Canadian Customs, US Border Patrol and DEA. Norm wouldn't have been surprised if there were agents from BTAF, Interpol, CONTROL or KAOS present. Maybe even U.N.C.L.E. All officers had weapons exposed and were at the ready to use them if the need arose.

A lone Customs officer approached. "You are a citizen of what country?"


"How long were you out of the country?"

"All day."

"What was the purpose of your trip?"

"Mostly business."

"Are you bringing anything back with you?"

"Yes. I've picked up some personal items and I'm also bringing back sixteen gallons of dope.

Well, one would have thought that he's just confessed to a mass murder or something worse. But as soon as Norm uttered that one four-lettered word, officers, weapons drawn, converged upon the father and son team and forced them to assume the position up against the side of the aircraft afterwhich they suffered further indignities of being searched and put into handcuffs.

Norm was tired from the long day so his patience was wearing thin. "Look, I don't know what the hell is going on here, but I've got four cases of dope in the back; I didn't know the stuff was illegal! The invoices and clearance papers are in my flight case."

The airplane was thoroughly searched and Norm was caught legally importing sixteen gallons of dope, one case of clear, one case of silver primer and two cases of colored, into the country. Charges were not laid and a whole bunch of embarrassed officers apologized for the commotion. I might add that there was more than likely a red-faced dope back home who had eavesdropped on Norm's conversation the night before and alerted the authorities to the sinister plan.

Probably a black eye too if Norm was able to identify the culprit.

Maybe a footnote to the arresting officers and the nosy neighbor, a saying from JC's grandfather: Believe only half of what you see, and nothing of what you hear...


  1. Oh man! I grew up with a party line as well. But this story takes the cake, my hat, and everything else. Wow. Great story!! I bet this one will be in the family history books for a long time.

    Hope that dope who listened felt so dopey it cured them of the eavesdropping. But probably not. ; )

  2. Hi Lynn. Thanks for dropping in and taking a moment to comment on this. When I was a kid party lines were the best method for news to spread; second only to the local telephone operator I guess. Thanks again.

  3. Oh, I loved this! Great Story!!! I hadn't heard this one! I miss the good old party lines. So much inexpensive entertainment. Sigh . . .

    1. Thanks for the compliment. This is one of my favorite stories from my collection. More to come. Thanks again.

  4. What a great story! Diane linked here today, and I'm glad I got a chance to read this. We had a party line until I was old enough to leave home. In our case we not only had nosy neighbours but also an impatient operator. If you had to be connected to a different line you had to ring the operator and ask for the line and number and she would make the connection. But then she kept coming on the line to see if she could disconnect, and if it was kids talking, she would ask "are you done yet?" There were no long calls between teenagers in our village, let me tell ya - and no lovesick ones, either :)

    1. Hi Jenny. Our telephone operator in town used to do the same thing. 'Your number, please?' Ours was 169, and my best friend's was 218. When we got the country party lines we were getting close to dial systems so we used to crank so many times to make a long ring, then a shorter time to make a short. After dialing came in, we could dial the number but it still went down the party line (with the same prescribed number of rings). In a way I miss the old party line; I guess it kept one up on what was happening in our community. Thanks for paying a visit.

  5. I had no idea there was more than one kind of dope.

    1. Hi River. Getting into the flying game taught me about yet another kind of dope; this kind. Obviously the authorities didn't find out about that until it was too late. Thanks for stopping by.