I still remember the toy telephone that Santa Claus brought the neighbor kids.
I know. Christmas isn’t supposed to be about envy. I should be grateful for the gifts I did receive, but longing is a powerfully fickle thing. You think you want a certain gift until you realize what you really want is what some other kid got.
So maybe I was a spoiled child who didn’t deserve gifts with so many starving kids in China, but who among us hasn’t envied someone else’s gift?
The toy telephone was a lithographed country wall model with a crank on the right side of the box to signal the operator. I knew such phones; my aunt and uncle had one in their farmhouse. It jangled in spurts all day long— two shorts and along or three shorts or a long and two shorts— the Morse code signaling who had a call on the party line.
My aunt’s phone number was “7209, please.” I know it because my mother called her sister every day with the help of the local operator. There was no dial service in our part of the world so every call went through the central switchboard located in the front room of the “telephone man’s” house.
Christmas is all about nostalgia. Many of us try tore-create the I-believe-in-Santa holiday we knew when we were five or six years old. This takes me back to 1959 and our tinsel-covered tree with opaque colored lights. David Seville and the Chipmunks singing The Christmas Song on the phonograph where a plastic Santa guides his sleigh through a swatch of cotton batting.
The other night, I messaged Jill, one of the neighbor kids who received the toy phone that Christmas. She’s now a Facebook friend and still lives in Illinois. I thought sure she would remember the phone, but she doesn’t, which is a pity. It was one of the first “talking” toys with a recorded voice mechanism that played when you cranked the phone. My brother and I remember the script, all these years later. “Howdy partner. This is Central.What number do you want? I’ll ring it for you. Rrrr Rrrr.”
The fact that the “operator” said the same thing over and over didn’t faze us. The more we heard it, the more we wanted to hear it again.The neighbors’ toy phone was great, made all the better because my brother and I didn’t have one.
I’ve looked up the vintage toy on eBay. It was called a Ranch Phone made by Gong Bell Manufacturing Company of Connecticut. The tin box was illustrated with lithographed cowboys and cowgirls, a stagecoach, a roped steer–perfect for kids who watched Fury, Zorro, The Roy Rogers Show and the like.
Over time, my brother and I have discussed the Ranch Phone, not knowing its proper name, but remembering how neat it was. It was all the more fun because of the “voice” inside.
But that toy phone isn’t the only thing I’ve thought about. There’s that three-story tin doll house my parents gave my cousin one Christmas. And there’s that classmate whose mother sewed her smocked dresses with hair bows to match, and friends who had sisters to play with. I wanted a baby sister, too, but Santa didn’t bring one of those, either.
Eventually I learned to forgive Santa for his oversights. In high school, I coincidentally played Laugh-In’s Ernestine the Operator in a school play. Nine years later, I landed a job at Central Telephone Company in Hickory. And the starving children in China grew up to build manufacturing plants so that most every toy Santa brings to American children these days comes from Shanghai or Beijing or Hangzhou.
Ranch Phones can still be purchased on eBay. I haven’t sprung for one yet, but the notion that I can still buy one is a tempting thought.