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Anatomy of a Phone Number

What’s in a Digit?
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My husband and I have been discussing disconnecting our land line. The argument for getting rid of the line is saving money on a monthly bill, and the argument for keeping the line is in case cell phone towers go down or the power goes out for a number of days. I’m the one who argues to keep the old number, but honestly, I don’t remember the last time it actually rang. The real reason for keeping it around is an emotional attachment to the number itself — it was my husband’s number when I met him. A mutual friend scribbled the five numbers down on paper for me: 7-1855. I still remember the butterflies I had dialling the number from the payphone in the downstairs hall of the high school.

Dialing a phone number today, once a very localized formula, can be deceptive. In our current transient community, people have moved here with cell phone numbers representing different cities and states. You may be calling a North Carolina number to reach a Truckee resident, and long-distance numbers aren’t the expense they once were. I remember my mom removing long-distance calls from our phone so we couldn’t run-up the bill. One particularly broke time, we only had the option to receive calls, not make them. We would use the 7-11 payphone to dial someone, tell them to call us back on the home phone, and run back up to the house to receive the call.

Growing up in Truckee, we only ever gave people the last four digits of our phone number. All numbers had the same area code: 916 (pre 530), and the same prefix: 587. It was unnecessary to write all those numbers down, so you simply used your last four digits. I lived in my grandparents’ home and used their number: 3663. I remember eagerly waiting for a friend to call and when the phone finally rang, I yelled something other than “hello” into the receiver. It was my grandpa on the other end, who scolded my vulgarity because it was also his business line.

This all changed when the population outgrew the available numbers. It felt weird to say it, let alone dial it. This posed a problem: we could no longer use the four digit method, so a digit was added to differentiate between numbers. Instead of 3663, we would write 7-3663. (This also worked for other prefixes in the area. Placing a ‘3’ before the number meant Tahoe City and placing a ‘1’ before the number meant Squaw.)

I called my friend, Sharon, who grew up in Truckee, to talk to her about local phone numbers before my time. Her mother came to Truckee in the spring of 1935 to work as a relief phone operator for Pacific Telephone and Telegraph (located where Bespoke is now). Sharon kept correcting me as I was asking what the procedure was when someone “dialed” the operator. “You didn’t ‘dial’ the operator, you ‘rang’ her,” Sharon told me. The person placing the call rang the operator, who asked for the number and connected you. Sharon informed me that in 1955, her senior year of high school, Truckee was still using telephone operators and was one of the last places in the area to incorporate dial phones.

Wondering about the actual phone numbers, I asked if she still had an old phone book. She laughed at the image of a phone “book” as it was really just a couple sheets of paper, and found a Truckee phone directory from 1957. Phone numbers used to have a 2-letter, 5-number format (LLN-NNNN). The letters denoted the telephone exchange you were connected to. Truckee’s telephone exchange was Luther, abbreviated as LU and followed by five numbers — all of which began with a 7. Tahoe Forest Hospital was listed as LU7-3541. If you were saying this number to someone, you would say, “Luther 7-3541.” On a rotary dial, L is the number 5 and U is the number 8. This is where Truckee’s early prefix, 587, comes from.

These simple phone number recall methods have fallen by the wayside as there are too many phone number options now to make any kind of pattern from. Curious, I called a handful of kids I grew up with and asked if they remembered their childhood numbers. They all gave me their four digits without much thought. And, like that, I was thrown back in time at the memories I associate with their childhood phone numbers. This week, we disconnected our land line; it no longer makes sense to keep it around for sentimental reasons. It is, after all, just a number.

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March 8, 2018