A half century ago, as an elementary school kid in the small town of Apalachin in upstate New York, I learned to communicate via an old-fashioned crank telephone on a party line. Our “party” consisted of a half dozen or more neighbors living along New Street, otherwise known as the “back road.” Each family had its own distinctive ring. To reach the Reins you cranked out two long rings followed by two short rings. If you heard that combination at our home you would pick up. If you heard, say, one long and one short, you’d better not answer — that would be the Signors across the street.
To get someone on another party line or anywhere else outside our little world, you dialed one long ring for the operator. She lived down on the main street. She no doubt knew everything going on in town.
I was reminded of Apalachin and the old party line phone system the other day, trying to get some information about the horrendous flooding along the Susquehanna River in upstate New York. The flooding had impacted the travel plans of various relatives still living in the area, and I ended up at the website of the newspaper where I worked summers during my college years, the Binghamton Evening Press.
Like every other newspaper in the world, the Press, I’m sure, has been trying to figure out ways to harness their editorial horsepower in the Internet arena. One of the big stumbling blocks for newspapers is control — who gets to interact in this new interactive environment, and who edits them? The most progressive thinkers argue in favor of a free-for-all, in which everyone is on one big party line in which any conversation can be overheard by anyone else.
The Press website, www.pressconnects.com, leans in this direction, and in the grim days following the flooding the website seemed to have found a place in the sun.
I started roaming through the reader forums looking for news of road closings. I stayed far longer than I thought I would, mesmerized by the gritty first-person accounts of people on the scene:
“My parents were evacuated yesterday and I know they are fine. I would like to know if anyone can put eyes on Main St. in Owego, between McMaster St. and Armstrong Place. I would like to head home to help them begin recovery, but want to be sure I can even access the home first. There are people watching the house, but I cannot contact them, as phones are all dead now.”
“Can anyone tell me if Nichols had been evacuated. My son’s friend has been with us since Tuesday and we can’t reach his parents. We last spoke to them yesterday around 4:30 p.m.”
“I am in North Carolina and have been watching from afar worrying. My sister is in Nichols trapped without electricity and my dad on Glenmary and can’t get to her and her son. Hope you are safe, so far my family is.”
“I have lived in Owego all of my life and have never seen anything like this before. If you get the chance go to the top of the cemetery where the Indian princess stands and overlook Owego. You will see nature’s wrath at its worst but you will also appreciate just how much God protected us too.”
One particular posting got a quick reply: “My father lives in Apalachin at the end of Wayside Lane. I only get a busy signal. I live in Chicago and am getting limited information on the extent of the flooding. Can anyone give me more information how Apalachin is being affected?”
A short time later Jason from the Apalachin Fire Department responded: “There is no way in or out of Apalachin except if you lived off of Pennsylvania Avenue and go around the highway on the secondary roads. And the power has been cut off since Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. and NYSEG states that the power may come on at 10 p.m. on Friday. We are on backup water supply but it is very limited and scarce in areas. The majority of the town is still underwater or surrounded by water. This is a major disaster and will take time to open roads and get power back on as soon as the water recedes in those areas. Hope you get in touch with your father and if you do and he needs to get out or needs help call us at our station (607-625-2216) and we’ll send a crew to assist him. He might be with friends or at a shelter in Owego at St. Patrick’s school.”
Interspersed with the public posts were pertinent dispatches from the reporters of the Press. Combining the two gave both a quantitative and qualitative feel to the disaster — as compelling as anything produced by Anderson Cooper, the post-Katrina darling of cable television news.
At one point I saw a brief report on the website saying that authorities were looking for two people who had jumped from a bridge in Apalachin into the swollen Susquehanna. I wondered if they were misguided thrillseekers or despondent residents. But I never heard more news. Possibly it was a false report, posted by a reader in response to a rumor.
If so that would be one small cost to pay for a lot of valuable information changing hands in an extreme crisis. I know one thing for sure: In the old days I could have called the operator on that party line — she would have known.