‘Pipeline’ Pioneers

No, not that Pipeline, the mammoth coastal waves located in Hawaii, because that would involve a near-death experience with a surfboard and water rolling over head. Mmmm, not so much on that one.

The Pipeline I’m referring to was born in the very un-surfer-like Detroit area and was the name that teenagers gave to an anomaly in the local phone system that allowed faint, random crosstalk after the dial tone ceased. This was the mid-sixties, before the advent of the phone company’s recorded message urging you to hang up the phone, followed by the endless, ear splitting aural reminder that you can hear two rooms away.

How it was discovered is the stuff of teenage legend and nobody knows for sure, but the end result was a ‘chat line’ in its most primitive form, sort of a Facebook without the graphics, text, audio (well good audio anyway), video or anything else resembling technological progress.

How it worked, at least the way we did it, was that you picked up the phone, hit the two top ‘hang up’ buttons until the dial tone ceased and then listened carefully for what might be distant voices, although some kids dialed non-working numbers to achieve the same thing. Because they were nothing more than analog bleed-through sounds from virtually anywhere, like when you get wires crossed and can hear another person’s conversation, you had to yell in return and hope the person you had heard could hear you. If the process was successful, you exchanged phone numbers and then called one another directly and had a more civil conversation.

That was the usual protocol although you had to do a lot of yelling to determine if you wanted to call this person back. The premise was fairly simple in that if you were a boy, you were trying to talk to girls and visa versa. During the Pipeline’s heyday, My friends Hank and Sammy and I spent tons of our vast idle time screaming into the phone trying to get girl’s numbers.

The end result was always awkward because you were establishing connections with kids you didn’t know, who lived in different parts of the city from you, and were no more than voices so you couldn’t size up the physical possibilities. Hmmm, sounds a bit like the Internet doesn’t it?

But, at least from the young boy perspective, it was a titillating experience with just the very slim possibility that you might meet a really cool girl and…the imagination took over from there. It was a fantasy that kids were projecting upon one another; plus, the incredible newness of this phone trick and our hormones made it a teenage pursuit of the highest order.

All three of us had different approaches to the risk involved in talking to a girl you didn’t know. Sammy was the most brazen because he had the cool thing going which gave him a certain confidence with girls, so we tended to give him the lead in making return phone calls after we’d screamed back and forth for 5 or 10 minutes.


So Sammy would call the girl back and we’d be hanging on his every word and kibitzing like crazy (“Ask her what school she goes to.”), hoping against hope that the girl had girlfriends that might meet us at some location and we’d, in theory, hit it off and boom you’d have a girlfriend and…well, that imagination thing again.

Hank laid back the furthest because he had absolutely no confidence in this area and I was somewhere in between no confidence and fearless stupidity so I was game whatever the scenario. Though it was only cool Sammy that took it all the way and actually set up a meeting with one of the girls. As he relayed it in scant detail, the meeting was uneventful and he never called her again although I’ll bet it was a pretty exciting lead-up.

My guess is, with certain exceptions, nothing much ever came from the Pipeline other than some minor socializing the way that teenagers do and I imagine that the Internet social sites amount to about the same thing. A little blather here and there, some false bravado, some innocuous flirting and, bingo, there’s some more teenage time accounted for. Before the Pipeline there was cruising the mall and before that was the soda shop so, other than some major technological perks, nothing has really changed all that much.

But I’ll tell you one thing about the Pipeline. At the time, it was the most amazing social phenomena and something we never mentioned to our parents and that made it exotic, and exotic in the hands of teenagers is pure enchantment, however dopey it may be.

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