This has been the week of the telephone in my head. It began when a Facebook friend posted a picture of Lily Tomlin in her role as the telephone operator on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In from decades ago.
Then another friend posted a photo of a rotary dial phone asking who remembered using one of these.
My astute cousin noted that the numbers seemed to be in reverse order, so I went looking and found out that this was a rotary dial phone from New Zealand with numbers in reverse order.
That one looked more like this.
You turned the handle on the right to activate the ringer and a central operator answered: “Number, please.” Then you told her to ring 24J or what ever number you wanted.
If you were looking for the community physician, Central always knew where he was and could ring him at any house in town – or the surrounding farms. His office and living quarters were on Main Street above the pool hall and just across the corridor from the telephone office. When he left his premises, he’d step into the telephone office and let the operator know where he’d be and for how long.
The central operator also acted as an emergency dispatcher. Our community was built at the confluence of four creeks, Hobbs Creek, Spring Creek, Gyp Creek, and Bull Run. When it rained, as it often did in spring and early summer, the farmers south of town would alert the operator if their neighboring creek was breaching its banks. Central would then call several men who would gather others and some of the high school boys. These crews went from house to house, helping residents put furniture and carpets up on saw horses, so that they would not be damaged by the flood waters.
Of course, these phones were on party lines, so you only answered your own ring.
My living arrangements were not typical. My parents had separated by the time I was three. My mother was working for the railroad as a clerk telegrapher on the extra board. Extra board meant that she was a temp – filling in for vacations, sick leave and the like. She didn’t want to take a child from place to place, moving every few weeks, so I lived with her parents.
My mother was the middle child, between an older brother and a younger brother. During WWII her elder brother enlisted in the navy. He spent most of his tour on the Saratoga – an aircraft carrier in the Pacific theater.
My grandmother was a southern lady in bearing and deportment. Her standards included a basic tenet. “You will not make a scene in public and disgrace the family.” She was the original stoic.
I was about five and a half when the Japanese were broadcasting that they had sunk the Saratoga. When we heard the radio report, my grandmother stiffened her back straighter than any ramrod and set her jaw so firmly that it made Mount Rushmore look like quivering jello.
Then the phone rang. It was my uncle. “Mom, don’t believe the reports. Yes, we took a hit, but we’re in dry dock in Bremerton, Washington. No, I’m fine. Oh, but I did skin my shin on a gangway going up.”
My grandmother was perfectly calm all through the conversation. Then she hung up the phone and sat down in the little black enameled chair in the corner and shook – for about five minutes. Scared the bejeebers out of me at the time. She got herself together, went into her bedroom, pulled the portieres and was in seclusion for about half an hour. When she came out, she told my grandfather (and me by default because I was there, too) what my uncle had said. It was never mentioned again.
Things went back to being totally calm and serene.