Where were the phones when I needed one?
January 15, 2014
The big gray cat lay atop the giant-size switchboard. Looked like he had been there awhile. And was determined to stay.
Next to the cat were an incalculable number of black telephone wires, curled in large round circles, loosely held together by pieces of bare wire.
At the switchboard was a woman getting on in years but still enlivened by her job. She looked in need of sleep but couldn’t get it because she had to patch through the calls that came day and night.
She was the chief – and only – switchboard operator at that telephone company in that frame house in that little place where all of those wires – strung atop weathered poles in that town and throughout the surrounding rural area – came together. They were shoved through a big hole that had been cut in the side of the house that doubled as the phone office and came to rest atop the old but still quite serviceable switchboard.
There to rest alongside the napping family/home/office cat.
The woman and I talked. The chief and only switchboard operator told me how she helped keep the little town running.
There were the routine calls, of course. Mostly daytime calls.
But there were special emergency calls in the middle of the night. Maybe John got sick and wife Myrtle needed to summon the doctor. Maybe a barn was on fire and the fire department volunteers had to be contacted.
Or maybe Lucille the widow lady couldn’t sleep and just needed to talk. At 3 a.m.
Besides being the phone lady, she was counselor, news gatherer and deliverer, friend, something of a community protector of those who dwelled there.
Even exchanged recipes by phone now and then.
In a little while, the phone company maintenance man dropped by. He was going to make his daily rounds of inspecting the poles, the wires.
And would I like to go with him on his rounds?
We walked the poles, as he put it. He would look up and all about to make sure there were no broken wires, no dangling wires. Make sure, as best he could through his “eyeballing” inspection, that the wires were in place, hopefully would stay in place.
Then he would walk around each pole, pouring water on the base of the pole.
Said that helped ground the wires, helped keep the telephone system working properly.
All of this was some 40 years ago.
Most telephone systems had been modernized by then.
This little town’s phone system was from a long ago time. Yet it still was here. Still functioning. Still serving. Still doing the job.
So I was there to tell how the antiquated phone system still served in a feature story for the big city newspaper for which I worked.
Telephone systems had moved on. But for those in that small town the phone system worked just fine, thank you.
At about that same time, I would find myself being mindful of a contrasting, state of the art phone system back in the big city– one that worked well but, as far as I was concerned as a journalist, had a major drawback.
The phone I needed was near. And yet so far.
I was covering the opening of the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.
I faced a rigid, unyielding deadline.
My story was to be the front page banner story.
My editors were waiting.
And my one story assignment soon developed into the possibility of three stories.
A second story possibility came when my chief editor demanded to know why – at an airport opening gala the night before that he and many other VIPs had attended – there was a long delay in the valets getting their cars back to the VIPs.
I could have told the editor that he probably could figure it out for himself through what he already knew – that a gully washer had hit, that many of the cars had been parked in fields, that the fields got muddy, that the cars got stuck, that special equipment had to be brought in to free the cars.
But I didn’t. Liked my job.
The third possibility resulted from a rumor. The new Concorde supersonic airplane had been flown in for the opening. Rumor had it that the jet had a near-miss with a small aircraft.
So, three possible stories to try to check out.
But it was what seemed like a mile from where the airport opening ceremonies were being held.
And the airport officials with whom I needed to talk to get information relating to all three stories were tied up with the ceremonies.
And deadline was upon me.
And the phone I could use was so near and yet so far.
So I did as any journalist would do.
I just ran faster.
Dictated my story at warp speed.
Another time. Another place. Another story – the story of a killer tornado.
Drove all night to get to the scene. Hit the ground running. Interviewed any and everybody.
Deadline was upon me.
Had a bright idea. Go to the phone company. Interview the person in charge.
Then mention to that supervisor, oh, by the way, I really need to immediately call my story into my newspaper.
Most phones had been knocked out of service.
Supervisor said he only had two long distance lines working.
Said his chief operator would need one.
Said I could have the other.
Thank you. Thank you very much.
Still another story.
I was on my county courthouse beat. A judge was walking across the street. A county employee slugged him.
Someone found me, told me.
I went chasing down the street in pursuit of the judge.
When I caught up with him, he was bleeding about the mouth, headed for the dentist’s office.
Again, I was on deadline.
Interviewed him. Decided to rush to a nearby pay phone, dictate my story to the newspaper.
But, alas, I had no coins for the pay phone.
No problem. Borrowed some coins from the bleeding judge who had just been smash-mouthed.
Got the story in.
As I think about that 40th anniversary of the opening of the airport and the strides that have been made in aviation during the years, I think too of the unbelievable technological progress in communications.
We can be ever in touch with each other.
Maybe too much so. But that’s another story.
Why, if the airport opening were today, a reporter would be able to calmly sit in his chair and – making use of all sorts of communications devices – electronically interview the right officials for all three of the possible stories I was trying to handle, write the stories and zip them to the newspaper not only by deadline but maybe with time to spare.
And all the while maybe even manage to keep the unreasonable, fretting editor calmed down.
In this day, they call them smart phones.
In my day, I had to get by via my wits.
Had to think of it as outsmarting the phones.
Roger Summers is a journalist and essayist who spends time in Texas, New Mexico and England and in a world of curiosity and creativity. He is the author of The Day Camelot Came to Town and Heart Songs From a Washboard Road. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please click the book cover image to read more about the short story collection of Roger Summers, Heart Songs from a Washboard Road.