Susan Spess Shay

Still playing make believe.


Do You Remember Operators?

English: Large image of telephone switchboard....

This is a direct result of a conversation on Facebook–Do you remember Telephone Operators? The ones who dialed every number for you?

Lily Tomlin

Funny how we remember parts of things and not others, isn’t it? I remember the Trower family, who owned the phone company in Old Ford, probably because I played with the younger daughter of the family. (She was nice!)

But I don’t remember if we had to go through an operator or dial numbers ourselves when I lived there.

There had been an operator at one time, though. Dad tells stories about an operator who had worked there for years, whose name was Margie. (Isn’t that perfect? Exactly what I’d name an operator if I were writing her in a story.)

Anyway, according to my dad, Margie had a gorgeous, sexy voice. Men were always trying to make a date with the poor woman, sight unseen, because of that wonderful voice.

It was a voice that would have made her rich if she’d gone to work on radio or as a voice-over in the movies.

When we moved to C-Town, I remember having operators, but I don’t remember who owned the phone company.

I looked into the office where they worked once. I might have been with Grandma Reeves–the memory is a dim one–but I saw what looked like lots of operators at switchboards. It seems like they were on both sides of a fairly small, dark room.

Of course, it was bright, sunshiny outside, so any room without windows would have looked dark.

Remember how it worked? You picked up the receiver and a woman would say, “Number, please.”

You give her the number (Ours was 36. Grandmother’s was 60 and Dad’s office was 21) and she dialed it for you. It seems as if there were rotorary dials on the phones, but we didn’t use them. (Mama had a red and black phone. Such a red girl!)

Anyway, there were strict rules for the operators. You didn’t listen in on conversations. You didn’t chat it up with a caller, and I’m not sure what else.

My sister Cindy (number 3 in the line up) liked to talk on the phone, like most little kids. Anytime she found it unattended and sitting on the floor (we got long cords on our phones before they got rid of our operators) she’d pick it up and start “talking”.

In our wonderful Small Town World, the operators knew to dial Grandmother’s house when that happened. (They most likely knew we lived next door, too.)

Once, late in the night, the phone rang. Daddy answered, because I could hear his deep voice, rumbling in the dark. In a few minutes he was dressed and leaving the  house.

It’s kind of scary when your dad leaves the house in the middle of the night. He didn’t rush, as if there was an emergency, so I wasn’t really upset, but still, I was curious.

So I went in to Mom, who I knew had to be awake. (After all, Dad left the house.) “Where’d Daddy go?”

“The operator called. The Overmans’ phone is off the hook, and someone’s trying to call them long distance. Your daddy went to tell them.”

The Overman family lived about a block away, went to the same church we did and Mr. Overman had his office right across from Dad’s, and he was a neighbor, so Dad didn’t mind doing it.

As many operators as they had during the day (Eight or ten, maybe? I’m just guessing. The number is probably closer to four or five.) there was probably only one or two women working through the night. But they had to be there. Even though C-Town rolled up the yellow line down the middle of the highway at ten o’clock, there were times when you had to use a phone during the night.

And, yes. The operators who worked in the night broke a few rules. They did listen in on conversations. It’s where some of the best (most reliable) gossip in town came from. 😛

Do you remember party lines–when several homes were on the same line? You knew a call was for your house by the ring. My family was never on a party line (that I remember) but my cousins and my grandma and granddad were.

Conversations were never private on a PL, although they were supposed to be. (If there were too many complaints about you listening in, the phone company could take your phone away from you.)

Once, when Grandma Reeves lived in our house in the country near Old Ford, she caught me listening in on someone else’s conversation. Not being on a party line in town, I didn’t know the rules. (And I don’t remember what they were saying. I was just amazed that I could pick up the phone and step into the middle of someone else’s conversation.)

Grandma was shocked that I’d do such a thing! Other people didn’t have those scruples, though. I’ve heard people talk about how you could always count on one neighbor or another listening in. They were never very happy about it. 🙂

People were so excited when party lines finally passed away. A phone line all their own. Privacy–what a deal.

We lost a lot when our operators and party lines went by the wayside. We lost the personal touch. The warmth sound of a human voice in our ear instead of recordings and electronics. Someone who was there in the night in case of an emergency.

And I doubt there were many obscene phone calls made, since the operator knew what number you were calling from.

When we got phone you had to dial, Brother Jeffrey, who was still just little, tried to make a call one day. He bobble the dialing and got a recording. “The number you dialed is not in service. If you need assistance, please call your operator.”

My little brother misunderstood the operator. He thought the recording said, “If you need a sister, please call your operator.”

Naturally, he talked back. “As sister? I don’t need a sister. I have too many already.”

So . . . do YOU remember telephone operators?