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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Remember When …
… Telephone Operators Made All the Right Connections?
Number please …

Those are words from the past, and what memories they stir within one who was around before they put dials (never mind push buttons) on telephones.

The voice that spoke those words is also from the past. More than a few citizens who carry miniature phones in their pockets, purses or perhaps hitched to their belts have never heard a real live voice ask Number please.

They’re missing something. Part of what’s missing is the reassuring tone of a feminine voice that prompted the person holding the phone to truly believe the operator on the other end was ready, willing and able to help. The call would go through — and with no annoying noises or a recorded voice requesting the caller hang up and try again.

For a while, in the waning days of Number please, phone companies engaged a few men as operators, real live operators. But their voices lacked the reassurance of a woman’s voice; or perhaps it was just the change that annoyed those placing long distance calls or seeking a number. As late as in the 1970s, the telephone brought us those unrecorded feminine voices that pretty much guaranteed the call would go through — and brought us a bit of personal attention, to boot.

Mourning Ma Bell
How times have changed, and certainly not for the best, in the past several decades. Why, I can recall when one could pick up the monthly phone bill, and in a minute or two tops, understand it. All there was was the basic service charge, a list of long distance calls (and there weren’t many) and the tax.

I’ll wager few if any phone users of today fully realize what all the figures and worded calculations of today’s bills mean. They can be as confusing as interpreting an IRS review of a change in tax matters.

Methinks one of the biggest mistakes we endure came in 1984, when the courts decided that American Telephone and Telegraph was too much of a monopoly and had to be broken up. That’s when the you-know-what hit the fan.

Maternalistic Ma Bell, the biggest and richest conglomerate in the world, was truly our mother when it came to personal communications. Today she’s history and being bought out by one of the smallest Baby Bells for a relative pittance, $16 billion.

The death of Ma Bell and traditional phone communications has been slow. First to go were the legion of operators, real live operators, to whom we could explain what we wanted, trusting our request would be fulfilled. Sure, it’s nice to punch a 1, followed by an area code and a number and start talking with someone in Kalamazoo or Kansas City. But it’s not so nice when all that’s on the other end of the line is a recorded voice demanding the caller hang up and try again.

Heroes at the Other End of the Line
Operators were the unsung heroes of days past. They were there to see that your call went through. For the most part, they remained there until we heard a hello at the other end. That feminine voice was more than reassuring; it was a bonafide promise of a connection if someone was home at the number called.
There were times when a real live operator could be called upon for duties beyond just connecting one party to the other. On one of those times, pal Spike Campbell and I were babysitting my cousin Anne while her parents, Aunt MiMi and Uncle Larry, went to Brattleboro, Vt., to take in the championship ski jumps.

I was just back from the Navy in World War II; Spike was about to join the Navy. Anne, about a year old, had been crying for longer than we thought appropriate. We tried to reach a few other women friends of the family, but they, too, were in Brattleboro for the ski jumps. Anne continued wailing.

Then we thought of the telephone operator; she was sure to be a woman. The regulars at the Arlington switchboard were Ellen Hayes, a former high school chum, and Marge Doyle, who in a front room of her home had the big switchboard with all the wires. I cranked the handle on the big wooden box to which the black speaker and listening device was attached. Soon it was Number please with Ellen at the other end.

I told her of our dilemma. We had to soothe Anne before MiMi and Larry returned. It wasn’t the first time Ellen had been through the routine; she told me to put Spike on the phone to relay her suggestions as I picked up Anne and did as she advised.

Waltzing around, cradling the baby while singing low didn’t help (as could be expected of my singing), and we had already tried a fresh bottle of warm milk. But the house became quiet when I stirred up a cup of Pablum, two hours before scheduled, as Ellen advised. Baby Anne had a mind of her own, and she wanted dinner now. Our problem solved in less than 10 minutes. Try doing that with a Verizon connection today.

Reporters’ Best Friends
When I was newspapering in Alaska before statehood, I could dial an operator and give her the name of the party I needed to reach — even a party who didn’t have a phone. All that was needed was the name of a neighbor who had a phone. Then I’d hang up and the operator would call the neighbor, who in turn would notify the wanted party. I’d be called back by the operator when my party went to the neighbor’s phone.

Operators worked not just for the phone company. Countless others were at the switchboards of businesses, for there was no recorded voice mail in those days, just real voices that usually could track down the party called. Those operators too have just about gone. Among them was Miss Genevieve Thornburg, the boss at the Sunpapers’ mammoth switchboard. She was the hero of more than one newshawk at the Calvert Street headquarters. Many a job was saved by her maternalistic approach to her flock in the newsroom.

If a bad night was coming up and one didn’t trust the alarm clock to fully awaken a wayward reporter in the am, it was just leave a wake-up call with Miss Thornberg or one of her crew. The phone would ring until answered, and a bit later there’d be a follow-up call to be sure the recipient hadn’t gone back to sleep. Those operators could be relied on for everything, including advice for a hangover.

Newsmen and women are supposed to be always available for calls whether or not on the clock, and not infrequently we were at places where we weren’t supposed to be. But had we confided in Mrs. Thornburg and her crew, they would cover for us when an impatient editor picked up his phone and told her to put us on the line. They would find us quicker than a cell phone can track you down today, and they’d never snitch.

You can have all the modern phones with their musical rings, phones that also play the latest tunes, take pictures, even offer video. Who knows what’s next, but the one thing they can’t bring back is that reassuring Number please and the unsaid Leave the rest to us. That’s when a phone was more than a phone. It was a friend indeed.

Enough said.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.