My Love Affair With The Telephone

Me in 1942, Gatesville, TX

When I was about three years old I had a toy telephone. I talked long and frequently on that thing every day. My mother thought it was cute and took the photo you see here. She marveled at my propensity for being so earnest in carrying out these one-sided, make-believe conversations. What little kid hasn’t watched their parents and other relatives actively engaged in lively conversation on the telephone. Since they can only hear one side of the conversation, they naturally assume it to be a one-person activity.

A couple of years later, my dad went to Alaska to work on the Alcan Highway project, so my mother and I moved back to Fort Worth to live with my grandmother for the duration of the war. It was then I discovered a toy that used to belong to my father when he was little. It was a clever educational tool that consisted of two panels hinged together at the back with two latches holding them together in the front. Each panel had small metal prongs sticking up in five rows of ten columns. There were a series of question and answer cards on various subjects dealing with geography, science and history. The question card with fifty questions was placed over the prongs on the top panel, and the corresponding answer card was placed over the prongs on the bottom panel.

Each panel had a cord attached to it with a metal tip about an inch long on the end of the cord. You plugged the metal tip from the question panel onto the question you wanted to answer. Then you looked for the corresponding answer on the bottom panel and plugged the other cord into the answer you thought was correct. If you made the right connection, the panel made a buzzing sound not unlike that of a telephone switchboard. If your selected answer was wrong, you had to either select another answer at random or run the tip of the answer cord along the prongs on the bottom panel until you heard the buzzing sound. Then you knew the correct answer to the question. It was a fun thing to pass the time with, but after a bit it got boring. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the prongs on the top panel always matched up with the same prong on the bottom panel. So if question number 3′s answer was found on the fourth row, column 8, whatever question card you used, the third question’s answer would always be found at row four, column eight. That’s when I figured out another way to enjoy it, and started playing Telephone Switchboard Operator.

Lots of movies from the 1930s and 1940s had scenes where there was a bank of switchboard operators busy plugging in their cords to the boards in front of them to answer and distribute calls. Any business that had multiple phone lines had to have at least one switchboard operator to answer and direct these calls. Since we went to the movies a lot in those days, I was fully familiar with the concept of switchboard operators and how that all worked. This was my opportunity to enjoy a new game involving talking on the telephone.

After the war was over and my dad came back from Alaska, we moved into our own home, and I left the “switchboard game” at my grandmother’s house. But since both my parents worked, my grandmother was often called on to babysit me, and I frequently drug out the old game and played Telephone Operator.

I started school that fall right after the war ended. We had a phone but I rarely had an opportunity to talk on it. Kids weren’t really allowed to call their friends that much, especially when you were in the primary grades. The kids of today would look at our phone and think it was weird. It was this really great “Candlestick” phone. It had a round base where the dialing mechanism was located. Then there was this “stick” about ten inches high that connected to a round head where the speaker was located. The speaker was shaped like a small megaphone that flared out. You held the “stick” part of the phone in one hand while you spoke into the little “megaphone” at the top. While you were doing that, you held the “receiver” portion up to your ear. That was also shaped somewhat like a little megaphone, and you pressed it right up against your ear. It was attached to the phone by a cord. When you finished talking, you set the phone down, and hung the receiver on a little circle thingy that was the “switch hook”. The weight of the receiver made the switch hook pull down into the “disconnect” position. It was awfully tempting to play with this phone, but I had to be careful because you could inadvertently connect with the operator. That could get you in trouble with your parents, so I didn’t do it often.

A year or two later, the telephone company brought out a square black phone that looked more like the phones we used a few years ago. It had a proper receiver on it that contained both the ear piece and the mouthpiece, and it rested in the “cradle” when not in use. That was the phone I was occasionally able to use to call a friend and sometimes I called my grandmother or another relative. In those days, the phone numbers were easier to remember because they only had five digits.

Kids in those days used to like to play tricks on people and the telephone was their weapon of choice. They would look up the number of a drug store in the phone book and place a call. When the proprietor answered, one of the kids would ask if they had Prince Albert in a can. In case you are too young to know this, Prince Albert was a brand of pipe tobacco. It frequently came in a small round can, but it also came in a pouch. So the question was a legitimate one. Unfortunately, once the proprietor answered that yes, they had Prince Albert in a can, the kid making the call would say, “Then you’d better let him out before he suffocates!” and everyone gathered around the phone would dissolve in gales of laughter. Naturally, the poor man at the drug store didn’t find this all that amusing, and if you got caught doing this, you could count on your parents having stern words with you at the very least. I got talked into playing that game once, and I got caught by my mother! That’s a story for another day.

We left Fort Worth in late 1950 and moved to San Diego. I had one really close friend there and she and I talked on the telephone occasionally. But she only lived a block away, so usually my mother insisted we just talk in person. Then in the summer of 1951, we were transferred to Albuquerque.

We had a phone at first because we moved into an apartment until we could find a house. But I didn’t know anyone, so there was no one to talk to on the phone. Then we bought a new house that was just being built in a brand new area of town. We moved in August right before school started, but we couldn’t get a phone. There were absolutely no phone lines in our new neighborhood, and we were put on a waiting list until lines could be installed. It took a year to get a phone, and when we did, it was on a twelve-party line.

In case anybody doesn’t know what that means, I’ll explain. In today’s world, most people have several phones in their homes. As you know, if someone is on the phone in the kitchen and you pick up the extension in the bedroom, you can listen in on the conversation. Also, if you need to use the phone and somebody else is already using it in your house, you have to wait until they finish or ask them to get off the phone. That’s the way a party line works. It’s like having eleven strangers living in your house, sharing the one phone line that comes into it. Imagine that each of your extension phones had a different ring tone. But you could hear your ring tone and everyone else’s too. So, you had to remember that your phone had two long rings and one short, then when you answered it would be a call for your phone.

This situation was an endless source of amusement for the kids in the area. You could never count on the fact that your conversations had any privacy at all because chances were somebody would pick up their phone, hear you having a conversation, and decide to hang around to see what they could hear.

Fortunately, we only had to endure this situation for about a year before the system was upgraded to the point we could get a private line. There were many people who stuck with the party-line system, however, because it was cheaper and because they rather enjoyed the free entertainment. But I was glad to be free from that because I was now in the ninth grade and talking on the phone was becoming more and more important to me. I still had to keep the conversations short, especially if my father was around. He limited the length of my calls because it was important to his job that he be available by phone. Remember, Call Waiting was still many years in the future, and so were answering machines. My best shot at talking to my friend Bobbie was when I baby sat. I would talk to her as long as her father would let her stay on the phone.

When I graduated from high school, I went looking for a job. I found one at Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Company at the corner of Sixth and Silver in downtown Albuquerque. I worked in the State Engineering Department. These were the guys working on the equipment and buildings for the newest features in telecommunications. They were getting us ready for ten-digit dialing! By this time, everyone’s phone number consisted of two letters of the alphabet, followed by five numbers. For example our prefixes were Chapel, Diamond, Market, Axtel, and Amherst. If the phone number you wanted to call was in the “Chapel” exchange, the first two numbers you dialed were 2-4 (CH), followed by the five digit phone number.

This would all change when we went to ten-digit dialing. For one thing, this meant we would be able to dial a long distance call ourselves. Always before, when you needed to make a long distance call, you had to place that call through the long-distance operator. There simply was no way for people to do that from their phones. Now there would be. Additionally, the old system of a “Named” exchange would go away. No longer would you be calling to get the time and temperature by remembering CH 3-7611 (Chapel 3-7611). After the change over, it would simply be 243-7611. The other thing in our future was the introduction of the Area Code. Now, each area of the country would be assigned a unique area code so that people calling to that area had the information they needed to dial the number directly. If you didn’t live before area codes and direct distance dialing, I’m not sure you can appreciate what an enormous step this was, and how it changed the way we used our phones.

I left the telephone company in early 1959, and the switchover to ten-digit dialing was still a few years off, but I knew it was coming and understood what it was. My next job was at the FBI. I took a position as a stenographer and I was one of several stenos in a pool. Because I was the latest hire, I was given the job as relief switchboard operator. This wasn’t something the other stenos like to do, but I was in hog heaven. Here I was, fifteen years after my “Switchboard Operator Game” getting to play on an actual switchboard! It was the same kind of old-fashioned plug board I used to see in the movies when I was little. How cool was that?

It wasn’t long (about a year) until the FBI was moved to new quarters in the newly completed Federal Building at the corner of Fifth and Gold. With the new building came a new phone system, and the old plug board was gone. It was still fun to work, though, and I happily volunteered to continue as relief operator when needed.

I left the FBI in late 1960 to give birth to my lovely daughter, and after that my only relationship with phones was using our family phone for the next several years.

Then in 1973 I entered the work force again and went to work in the Administration Department of a hospital. There, part of my job was to answer the phone lines of several people in that office. Now I learned about multi-line phone sets, hold buttons, transferring calls, and the dreaded message taking. This period of my phone affair was not as pleasant as others had been. I went to work at another hospital in 1976 and still had the same relationship with phones, which lasted until 1978 when I moved to a Savings and Loan.

My first work station in that job was directly across from the telephone operators room. We had two operators on duty at the switchboard and normally they covered the board very well between them. Occasionally someone would get sick or have vacation days. When that happened, the lone operator needed a relief person. I was close by and I was eager to help. It was a much different board than the last one I had used at the FBI, but it didn’t take long to learn. The more difficult thing was knowing exactly where to direct some of the calls. Not everyone knew who they needed to talk to; just that they needed somebody to help them or answer questions. Now I had to learn each department and who would be the best person to take the call. In addition, the S&L had about eight outlying branches, and all of their calls came through the main switchboard.

In 1981 I got a promotion that put me in the position of supervising several groups within Administrative Services. I was Assistant Security Officer and I was supervising the mail room, the couriers and the maintenance staff. Oh, and one other thing. I became the supervisor of the switchboard operators. Guess which was my favorite part of the job!

I discovered at that time that I was also responsible for tracking the bills for the telephone system at the S&L and the phone lines. About the same time, AT&T was being “deregulated” and split off from all the phone line component of the phone company. Henceforth, AT&T would be the equipment provider, along with long distance calling, and the phone lines themselves would become the responsibility of Mountain Bell. This meant I had to work with two different companies from then on. The old, embedded equipment we were using was to remain with Mountain Bell, but if we purchased a new phone system, that would come from AT&T (or one of it’s many newly invigorated competitors.)

And of course, eventually, we needed a new phone system. But by that time, my duties had been split off and I was now the Communications Supervisor. I was assigned to the Data Processing Department and my job was to manage the phone system, supervise the switchboard operators, approve the bills, and arrange for installation of new phones and new phone lines.

I went to training sessions and spent months with AT&T helping to design a new PBX system for the largest savings and loan in New Mexico. We bought a new building and remodeled it. We wired it to become the home of the new PBX, an AT&T System 85 with the latest in digital phones. We spent about a month programming the system and installing the new phone sets. We chose a three-day holiday weekend to convert to the new system. Monday morning after the Presidents Day weekend in 1986, we came to work and didn’t have to wait long for the first trouble reports. Some of the off-premise extension lines to the branches weren’t working. Some of the people in the new building needed more help learning how to work their new phones. In other words, everything went off as you would expect.

I spent the next seven years installing phones, programming phones, supplying budget numbers, approving bills (our phone budget was a million dollars each year), and occasionally relieving the switchboard operators. Eventually, we moved the switchboard into my cubicle where I could easily help out when needed.

I left the S&L (which by now had been taken over by the RTC and then sold to a bank out of California) and stepped into the position as president of my own computer company. My husband, the VP and General Manager, had been running everything since 1986, but we decided that I should become more than a figurehead president.

So naturally, my first day on the job, I had to learn to answer yet another phone system and take messages. (Did I mention I hate answering phones and taking messages???) Eventually I was able to hire someone else to do that job, although I continued to be the backup as needed. During my time there I purchased two phone systems and learned to program them. I could never have done it all without the help of a dear man who I had worked with at the S&L. He was working for Mountain Bell at first and then for AT&T. Eventually he opened his own phone service business, and I used him during the rest of my working days.

I sold the business at the end of 2006 and retired. Now I talk on the phone a lot less than I use to, and that’s fine with me. I look back on my “Affair With The Telephone” and marvel at the technology that has happened over the years. I worked with some of the earliest cell phones (or mobile phones as they were called back then). What a difference in that one area alone. The size of the early “brick” and its heavy weight are laughable compared to my slim, dainty little LG phone that I slip into the pocket of my jeans. I’m glad I have this background with phones.

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