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Long Distance, May I Help You?
Working from Nyen to Fiyev.
My first full-time job fresh out of high school was as a long-distance telephone operator at Michigan Bell in Royal Oak. It was the summer of 1955 and I was 17 years old.
The switchboard looked something like this:
There were no men anywhere in sight. A supervisor walked behind us, back and forth, back and forth. Then she would stop. I could feel her standing behind me, watching, judging, and sometimes she would startle me by reaching across my arm to adjust something I’d missed or point to something that had some significance only to her.
We weren’t allowed to speak to each other when we were sitting at the switchboard. We could push a button to hail a supervisor but it was clear our priority was to those voices coming through those infernal, painful headsets, looking for help.
Our stations had rotary dialers and we had to manually dial a number to make a connection. We pulled long cords out of the console and plugged them into jacks in the wall in front of us.
I have no idea how it worked. I don’t remember. There were dozens of plugs and jacks and I somehow knew which went where. Were they marked? I don’t know. I do remember that after a few days of training in front of a simulated switchboard I was ready to help anyone who had to call long distance.
Going through a long-distance operator was the only way you could do it back then. I would say, “Long distance, may I help you?” and you might say, “Los Angeles, California, Lotus 6403, please.” And I would plug a magic cord into a magic jack in the wall and dial Lotus 6403, and when I heard, ‘Hello?’, I would quickly do whatever it was I did to get out of there and move on to the next caller.
If nobody answered, I’d say something like, “Sorry, no answer, please try again later”, and I’d pull the plug on them.
Sometimes the caller on the line felt like talking. We were too busy to encourage that, but also too polite (mandatory) to be rude, so we had to fine-tune the conversation in order to move it along and get to the point. A male caller said once, “You have a beautiful voice”, and I said, too brightly, “Why thank you!” I paused when I should have moved along. I should have said “Thank you. How can I help you today?” But I was 17 and I LOVED that this guy said I had a beautiful voice!
Whatever else we said prompted the ever-present supervisor to poke my shoulder and scowl at me. I hadn’t noticed that she’d plugged in her own cord in a jack at the end of my board and was listening in. She waited until I took my break to let me know conversing with the customers was not allowed. We had to be all business.
A human recording, follow the script, say my lines and move on. It was, in fact, easier that way, and all the customer really wanted was a connection that took them from where they were to somewhere far away, where they could talk loudly and get through it fast—because it was long distance and the idea of going across hundreds or thousands of miles of airwaves was intimidating, and paying by the minute was expensive.
For some reason, every number but nine and five were pronounced as usual. Nine became ‘niyen’ and five became ‘fiyev’. I looked forward to repeating niyen and fiyev and entertained myself by saying them with unseemly gusto. My little challenge to the status quo.
Sometimes we said, “Number, please”, and ‘please’ came out ‘plee-yez’. That was fun, too.
Every now and then we long distance operators were called on to do a few hours as Information operators. I would unplug my headset and walk over to a room where thick phone books lay scattered across long tables. There must have been a switchboard but all I remember are those phone books. Ordinary phone books. So when people called for a number within the Detroit exchanges, I would say “Information” and when they told me who they were looking for I would literally walk around the table, find the appropriate phone book, thumb through the pages, and find the number.
I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect that.
I worked at Michigan Bell Telephone from June 1955 to around October. I liked that job and I think the pay was okay but I had to quit in utter shame because of my boyfriend’s boyfriend, who was a boob and never should have been trusted to lie for me.
I had begun dating Ed near the end of September. He was newly out of the Marines and a bit of a rebel compared to me. I found that exciting, I guess. He had a couple of crazy friends and we all rapidly became a crowd.
It was a beautiful fall day and Ed and the gang talked me into playing hooky to go to the Zoo. My shift started at noon so we had plenty of time to hatch a plan to get me out of work. I would be suddenly sick.
The flu! Of course! I was going to call in and was already practicing my flu voice, but this crazy friend Ralph said he would call and pretend he was my dad. They had the same first name, Ralph, so it sort of made sense. I guess.
So Ralph called into the telephone company office to report his daughter’s need to stay home because of that awful flu going around. He was in the house making the call while the rest of us were piling picnic things into the cars. Suddenly the screen door flew open and Ralph shouts, “Hey, Mona, how do you spell your last name?”
I didn’t go back. I didn’t collect my last paycheck. I didn’t ever want to see a telephone again. But I married that guy Ed the following July and we moved to California in October and Ralph went on to do whatever Ralph did while Ed and I spent the next 66 years getting to know each other.
I thought about this while I was marveling over my new cell phone. There is almost nothing I can’t do on that phone, and the days of telephone operators are long gone. Is there such a thing anywhere in the world now? I don’t know about the world, but operator services are a thing of the past here in the U.S. AT&T ended 411 Services to landlines in January.
The end of an era. I admit I’m a bit nostalgic, but I took this picture with my new Samsung and posted it on the internet and then I wrote this post about my days as a long-distance telephone operator and chances are you’re reading it on your phone.
If this seems quaint to you, I’ve done my job. I’m old, my honeys, and I’ve got stories…
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