I Wuz Just Thinking: Reaching out to touch someone
September 5, 2021
One of the main things I learned as a telephone operator: Never laugh at someone’s name…it probably really is real, and they are not joking!
In the Fall of 1965, I was living in Austin, Texas, when I began working at the local telephone company, Ma Bell, the name we called it.
When I was first interviewed, I was told there was an opening in the “traffic department.” I thought to myself, “I’ve never directed automobile traffic before, but I needed a job, especially one that paid higher than the waitress job in a chicken restaurant where I had previously applied.
Well, you can imagine how surprised and relieved I was when I found out their “department of traffic” merely meant the long-distance telephone operator position.
The first three to five days were spent isolated in a small room with only a desk, chair, thick books, and a bright light.
During those daily eight hours daily, I was alone and only had time for a short break during mid-morning, a 30-minute lunch period, and another few minutes of break time in mid-afternoon.
I can better understand the term “brainwashing” after having to read the same thing over and over again. Different words. Same meaning. They provided me strict and rigid instructions about telephone courtesy, how to handle emergency calls, and one of the main things: Never laugh at someone’s name…it probably really is real, and they are not joking!
Finally, the day came when I was introduced to the actual switchboard. I was so nervous that my palms were sweaty. The switchboard consisted of electrical cords or switches to establish connections. Each time I touched the plugs, I would get shocked. I was very happy when I grew accustomed to the switchboard and my hands would no longer perspire.
Sometimes there would be a long-distance call from Kilgore to Austin. Kilgore is my hometown. I would say just a few necessary words to obtain the number the caller wanted. Occasionally the caller would ask me if I was from Kilgore and one of those ‘Mahurin’ girls. I would reply, yes. It was a touch of home.
I figured with my East Texas nasal twang, I could never be an obscene phone caller, even if I wanted to be. Everyone would recognize my voice immediately.
I liked my work being a traffic operator, but I could not understand the dress code of wearing a nice dress, nylons, and high heels. I looked like I was on my way to Sunday church. We sat in front of a switchboard during our entire shift, and no one ever saw us.
The rent-by-the-month parking lot was about three long blocks from the telephone company. It was difficult walking that distance in heels, rain or shine. When I left work in the darkest of nights, it was a scary journey. I did learn to run pretty fast in those high heels when an occasion arose.
Many calls came thru the switchboard. I usually worked my eight-hour shift and then another eight-hour shift for someone else. I did not have much going on in my life at that time so working extra shifts were great for me.
The emergency phone calls did rattle me, especially if it was someone threatening suicide. Most of the time, a lady supervisor stood in an area behind the operators ready to assist in special situations.
There were many lady operators in this long room of switchboards that she would assist. This time, she was elsewhere, and it seemed as if it took me forever to attract her attention so she could plug in beside me and listen to this man with a hysterical voice.
I don’t recall the town from where he was calling, but it wasn’t local. She was able to contact the authorities in his town, and help was on its way.
Hearing his voice and story over and over in my mind made sleep difficult to come until late into the night To this day, I still remember his story and situation…as I wuz just thinking.