I Wuz Just Thinking: The Suicide Call

Telephone operators at work. Photograph: Sixty Cycle Music

This time,  it was more than just a lonesome caller.  I heard the voice of a man, almost hysterical. He was threatening to kill himself. 

Early January, the weather was windy, rainy, and about 32 degrees.  It was a long and painfully cold, wet walk from the parking lot to the Ma Bell building in Austin, Texas. I would be working the next two eight-hour shifts as a long-distance telephone operator.

It took a while for my body to heat up to the comfortable temperature within the large room where ladies sat with the lights flashing indicating in-coming calls.

The long-distance calls at their usual pace, and it seemed to be an uneventful day.

About noon, the calls became more rapid and seemed to be more urgent. With the bad weather, we were inundated with calls from all over town about auto accidents and the need for ambulances and fire trucks.  Still, I was able to keep up with the cords and plugs to my area of the switchboard.

Then, a call came in from a person who just wanted someone to listen to him talk.  It was not uncommon, especially during the late-night shifts.

Usually, the “lonesome person” calls are quickly ended. Callers were told that we were not allowed to visit on the phone or we would be in trouble with our supervisor. Generally, they would simply hang up.

This time, however, it was more than just a lonesome caller.  I heard the voice of a man, and he was almost hysterical.

He was threatening suicide.

Betty Mahurin Baker

All I could think of was to keep him on the line and attract my supervisors’ quick need for assistance.

Other lights kept flashing on my switchboard but I could not put the young man on hold. The lights had to keep flashing until another operator plugged into them.

From my chair, the floor supervisor was nowhere to be seen, and we were not allowed to stand or walk around for any reason at all.

I listened to the man and answered him only when I deemed it necessary to say something.

I had to keep him on the phone.

I had to keep him talking.

He told me about his life growing up

He told me about his family.

He said he loved his Dad and of his Dad’s profession.

It seemed as if we had been on the phone together for at least 15 minutes before I was able to get my supervisor’s attention.  She immediately plugged into my station where she could hear the caller as well.

I asked him, while she was listening, about the town where he was located.

Was he home?

Was he at a motel?

Where was he using the phone?

Was anyone with him?

I asked him questions that I felt were pertinent in locating him.

I let him tell me his story and why he thought that taking his own life was a reasonable thing to do.

I had no training on how to handle this type of call, and I was trying to be cautious. I did not want my words to encourage him to follow through with his threats.

My heart was racing with high anxiety, my body tense. I felt that the responsibility of this man’s life was in my hands.

It was in the year of 1966, and he was one of the “closet people.” He was ashamed or frightened that others would not accept him.

He had traveled to his hometown to face his Dad and tell him about his sexuality.

He was afraid of rejection from his dad.

He was so unsure of his Dad’s reaction and decided to write his confession in a note that would be found with his dead body. He e would never have to actually face his father.

A tap on my shoulder from my supervisor let me know that the young man’s location had been found and help was on its way.

I continued listening and talking to keep him on the line.  After a few more minutes, I heard the doorbell ring.  Someone came onto the phone line, stating that help had arrived and they were talking with the young man.

I unplugged the cord, sat back in my chair, and tried to relax my mind and body of thoughts about what could have been, a fatal occurrence…as I wuz just thinking.

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