Operator-assisted Telephone Calls

“Num-ber PA-lee-aaze!” is what that scary, dominating woman’s voice on the other end of the line demanded each time I plucked the telephone receiver from it’s cradle and drew it cautiously to my ear.  Ice-drenched fear raced through the marrow of my bones each time I heard her voice.  I’d quickly hand the receiver to Mom who’d purr, “248-J” into the mouthpiece.  She would then pass the receiver back to me, I’d snug it to my ear, hear a briiing-briiing sound followed by Annie Lee’s cheery hello.  Annie Lee was my godmother;  her husband, Winston, my godfather.  Older than my parents, they dotingly filled the grandparent void as all my real ones had died before I was born.

But back to that telephone operator.  She stood between me and anyone’s voice I wanted to hear.  And worse, Mom had drilled me to pick up the telephone and tell that operator about any emergency that might occur, such as a fire, and she would dispatch help.  Yeah!  Like flames licking at my backside could be incentive enough to propel me to cry out to that malevolent-sounding telephone operator!  Years later, in the psychedelic ’60s when Lily Tomlin regularly performed her “Ernestine the telephone operator” sketches on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, I enjoyed Lily’s quirky, omnipotent Ernestine.  And she didn’t look at all like the ghastly creature at the other end of my telephone line.  I envisioned my telephone operator wearing thick-heeled black suede pumps, a black  dress with glowing eyeballs sewn on the sleeve cuffs, maroon nail polish, thick glasses on a chain around her neck, knotted brows swooping upward and a fat hair bun skewered with green knitting needles topping a very buxom figure.  And it wouldn’t have come as any surprise if red plumes of smoke escaped her nostrils.  Yeeech!

I believe Daddy was afraid of her too.  I remember times at the dinner table, while luxuriantly caressing my dessert with the back of a spoon, hearing Daddy say something like this to Mom, “Lois, get Wilber Ebert on the line, I want to see if I can borrow his wheelbarrow this weekend.”  Seemed he was forever getting Mom to place his calls.  Our community finally got dial phones in October of 1958, but then, Dad continued having Mom initiate telephone calls for him.  Maybe it was just one of those King-of-his-castle things instead of any heart-thumping fear that made him keep Mom toiling at the telephone.

Mom never complained about her household task as Official Call-Meister.  Perhaps it was in her blood.  In the tiny town in which she was raised, her own mother was the official substitute for Miss Eleanor Norfleet, switchboard operator of the town’s telephone service.  She had been hand-picked for the job in 1925 by Miss Norfleet, herself, because my grandmother had the reputation of being a woman who knew about all things and how do them well.  After all, Fannie Jackson was a successful milliner, had designed her own home, the Women’s Club facility, the town’s high school, so naturally, pulling duty at the switchboard would be a cinch, even though Mrs. Jackson preferred the absence of any telephone in her own home.   So, in addition to any planned days off, Miss Eleanor could, at the drop of a hat, go tend to something at home, run an errand, chase a cat or fly a kite.  All she need do was telephone Perkins Meat Market and instruct the delivery boy to run over to Miss Fannie’s and say Miss Eleanor needed her at the switchboard.  Whereupon, my grandmother would drop several hats in progress, march over to the telephone company and (wo)man the switchboard until Miss Eleanor’s return.

No wonder my grandmother was a woman who knew about all things– she probably eavesdropped at that switchboard.