We had to be polite
The Spirit of Tehachapi
July 23, 2022
When I was 17 and fresh out of high school, I was hired as an operator at the local telephone office. I earned 65 cents an hour. Six days a weeks, eight hour days on a split shift of four hours on four hours off and four hours on again. It broke up one's day to where you really could not plan to go anywhere far from town.
We had a vocabulary that we used and each word emerged as the soul of kind, polite conversation. No matter how rude or irate some people were, we were the soul of tact.
People usually did not call by number; just said, "give me the bank," or the drug store or the Round Up (a local bar). It didn't matter, the operator knew the numbers anyway.
On a switchboard that housed some 300 numbers, we would sometimes have several people ringing in for service at the same time. Occasionally, a customer would ask, "Operator! Where were you?" Instead of being a wise cracker and saying, I was out for short beer, I would say, "I'm sorry sir, we are very busy today." The soul of tact.
Sometimes, we'd get an impatient customer who would want the impossible. Just because they cannot see the operator, they don't really realize that we know where they are. One day a man rang in and said in a busy voice that he needed a Bakersfield number. I told him the circuits were busy and I would call him when I had a line. We had two good circuits to Bakersfield and one noisy circuit that we only used if necessary. All three were in use that day.
His reply was, "Now, look operator, I've got to get my call in. I have to tell my boss in Bakersfield that I can't make it to work today as it's snowing like hell up here in Tehachapi."
The jerk. He was across the street from me at the depot's pay phone booth. I told him, innocently, "Oh is it snowing?"
He repeated, "Snowing like hell up here!"
Breaking his bubble and also breaking the classical, routine verbiage, I said, "That's funny, it's not snowing over here across the street!"
To make a long story shorter, he said, "Where are you?"
I said, "Right across the street from you, sir."
He said, "Oh. Well, when you get my call through, call me at the Round Up."
I said, "Yessir, I will. Try not to 'slip' in the snow on the way."
I broke some rules but it was fun. No one knew. The liar.
Most shifts were quite routine but one afternoon I answered a call from June Chitwood's home. I knew the caller was not June but Barbara (Brite) Warner who must have been visiting June. I connected the number and she later hung up. Just seconds later, I had a call for Barbara Warner's home. Now, I knew Barbara was not home. I also knew where Barbara was. What to do? I rang June Chitwood's home. When I went on the line to see if they answered I heard Barbara say, "How did you know I was here?" I guess they finally figured it out.
My tenure at the switchboard was between 1946 and 1948. In those days the word "sex" was not thrown around as it is today. So, when a deep voiced man rang in and said, "Give me the Sex Appeal in Rosamond," I was what they used to say, taken aback.
"What is the name of the establishment, sir," I asked.
"Just 'gimmie' the Sex Appeal!" he said.
The Rosamond operator gave me the official name and the party got his number. I told him, as I put the call through, what the official name was. There is more to the story but it's too long to tell.
The Police Department consisted of one Chief of Police and one Deputy Sheriff. They usually patrolled together and kept watch over the community. If we could not locate them by calling a few places we'd turn on a red light just outside our office. They would see it and call in. I always wondered what the travelers going through on U.S. Highway 466 thought about what was behind the red light.
There were phone lines called party lines where everything had a special ring. Our phone number was 67M. That means we listened for one long ring followed by a short ring. Our party line was the Sola residence and their number was 67W which was two even rings. There were two other rings: J was three rings and R four rings. The number always preceded the letter.
The Farmer lines were just what they said. Out in the valley areas, one phone line was installed but each phone had a special ring. A little more mathematical than in town. The Fickert sisters in Bear Valley was 26F12. That meant one long ring and two short rings. It would not have mattered what we rang as they would have answered. Their phone was the only phone in Bear Valley. Nellie and Louise Fickert were the sole owners.
Farther on in Cummings and Brites' Valley there were Farmer Lines with 66Y as the first of the number. I remember a wonderful lady, a Mrs. Delszer whose number was 66Y5. If I rang one of the neighbor's rings and she knew they were not home but did know where they were she'd come on the line and say, "Operator, they're over at 'so and so's' house." I'd say thanks and then ring "so and so's house." All was right with the world.
The long distance operators did not know Mrs. Delszer's good deeds in locating people in the valley and would say, "Madam, please get off the line." Too bad, I had to ring the number knowing the people were not home. I wanted to say, "Operator, they're over at so and so's house." The long distance operator would not have understood our small town courtesy. I was just ringing the number for her. But, Mrs. Delszer was a fine lady and a lot of help. I still have her recipe for Porcupine Meatballs.
In the old fashioned switchboards one could not help but hear snatches of peoples' conversations with the manual ringing. People accused us of "listening in" on their conversations. We were too busy answering calls to make much sense in what we did hear.
In 1948 I went to work at the Bank of Tehachapi. Those were the days when a lot of work was done with just a fancy adding machine and the rest with personal figuring. So, as it turned out, instead of knowing everyone's phone number, I knew their bank balance. Never to be revealed, of course, and we still had to be very kind and use polite language to the customers.
After the earthquake in 1952, Tehachapi was converted to a dial system. No operators locally. One dialed "O" for operator and got Bakersfield. Tehachapi residents had to look for their phone books and look up numbers they had never known before.