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No Straight Answers From the Phone Company

By John Gould / May 19, 1995



Long ago, in a moment of profound thought, I stated in a public place that telephone companies are run by a lot of people who don't know how to run telephone companies. At the time, I was surprised at the number of people who agreed with me and related an amusing anecdote to support my hypothesis.

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The particular situation that caused me to speak out thus rashly had to do with a rural party line for which we paid a princely monthly extortion.

Our telephone service amounted to opening the back door and shouting down the valley.

Expostulating and vituperating did no good, and when we tried to telephone to management we couldn't rouse Gladys, who was our Hello Central. We could reach Gladys in person at the post office when she went for her mail, and Gladys would say she didn't know, she just worked there. We also had a pleasant young man who lived in the village and was a vice president of the telephone company, but all he did was distribute directories.

This was long enough ago that, with the infant retirement dates now in use, nobody who then worked for the telephone company is around. Which may help some; I don't know.

Our area still had a magneto switchboard, which had long been antedated in all parts of the world except our town and a mud village in New Mexico. To engage the attention of Gladys, we had to stand on a Carnation Milk box and reach up to turn the crank. A vigorous and forthright twist would enervate the magneto, and this was supposed to release a ''drop'' on the central switchboard, which Gladys was supposed to observe and attend.

There was no set interval for Gladys to do this, but when she ''came on'' the moment was joyous. Her exact words were, ''Number please!'' to which we, the consumer public, rallied with good will and happy expectation. We might say, ''Three-three-ring-two,'' which was Burr's Greenhouse, and Gladys would say, ''Having a wedding?''

So we'd say, ''Not this time, I wanna know if he's got any beefsteak tomatoes.''

Gladys would say, ''No, he's fresh out. He's got John Baer and Marglobes, and those yellow ones that are supposed to be acid free.'' Then we would ask for Gladys's uncle Herbert, and how little Lucy was doing in school, and then Gladys would say that the line was busy.

But all at once, one summer, our telephone line burst into trouble. We'd stand on the box and twist, and Gladys remained aloof. We knew she was there, because when she rang us our little bell would jump around, but we couldn't get Gladys. When Gladys rang any number on our line, everybody would answer and ask why she was silent. ''I don't know,'' she'd say. ''I just work here.''

The problem was overload. Our line started at the central office and ran over Babcock Hill, down through The Ferns, past the Farthingale Swamp, up past Joe Cloutier's poultry ranges, and over the five-mile ledges to the Fisher Road. It had 22 subscribers. Just last week that phone company had added Widgery Cummings, who made 23.

Well, using electricity from a power house, Gladys could buzz the line and ring every bell. All 23 in simultaneous alarm. But the poor joker over the mountain, standing on his Carnation Milk box, could crank like a dervish, and the mechanism didn't have wallop enough to ring 23 bells and also activate the little telltale drop in front of Gladys. Gladys didn't know we wanted her.

As customers, none of the 23 ''parties'' knew why Gladys was shunning us, because nobody told us that Widgery Cummings had been added to our merry group. Mr. Cummings had walked into town to catch Gladys at the post office, and she had told him she'd report an out-order, but to remember she only worked there.

In those days I was handsome and active, and once a week I joined my friends at the bowling alley, where my team included a bowler somewhat more skilled than I (they were all more skilled than that!) who was a repairman for the telephone company.

We usually had to bow and scrape and get a police permit to speak to him, but he had just bowled a spare and was affable. He laughed when I asked why my telephone wasn't working, and when again in control of his emotions he said, ''Too many phones on one line. But remember, I only work there!''

Just the other day, to come back to reality, I dialed one of our major state of Maine departments, hoping to gain useful information about how many short lobsters I can take without a license. A canned female voice said, ''The number you have reached is no longer in service. Further information is unavailable.''

This abrupt news that our state of Maine had gone out of business tempted me to redial, and this time I got the same message by a gentleman enunciator.

Panic threatened to seize me, but on my third try I was relieved to be assured that the telephone company and the state of Maine are both still in business.

I told the good warden who finally answered my ring and graciously answered my questions that I thought he might speak with some purpose with a telephone executive.

He said, ''I suppose so. But, you see, I just work here.''

''That,'' I said, ''is exactly what Gladys used to say.''