The telegraphic wit that preceded the '30'

His name was Al Kirkwood and he was night operator at our railroad station. I haven't seen him since 1928, and I did well to remember his name. Our town was on the main line, so the dispatcher's telegraph system was at the ready the clock around, but after the night express to Halifax roared through just short of midnight there wasn't much for Al to do until the morning man relieved him.

I was then becoming legman to the muses, and almost every night I'd drop in to see Al as he was the Western Union man as well as the railroad telegrapher and he sent my "press" when I had any, which I contrived to have even when there wasn't any. It went about so-fashion:

While gathering my grist for the weekly paper, I'd usually have something or other that would be a useful item to another paper in a far place. So if a salesman from Alpena, Mich. had a mishap in our Maine village, I would "query" the paper there, which Al Kirkwood handled as a straight telegram. Then the reply would usually say, "100 words." If, as sometimes happened, the editor out there read my 100 words and wanted more, that was easy. In this way I was able to eke my college days and become a noted journalist. The night the VanTouzelmeyer summer estate burned on Gifford Point I became rich by way of the Philadelphia Bulletin, the paper in the hometown of that wealthy family, which I believe is in Pennsylvania.

So the country was infested with happenings, and as hundreds of "stringers" like me were sending details, there was an active "net" of telegraphers sending stories everywhere every night. All the big papers had telegraphers in their editorial offices who "one-fingered" a typewriter as the news came over the wire, one letter at a time. And these night operators enjoyed a fraternal coziness now impossible in a world of fax machines.

Years later I attended the evening arrival of the eastbound, and Prof. Orrin Chalmers Hormell alighted after his trip to St. Louis to lecture. He was chairman of government and politics, and popular at seminars. I knew where he had been because our paper had printed an item that he was going, and now we could print another item that he had returned.

Assuring me that he'd had a good trip, he said, "Maybe you can tell me something." Three days ago, on this very railroad platform, he was about to entrain when Emery Booker happened by and told him a funny story that he had never heard before.

"Now," said Professor Hormell to me. "When I stepped off the train in St. Louis, I was met by Prof. Ed Curtis and he told me that same story and said he had just heard it. How did that story get to St. Louis before I did?"

And I said, "Very simple!" and then I realized that it wasn't simple at all, but I was faced with a long explanation about the way newspapers were put together in 1928 et seq. It is said that the symbol "30" comes from the very first newspaper story sent by telegraph, when the operator set down, at the end of the dispatch, the number of words to be paid for. "Thirty" thus became newspaper jargon for "end of message."

And "30" was the telegraph signal that the day was over and it was time to sign off. And just before 30, every operator anywhere in the country was expected to offer a witticism, a pithy remark, and probably a funny story to a great Morse Code Pool. In this way a story in Maine got to Missouri before the train did.

Al Kirkwood was also a "ham" radio operator. Well, after working all day and half the night as a click-clickety-click telegrapher, he'd go home and play with his radio and find amusement where otherwise was work.

Al would tell me he spoke with somebody in South Africa, and again with somebody in Tibet. This made me another news paragraph each time. And I faithfully kept Al Kirkwood supplied with quips and yarns he could use when he signed off at "30" and went home to CQ around the world.

All right, so this is what I'm shooting at:

A lady friend in Stonington, Conn., called on the telephone to chat. She said this man in California was walking along the beach and picked up a bottle. When he rubbed off the sand, a genie jumped out of the bottle and said, "All right! What do you want? Come, come, it's late and I've had a busy day and I've got to go home to supper. What can I do for you?"

So the man said, "I'd like to visit Hawaii. I don't fly, and can't stand boats, but if you'll build me a bridge I can drive out and see the place."

The genie said, "Out of the question! You don't know how many miles that is, and how deep the Pacific is! Now, give me another choice!"

The man said, "All right. I've never understood women. I've tried, and have given up. Can you do something for me so I can understand women?"

And the genie said, "Now, about this bridge: Would you like two lanes or four?"

I had not heard that story before. My friend in Connecticut, who reads this newspaper, said she had just heard the story not 30 minutes ago and it was new to her. And when I began to repeat the story to the man who looks in on us every day, he said, "Oh, that one! I just heard it over-street!" The explanation I get is "TV!"

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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