Articles

“OPERATOR... get me the Queen!”

FRANK CROFT July 9 1955
Articles

“OPERATOR... get me the Queen!”

FRANK CROFT July 9 1955

“OPERATOR... get me the Queen!”

Because we’re the world’s most talkative people the long-distance girl is ready for any call. She can get you the Palace (if not the Queen), round up a rural fire brigade or track down a long-lost sister in Mexico

FRANK CROFT

A WOMAN in Montreal dialed a long-distance operator recently to place two calls—one to her son who was living, she thought, in or

near Sydney, N.S., and the other to her daughter, believed to be in Bathurst, N.B. A family emergency required that they be in Montreal quickly. The operator was given the last known addresses of the two and told the kind of work they did and the denomination of the church they attended. With this scanty information, the operator went to work.

She soon learned that both the son and daughter had left the Maritimes months earlier. By calling probable places of employment, friends and clergymen she traced them westward until, a little more than an hour from the time the call was placed, she had followed them to Vancouver.

But they were a restless pair. From Vancouver they had turned east again. Their return journey was followed within an hour and both were traced to southern Ontario. There they had parted.

In her cross-country quest the long-distance operator had noted that information about the son had usually been more accurate and easier to get than that on the daughter. So she dropped the girl and concentrated on the boy. His last known lodgings in a town on the shore of Lake Ontario were found—but he was at that moment on the highway heading for Toronto. The operator got a description of his car, and the license number. She called the police. A short time later a highway patrolman stopped the car between Belleville and Toronto.

The brother phoned the operator and told her that his sister might be somewhere in Mexico but that he had not had a line from her in several

months. With that slim lead it was fairly simple for the operator to find the girl in Mexico City.

Less than four hours after an anxious mother had given the operator her sketchy information, both son and daughter had been tracked down and had returned her call.

Most of the long-distance calls Canadians will make this year will be run-of-the-mill conversations. But there is a night.-and-day demand on the LD operators for everything from saving lives and property to finding the lost and the strayed. When disaster strikes a community they sit for hours at switchboards glowing like the embers of a bonfire, handling thousands of calls from anxious friends and relatives in distant places. They save lives by relaying medical advice to isolated places. They round up rural fire brigades when small towns are threatened. And they deal diplomatically with convivial souls who have a sudden urge to call up and chat with the Queen, the Pope, or the Grand Lama of Tibet.

The operator at Missonga, in northern Ontario, heard a railway worker telling her excitedly that he had just fished a small boy out of the lake but he didn’t know how to apply artificial respiration. He was calling from the station waiting room. “Keep calm,” the operator replied. “I’ll get Dr. Martin in Hornepayne. He’ll tell you what to do.” “Hornepayne! That’s more than a hundred miles away!” the man yelled. “I didn’t say I’d fetch him; I said I’d get him—on the line,” she replied. The doctor was speaking to the rescuer within seconds. Half an hour later the youngster was sitting up.

“You’re all right now,” the doctor concluded. “Just wrap him in the blanket, give him some hot tea and carry him home.” As the railway man turned from the phone a woman living nearby entered the station with a thermos in one hand and a blanket in the other. “How did you know we’d want those things?” the man asked. “The operator told me. I guess she heard the doctor tell you they’d

be needed if you brought Freddy around, so she called me and t old me to drop over here right away and bring them along.”

There is a lucky boy of fifteen alive today in the Cape Rich area, thirty miles north of Meaford, Ont., because of the long-distance phone. The entire township had been cut off by a driving snow storm the night, the Johnson boy was born. When Dr. A. S. Eagles of Meaford found he could not get within twenty miles of the place he phoned instructions to Mrs. Kingston, a neighbor, who had looked in at the Johnsons’ in case she could be of help. She helped all right. The line was kept open while Mrs. Kingston reported progress and Dr. Eagles gave instructions. It all went without a hitch. “Six pounds and squawking like anything,” was Mrs. Kingston’s final report.

Perhaps Canadians put the telephone to such unconventional uses because of their easy familiarity with the instrument. When it comes to using the phone, we are the most talkative people on earth. We make an average of 411 calls a year, both local and long distance. Although the Americans are supposed to be a garrulous lot, they take second place with 385. The tight-lipped British make only 72.

More than thirty-one hundred Canadian telephone systems, either privately or publicly owned, maintain four hundred thousand miles of wire in a country-wide mesh which allows every phone user to call any other subscriber in the country as well as any subscriber in one hundred and thirteen other countries, districts and territories. Fifty - three percent of LD calls placed by Canadians are from business firms or professional people. Cities are proportionately heavier users of long distance than rural areas. Who gets most of these hurry-up calls? Mostly other Canadians, but of the 135 million LD calls we’ll make this year about seven million will be to the U. S., 175 thousand to Britain and twenty thousand to other countries.

Operators may sometimes suspect that, besides the fifty-odd trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific calls completed daily, another fifty are attempted by assorted jokers, drunks and crackpots. It’s not always easy to distinguish between a legitimate call and a phony.

One evening last April an operator at one of the Bell Telephone Company’s Montreal switchboards was asked to get Buckingham Palace, the Kremlin and the Vatican in whatever order the circuits might be available. But the voice was a little too solemn and the background noises of tinkling glasses and laughter were a giveaway. An operator is obliged to try to get any party anywhere asked for from any phone. But she is also allowed to use her own discretion. In this case she stalled by making periodic reports of busy circuits, refusals to talk by the and else she

could think of. The caller Continued on next page

finally gave up. He phoned his apologies to the chief operator next morning.

While that hanky-panky was going on, another call came in to the same switchboard, asking for-Queen Salóte of Tonga, in the Pacific’s Friendly Islands—“or one of her cabinet ministers.” The caller spoke with a strange accent, but he sounded sober and responsible so the operator did her best. After trying to route the call by way of Oakland, Calif., through which all calls to the Pacific and Far East are tunneled, then New York and finally London, she was told that there was no such thing as a telephone on Tonga. She reported back. Her party admitted that there had been no phones on the island when he was growing up, but he had thought some might have been installed since then. He thanked her for the service, asked her number and the next day sent her a beautiful jewelry box.

Hollywood is a favorite target of the nuisance caller. “A lot of them are placed by kids who are hard to discourage,” a Toronto operator told me. “We place the calls, of course, but I don’t think the top stars ever come to the phone for a stranger. We can’t listen to calls but subscribers often call us back to say that they argued with the star’s secretary or servant for four or five minutes. ‘I’ve seen Gregory Peck in all his pictures — why can’t they let me say hello to him?’ or, T must speak to Jean Simmons—-I love her.’ That sort of stuff.”

A startled subscriber in Canada got through to Frank Sinatra’s secretary in New York some time ago through a mix-up which showed that even longdistance operators can goof. A Frenchspeaking subscriber was calling a number in Cincinnati. He gave a name that sounded to the operator like Saint Sinatra. Ignoring the Saint part of it,

she promptly got through to New York; the Cincinnati number was thrust aside while she efficiently completed the connection to the crooner’s apartment.

And then there was the time recently when an Ottawa operator tried to find a “Seedy” Howe in that city—before it dawned on her that the Rt. Hon. C. D. Howe, Minister of Trade and Commerce, was wanted. There are also some reports of operators asking if a party might “be reached at another number” when told that the person being called has died. It’s the automatic question asked when a subscriber is not immediately available and almost becomes a conditioned reflex.

Places with similar-sounding names can cause confusion. An undertaker in Montreal asked to be put through to the parish priest of St. Hugues, a Quebec village. He wanted to tell the priest that a native of the village, who had lived most of his life in Montreal, had died and his family wanted to have him buried in the old St. Hugues churchyard. The operator routed the call to St. Judes. Two days later the body arrived, quite unexpected, at St. Hugues while at St. Judes a grave had been dug and a priest was standing by to perform the funeral service.

But if operators sometimes have subscribers muttering to themselves, there is a sizeable and persistent group of people who tax the operators’ tact and courtesy. They are the ones who try to put a dying drinking party on its feet by calling up Nehru of India, Bulganin of Russia or Eisenhower in Washington. There is also a smaller number of callers who ask for the big names and then betray themselves by telling the operator just why they want the call placed—it’s always to “be of help.” When Stalin was alive there was a persistent caller in western Canada who explained that he wanted to talk

to Stalin and tell him just how thé democracies felt about Russia. He claimed that if the Russian people were being given a false version of what Western leaders said and thought, it must be that the Russian leaders were also in the dark—otherwise they would tell their people the truth. A tenminute talk with Joe would straighten everything out.

A woman in British Columbia tried several times to get through to Princess Margaret when the Princess was reportedly having a difficult time reaching a decision about marrying. “I know how the poor child feels,” the B. C. woman would tell the operators, “and I know just the advice she needs. It will help her.” When she was gently discouraged, she switched to Churchill. It wasn’t until after a fruitless attempt to reach the Archbishop of Canterbury that the woman called it quits.

Then there is the character who does most of his long-distance phoning from other people’s phones and doesn’t bother to tell them about it. A subscriber is obliged by law to pay for all calls made from his phone. Occasionally though a party will flatly refuse to pay for calls that he knows have been made by outsiders and without his knowledge or consent.

Guest Calls, Host Pays

A man in Calgary disputed (but paid) his toll charges for three months in a row. He began to investigate. He and his wife were fond of entertaining and it dawned on him that the mysterious calls were always made on evenings when they were giving parties. The next time they had people in, he watched his guests closely. When one man remained upstairs unnecessarily long, his host quietly mounted the stairs. From the landing he could hear a voice drifting faintly from the room containing the extension phone. He tiptoed to the door and listened to the tail end of a conversation between his guest and some far-flung pal. That call over, the guest lifted the receiver again, put the operator on the trail of one of his old schoolteachers in Regina, and spent a mellow ten minutes asking after her health and assuring her that she was still an inspiration in his struggle for existence. As he was leaving that night his host pressed the disputed toll charges into his hand. The victimized host is still waiting to be reimbursed.

The telephone company was having difficulties with a Swedish resident of eastern Ontario who called his brother in Stockholm every once in a while. He would talk for twenty minutes to half an hour, so the bills were high. When he received a bill he would storm into the telephone office, become violently rude and refuse to pay. He claimed he never made the calls. Some sleuthing by the company revealed that he was making the calls all right, but only when thoroughly drunk. When he sobered up he could remember nothing about them. The next time he placed a call for Stockholm, the manager immediately sent a messenger to his home with the bill—and the bills that were in arrears. The customer paid up quite cheerfully. He still calls his brother and still pays without a murmur—if the charges are presented before he has sobered up.

Most big city newspapers find the long-distance phone an effective tool in gathering front-page copy. The To ronto Star is perhaps the most spectacular user of the service. A typical Star gambit was made during the early days of World War II when reporter Paul Morton was handed a list of what the editors considered to be the ten most important men, excluding the

Three women cried, a man said “Humph,” as a 6,000-mile phone call made histcry

President, in the United States. He was to ask for their opinions on the possibility of the U. S. giving material aid to the Allies. “I got through to most of them,” Morton recalls, “and nearly all took the time right on the spot to discuss the matter with me and come up with a good solid opinion. There is something compelling about a long-distance call.”

The conference call is popular with business firms that have branches and sales offices scattered across the country. Such a call connects all offices so that local executives may talk with the home-office brass, and with each other, on the present state of the sales charts and what should he done about it.

Even the Operator Wept

Nearly twenty years ago a man in Montreal organized what might be described as a conference call when he asked the operator to get his mother in Prince Albert, Sask., and her sister in Edinburgh; and he wanted to sit in and make it a three-way conversation. The sisters had not met for thirty years. The operator, now a chief operator in the Bell Telephone Company overseas division in Montreal, recalls the momentous hookup like this: “We connected mother and son first, then went after the sister in Scotland. I had to listen in because in those days atmospheric disturbances sometimes interrupted overseas conversations and we could only charge for time of actual conversation. Well, the sisters barely said hello to each other when both broke down and cried. It wasn’t many seconds before I was crying too. And

there was the poor man who had hoped to give his mother and aunt such a treat, listening to three women blubbering over six thousand miles of telephone hookup. They finally sobbed their good-bys, promised to write, and hung up. I wiped my eyes and blew my nose and told the man his parties had left the line. He said, ‘Humph,’ and hung up too.”

There’s no time for switchboard sentiment, though, when an emergency call goes through. Then the operator must work coolly and at top speed and in many cases must be a better-thanaverage detective into the bargain. In Montreal last spring a woman called the long-distance operator with this story: her mother was seriously ill and her brother was at that moment on his way through the U. S. to her bedside. He had phoned half an hour previously to report that he would put up at Albany, N.Y., for the night and come on to Montreal next day. He hadn’t said where he was staying in Albany. Meanwhile, the mother had taken a turn for the worse and the doctor had suggested the family be gathered as quickly as possible. But how were they to find the brother in a city the size of Albany? The Montreal operator called the chief operator in Albany and asked her to check her toll tickets (the small slips on which the operators record the particulars of LD calls) for a call to the woman’s number half an hour previously. It was quickly found. The brother had called from a motel. He was talking with his sister again within five minutes and in another few minutes he was started on his all-night drive to the deathbed.

In Quebec City recently a grandfather called the operator and told her that his grandson must undergo an emergency operation but that under Quebec law the doctors couldn’t operate without the father’s consent and the father had left that day by train for a northern lumber camp. The old man told the operator when his son had left and on which railway. She made a stab at a rail station she knew to be about ninety miles up the line. The train had pulled out a few minutes previously. The station master told her where the train should be at that moment. She called the station which the train was approaching. The father was paged, hurried to the phone and spoke to the hospital in time to save his son’s life.

There are about twenty-five thousand long-distance operators in Canada. Qualifications, wages and hours of work vary from company to company. A grade-ten education is usually the minimum requirement. The girls receive initial training in switchboard operation for two to five weeks, and for upwards of a year thereafter their course of instruction is periodically continued. Salaries vary widely, depending on whether an operator is in a rural or urban centre, which part of the country she is in, and whether the company is large or small. The Ontario and Quebec standard of thirty-five dollars a week to start, increasing to fifty dollars after four or five years, is tops in Canada.

They Work Through Disaster

Operators have often shown that they have a strong sense of loyalty .to the job. When a major disaster strikes a town, off-duty long-distance operators know they will be needed and report in; they seldom have to be called. Scores of them showed up at Toronto exchanges last year when the first bulletins on Hurricane Hazel were broadcast. It was the same in Winnipeg in 1950 when the Red River flooded large areas of the city. The Bell Telephone Company’s central exchange in Sarnia, Ont., was directly in the path of the tornado which leveled much of the city in 1953. Twelve longdistance operators were at the switchboard and five were in an adjoining lounge preparing to go on duty when the twister slammed into the building like a blockbuster. Thirty windows were blown in, the ceiling of the switchboard room cracked and sagged and the floor was covered with broken glass and plaster fragments. Nine operators received cuts and bruises that required first-aid treatment—but they stayed on the job, handling frantic calls from people seeking news of relatives and friends. Meanwhile, off-duty operators were struggling to the building through the debris of wrecked shops and houses. None had been called but all were needed.

Long-distance telephoning is just about as old as the telephone itself. In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell was making calls of three to eight miles on experimental lines strung from his summer home near Brantford, Ont., to the telegraph office in Brantford, and to Paris, Ont. That was only five months after he had successfully transmitted by wire the first clearly spoken sentence in his Boston laboratory. In May 1879, the first commercial long-distance line in Canada was strung between Hamilton and the town of Dundas,

a distance of five miles.

No one is quite sure but it’s believed that the first long-distance call in ! Canada, on which there was a toll j charge, was placed from the offices of j the Hamilton Spectator when the j editor called his Dundas correspondent to assign him to a political meeting. In j 1877 a Clace Bay mine owner, C. C. ! Hubbard, had his coal mines wired for phone so he could talk from his office ¡ with the mine foremen below ground, j At the other end of the country the I Victoria and Esquimalt Telephone j Company was formed in 1880, although | three phones had been in operation in Victoria the year before. Winnipeg had its first phone in 1881 and the following year Manitoba boasted one of the most ambitious long-distance circuits in the . world when Winnipeg hooked up with Brandon and Portage la Prairie. From then on the development of the service in Canada was rapid. By 1885 there were more than three thousand miles of long-distance wire in Canada and five years later there was twice that amount.

In southern Ontario this summer the first step was taken in a continent-wide development that eventually will allow a customer using a dial phone anywhere to dial directly to any other dial phone in North America without the help of an operator. Right now, to place a long-distance call in the Ontario area j (and several zones in the U. S.) it is | necessary to call the operator first; 1 instead of calling a second operator at the place being called, she dials from her switchboard directly to the party you are after—and she does that much only because mechanical accounting equipment to compute charges has not i yet been installed at the exchanges and so she must keep tabs on the duration ! of the call so the subscriber may be j billed accordingly. When the new j system is perfected—and that will be within a year—callers will be mechanically connected and the length of conversations and the charges electronically recorded. It is planned to have the more than fifty million phones on this continent on a direct dialing system within five to six years.

North America has been divided, for LD purposes, into about one hundred “numbering plan areas,” each with a three-digit code number. Los Angeles is in numbering plan area 415. The Manitoba area is 204. When all areas are on the new system, a subscriber in Winnipeg wishing to call Los Angeles will lift his receiver and first dial the numbers 415. That will automatically put him through to the whole southwestern California area. Next, he will dial the Los Angeles number he wants, just as he would when making a local call in Winnipeg. And the connection is complete. When dialing a longdistance call within your area, the three-digit code number will not be used. Halifax is 902 in the numbering plan, but a party in Halifax calling a number in Moncton, N.B., also in 902, will merely dial the Moncton number, and get his party.

But all this doesn’t mean the passing of the long-distance operator. Although the great majority of long-distance callers today know the numbers of the parties they want in other communities, an operator is needed and she’ll continue to be needed with the new system, to enquire from “information” for the unknown numbers. She will be needed for person-to-person and for collect calls. And she will always be needed in times of disaster, to find people away from their home phones at the time of an emergency call, and for any other of a dozen services that would leave the new copper-brained prodigies helplessly wringing their electronic hands. iç