“Operator; number please.” Seriously, we need a National Register of Historic Phrases. And this gentle three word command would be one of the most valued, treasured of all collected, honored, and preserved phrases. From September 1, 1878 onward to today, that courteous, anonymous, in control voice, known simply as Operator, has provided services that included helping complete our local or long distance telephone calls so we could “reach out and touch someone”, place collect calls, locate a phone number, or connect us to emergency services in times of dire need.
As I thought about the one hundred thirty-six years of service operators have provided, I wondered if anyone knew who the first telephone operator was. After a little research, I found, and now would like to introduce Emma Mills Nutt, the first female operator, hired by the Boston Telephone Dispatch Company on September 1, 1878. On that date, she began a thirty-three year career working in Boston Massachusetts, and later moving on to work for Alexander Graham Bell. She retired in 1911 at fifty-one years of age. And she fit the profile established for operators of the day; her age when hired was between seventeen and twenty-six, she looked prim and proper, and had long arms, because she needed to be able to reach the tall telephone switchboard. Emma worked a fifty-four hour week, and for all that was paid a grand total of $10.00 per month.
I am grateful for the years and services telephone operators like Emma Nutt provided, handling all our telecommunication needs from offices, and in rural communities, out of their homes. And because they were available to their customers twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, we can forgive them their one little foible; a propensity for listening in on conversations between callers. Surely, it was a temptation too strong to resist, and one which probably kept local citizens on the straight and narrow, knowing someone was listening to everything being said.
Time and technology did march on, bringing us into the early 1950’s, and the advent of direct distance dialing. With a few more years of refining the process, we would find ourselves no longer dependent upon that patient lady with the genteel voice; instead, we could pick up the handset from our shiny black telephone, dial seven to ten numbers on our rotary dials, and within a few minutes be speaking to anyone, just about anywhere we could imagine.
In 1950 my family moved into the house my parents had built on Stewart Road. It was on the outskirts of town, and everything in our home and area was post World War II new. In addition to a mailbox on the road, drapes on the windows, furniture in every room, and landscaping front and back, we had a telephone installed. I have vague recollections of that occasion; it was exciting and serious at the same time. Exciting because we could call anyone in or out of town anytime we wanted, and serious because we had a party line, and needed to learn our particular ring (everyone on the party line had a different set of rings that designated which household the call was for), and the rules for sharing a telephone line with other people.
The few rules were simply common sense behavior and courtesy to other subscribers on the same line. Don’t talk over five minutes, if someone needed the phone for emergency purposes, hang up immediately, and do not ever, ever eavesdrop on another person’s phone call. That’s right. Do not indulge in the time-honored tradition of listening in on your neighbor’s conversations. Seriously?
I managed to obey that rule until around age six. Before then I was not too aware or concerned with anything outside my own little self-absorbed preschool world. Between ages five and six, though, I had an awakening. People were interesting, and I had a need to know about everyone and everything being discussed. Never much of an active participant in the actual conversations, I merely wanted to observe and listen. And our telephone was an endless source of satisfaction, providing grown up conversations at any hour of the day, with the additional benefit of no one knowing I was listening in; therefore, never telling me to stop, leave, or go to my room when it always seemed the talk was just getting really good.
Summer days between first and second grade provided a routine that worked really well for me as I honed my eavesdropping skills. Everyday after lunch, our mother walked down the road to one of the three other neighbors’ houses to visit with ladies who were part of her coffee klatch. She left the three of us kids to rest, read, play or do whatever we wanted, as long as we did not turn on the television, because she had read too much television would either hurt our eyes, our brains, or our social skills; so, daytime TV was forbidden. No matter. I had the telephone.
As soon as she was out of sight, I raced into the hallway where our phone sat on a little walnut desk. It was irresistible, because what I had discovered, as I toyed around with it in the early days of that summer, was at this same time everyday, a Lady on our party line participated in a phone conversation with a Gentleman. And they seemed to hold a great deal of affection for each other. To my six year old ears, they sounded really happy to know each other, and spent a lot of their conversations saying how much they wanted to be together, and planning just what they were going to do to make that happen. It was a drama played out with laughter, tears, and lots of affectionate words, with me as a silent, unknown audience, completely taken by this couple who just wanted to be together and live happily ever after. Or at least I thought I was unknown, until learning I was not.
There had been moments when I knew the Lady was suspicious someone else was on the line; but her comments or questions were always simply, “Did you hear something? Do you think someone is there?” When she asked these things, I would stand perfectly still and hold my breath. They would be silent, and after a few seconds, the couple would resume speaking; I being confident my anonymity held, the Lady and Gentleman being confident no one was listening.
To this day, I do not know what blew my cover as the silent but appreciative audience to their daily phone calls. I do not remember breathing heavily, bumping into anything, or making any kind of noise that would alert the affectionate couple to my presence, but out of the blue, the Lady said, “I know you are there; you need to hang up immediately!” Of course, because I was caught completely by surprise, I gasped. The Lady then commanded, “Get off this line, now!” Whenever confronted with stressful situations, I froze. So, standing there in the hallway, phone handset to ear, barely breathing, I could not move to hang up the phone. No, I just stood there, wondering how the Lady knew I was listening to her and the Gentleman. Finally, in a very angry voice, the Lady shouted, “I can see you! Hang up that phone, or I am telling your mother!!”
Holy cow! Never in my wildest imagination did I suspect the Lady was our next door neighbor. But when she yelled at me saying she could see me, I turned completely around, and looked from our hallway straight through the living and dining rooms, to the kitchen where there was a window over the sink. And through that window, there in our next door neighbor’s window, stood the Lady, with her telephone handset to her ear, just like me, watching me watch her. Oh no! This was not good.
She told me if I hung up the phone and did not ever do this again, she would not tell my mother. At the time, it sounded like a bargain from heaven; I recall my immediate and heartfelt response was, “OK“, and I hung up the phone. It did not occur to me until much later that my neighbor was probably manipulating the little kid next door to keep her and the Gentleman’s secret by holding the threat of exposure over her head. Whatever my neighbor’s intentions were, it worked for both of us. I never told, and to my knowledge, neither did she.
And the best lesson from that experience? As tempting as it is, if someone is talking, and it is not to me, about me, or my business, I stay out of it and leave it alone. So, thanks to the phone company’s early operators, neighbors, and idle summer days, I learned a good thing, and never have regretted it. I can say without wavering, not once have I reproached myself after turning away from juicy gossip, with the comment, “I really wish I had not done that”.