Decades before the smartphone became a way of life, I had one of my very own. Actually, anyone picking up a telephone in Slater was so blessed. That was because at the other end of the line would be Marge Swim, the town’s telephone operator. She was a wonderful blessing that only a small town environment could ever create.
This was back in the early 1950s. The Slater telephone office was a two-story white wooden structure located in a residential neighborhood a block south of Main Street. It looked just about the same as all the other homes in that part of town except for one key exception. Out front, a big blue sign hung from a telephone pole with large letters proudly announcing “PUBLIC TELEPHONE.” A blue bell in the center proclaimed “BELL SYSTEM” in smaller white letters.
Mrs. Swim sat at the switchboard in the front room of that office (house), pretty much from sunrise to sunset six days a week. It fell upon her the responsibility of keeping up with the happenings in town – be it social, civil, business, educational and/or mischievous. She was also keenly aware of who was where and why most of the time.
Each home and business with a telephone in Slater and the surrounding community had an individual number, usually consisting of two or three numbers. One would simply pick up the phone and when Marge asked, “number please” you would tell her the appropriate number.
Of course, that was proper procedure. As has always been the way of the world, procedures that are proper are not always performed. Oft times the number would escape the caller, so instead of saying the number, the caller might demand “give me Red Twit.” Not only would Mrs. Swim know Red Twit’s number, she might know if he was at home or not. And, if he was away, she might also know where he was and call that number. Now that’s a very smart phone.
Others might query Marge for help with recipes, crossword puzzles or even laundry problems.
She would also be required to contact every firefighter in case of an emergency.
Marge would not only know where the next high school basketball game was to be played, but also the time it started and if the opposing team was very good.
I don’t believe, however, that she ever got into matchmaking. But, of course, I was just a kid and way too young to be privileged to such information.
It was with this in mind that I was a bit distressed when I heard the news that our neighboring state, Illinois, along with 19 other states, are trying to do away with “landlines” at the request of AT&T. The phone networks feel they can no longer maintain the miles of poles and wires necessary for old-style phones, as a majority of their customers switch to wireless communication.
Seems that the miracle of talking through wires has been circumvented by the even greater miracle of talking without wires.
But, to be truthful, the next time I pick up my iPhone and say “Hey Siri, where is Red Twit?” and listen to a bunch of gibberish, I’ll again realize when I truly had a smartphone to my ear!
Ed Rood is the former publisher of the Tri-County Times. He and his wife, Sharon, live near Cambridge.