“One ringy dingy. Two ringy dingy.”
“Is this the party to whom I am speaking?” – Lily Tomlin as Ernestine the telephone operator on Laugh In.
Small town Saskatchewan in the 1960’s held few part-time job opportunities for young girls. I longed for a way to make some spending money, but other than occasional babysitting, nothing presented itself. So when my neighbour asked if I’d be interested in some evening and weekend work as a telephone operator I jumped at the offer.
For most people “telephone operator” conjures up images of Ernestine, the well-known Lily Tomlin character from Laugh-In. Ernestine’s snorty laugh and nasalized,” One ringy-dingy…” paints a less than complimentary picture of switchboard workers. But Lily had not yet made her TV debut and as far as I was concerned this was a far more glamorous way to make money than changing diapers.
First came the training. Ellen, my boss, carefully explained how to run the switchboard, but all I saw was a complicated maze of jacks, keys, lamps and cords all connected to a big circuit board. While she deftly handled several calls at once, I tended to mix up the talk and ringer key. Many apologies were offered as some unsuspecting caller received a nasty shock in his ear. But after a while I got the hang of things and was finally allowed to work on my own. I excitedly donned the headset and practiced sliding my roller chair along the length of the switchboard.
The work required focus, speed, organization and a good dose of patience. One little old lady insisted on slowly repeating each number to ensure that I understood her broken English and wouldn’t mess up. Another fellow shouted so loudly that I soon learned to hold the headset away from my ears when his number key fell. A few people would mumble so incoherently that I often had to ask them to repeat the number, although after five requests they did tend to get a bit snarky. But generally people were polite and friendly, and liked to have a neighbourly chit-chat before placing their calls.
Telephone operators also had to exercise a fair degree of discretion since bits of personal conversations were often overheard. One incident that still stands out in my mind occurred when my girlfriend and I were working tandem on a particularly busy Saturday night. Two fellows stopped to use the booth outside our front door to call for dates. My friend, a bit nosey at times, took and placed the calls. When the boys were done they came inside to visit, as we chatted about school my friend suddenly blurted out, “So you’re taking Donna and Peggy to the movies tonight.” You could have heard an ant sneeze in the silence that followed and then her face turned a bright red.
The operator in our town was also responsible to sound the siren at exactly noon and 6 p.m. I can’t begin to count the times I forgot, so the blow would be a few minutes late or non-existent. If town residents were using that siren to set their clocks, many adjustments occurred. Either that or the town folk would just sadly shake their heads and say, “ Must be that forgetful Maleschuk kid working again.”
Although the work could be trying I loved that job. But progress was on the way and as I entered grade 12 the old system was being replaced by modern dial-up phones. In the year that I had hoped to make plenty of money to attend university, my position was rendered obsolete. Only operators in the big cities would be needed. So while everyone else celebrated the advance of technology, I mourned the loss of my first job.