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Number Please

Because I grew up in a small Indiana farming town, content that progress should pass it by, I grew up with an institution that not many of my contemporaires enjoyed, and that succeeding generations would not comprehend.

When we picked up the telephone in Warren, Indiana, we did not hear a dial tone. We heard the voice of Ella Blair, also known as "Central." She would say, "Number Please," and we would reply with a number, never any larger than three digits. "One Seven," we would say, or "Three Two One." If the person we were calling was on a party line, it would be "Three Two One, Ring Two (321-R2)."

Mrs. Blair worked the busy late afternoon and evening hours and all night long. Most of the time I lived in Warren there were two other ladies who divided up the day shifts. But we did not say, "Pick up the phone and get Mrs. Blair," or "Miss Wilhelm must be out for a moment; she doesn't answer." The women who sat in front of the big switchboard lost their personal identity and assumed the corporate identity of "Central."

Central operated out of a small house just off the Main street. She wore headphones to free both hands to service the switchboard that was the communications center of Warren. When "Mrs. Smith" wanted to talk to "Mrs. Jones," she picked up her receiver at home, or maybe cranked the phone on the wall. This activated a small light on the board. Central picked up a cable with a plug on the end and inserted the plug under the light. Then she said, "number please" to Mrs. Smith. Mrs. Smith might say "Two-Four," or "get me Vera Jones please," (either identification worked just as well.) Then Central would insert a second plug into the phone jack belonging to the Jones', and activate the ringing switch.

There were advantages and disadvantages to this old system. We young people would have preferred "high tech" dial phones; we feared our friends from the city considered our system "hick". Some times Central was busy and slow to respond to our signal. Of coure, the primary disadvantage was the lack of privacy inherent in such a system. We were always aware that Central might be listening.

But there were such advantages! For instance, emergency calls. One day at my Grandma's, the electric stove sparked and flared, nearly frightening Grandma to death. She rushed to the phone, picked up the receiver and shouted, "Send the men, we have a fire!" Then she ran back to the kitchen. Now she had not given the operator her name or address, but no matter. Central knew every light on her board. Within minutes she had notified the fire department and activated the Town Siren to call the volunteer firefighters from their places of business.

Fortunately, our fire was self limiting. The last spark was sputtering out when the fire truck pulled up in front of our house.

Central also functioned as a telephone directory. If you wanted to order groceries, you picked up the phone and said, "Give me the Sanitary Market." No need to look up the number. And if there were an important call to a busy number, central would just break in on the ongoing conversation and place the call. Today we have to pay extra for "call waiting." Central also worked at putting though long distance calls. She would stay on the lines all evening if necessary, somtimes using alternate routes to get us to our destination.

Central knew everybody and could find anybody. I remember, sometime in the early 60s, trying to call my mother who was visiting a friend in Warren. I placed the call with the St Louis operator (that's where I was living at the time), and then listened while she called the Warren operator and said "This is St Louis calling; I have a person to person call for an Elizabeth Slater at number Three One." I heard the phone ringing, and then heard Central say, "Operator, that number does not answer." Before my operator could pass on this message, Central came on the line. "Suzanne, is that you? Are you trying to reach your mother?" I said, "Yes, she's supposed to be at Lucy's." Central said, "I think she and Lucy are over at Beulah's playing cards. Let me call over there." The St Louis operator said nothing. So I talked to my mother, and if Central were listening, I didn't care.

The last time I called someone in Warren, Mother and I were visiting a friend in that town. I asked the friend if I could use her phone. She said, "The phone's over there -- but you'll need the phone book in the drawer. You know we have to dial our numbers now." Mrs. Blair had retired, taking into retirement with her a system we can find now only on re-runs of the Andy Griffith Show.

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