Telephone Operators (1950s) – Page


Above photos courtesy of Gary Buerman. They are from the NY Telephone office on Maple Avenue in Sodus when it was staffed with live operators. His mother (Olive Buerman) worked there from the time she graduated from Sodus High School in 1941 until 1955. She can be seen in both photos.

 

Do you remember the days when you picked up the phone, dialed O and you got a real person? They were more than just telephone operators as Bob Pearson relates in “Stinky’s Tales” page 184 -187.

Operators in Charge – Telephone simplicity

In Sodus during the mid-century a person could dial 0 and get a human voice. When the human voice answered, it usually knew the person who was calling. Operators in Sodus were Soduskans who probably knew everything that was going on in the village. Every home had a phone with a four-digit number. By the time I was twelve I could recite numerous four-digit numbers listed for the phones of my friends. A phone book was printed periodically, but since there was very little turnover in numbers and people did not move as they do in the modern era, there was really no reason to keep printing a new book.

Our 5311 number stayed with our family for two decades. Operators had an uncanny ability to remember phone numbers. I guess they were constantly using the numbers so it was reasonable to expect they would be good at recall. When my friends and I would sit together and talk about baseball stats–and a baseball card was a big item–we entertained ourselves by reciting batting averages for players from the previous years. The operators were most valuable players in the Sodus number leagues for other reasons.

When there was a fire or an emergency, the operator was the 911 call of the era fifty years ago. When a person dialed the operator, something was set in motion immediately by a person who knew the village, the streets, and the people. There were instances when operators called neighbors to get others alerted to emergency situations at a neighbor’s home. Sometimes operators knew where key people were at any given time and this eliminated costly delays. One time the operator called our home and told my father about a tree the operator had heard had fallen into a nearby driveway. She wanted my father to go next door and check on the driveway to see if my father’s car had been hit by the tree. My father was bowling with friends and she knew he wasn’t there. The reason I remember this is because I was the scout who went into the storm’s fury to check on the fallen tree.

In the modern era there are very few operators and when you do get one on telephone they do not know anything about the local situation. We have paid the price for the computerized era of phones. Phones are now fast, mobile and very convenient. They lack personality and intrude into lives in ways they never did before. I suppose there are plenty of examples of cell phones being damn helpful in certain situations. Operators were our eyes and ears of the night.

The fire department depended upon phone access to key volunteer firemen. When there was a fire and volunteers were needed, the blaring siren mounted on the roof of the fire hall on Mill Street would beckon the volunteers. Often key phone calls were made to make sure all the key volunteers knew about the crisis.

My brother Dick could be nice to me at times, so my life was not always in jeopardy. Usually he would share and look out for me when the situation called for it. He related an interesting story about an operator in Sodus he knew. This operator was a graduate of the school and many knew her. She evidently was a very competent operator since she held the job a long time. When Dick and some of his friends met with her and other girls when they were of driving age but not drinking age the operator would shine.

After a few drinks this gal would begin to detail things she had overheard on the party lines in existence in the community. Since our house was on a private line, Dick suggested that at least this operator had never listened to 5311. Wrong!

She explained that she could listen in anywhere in the system. In fact, she said, not all the private lines were totally private. It was possible to mix calls into the system where private lines were functioning. This happened on occasion when we were using the phone in our house, so this now sounded logical.

As the drinks flowed the operator could recite about every number in the village. The guys and other girls, Dick said, could yell out a name and the operator would respond with the number. She had another trick or two to beguile the boys.

She could outline details of who in the community was sleeping with whom, if that stuff went on sixty years ago. I imagine it did so; when Dick would come in from an evening out with the gang (including the operator) he woke me to inform me of the juicy gossip. This seemed to create a bond between us that provided some new common ground for us as brothers. After he debriefed and fell asleep, I would lay awake contemplating who and what I could retell the following day. In some cases the operator had blown the whistle on some of my friend’s parents.

The operator could also beguile the boys in other ways that brought greater community cohesiveness. According to my brother (and remember-this was late at night after he began enjoying the bubbly a bit) the operator could overhear verbal messages pertaining to trysts that were planned. She, he said-she said, would then make a call to a particular number asking to leave a message for a certain male. This would create a fragile environment for the tryst and the operator would merely go back to work connecting calls. If this happened, and Dick swore it did, then who knows what community harmony was created?

Nothing like that exists in today’s phone systems since we now have caller ID and phones with pictures. I can recall the point in time when the local switchboard disappeared and the operators went their way. I know of one who would be able to write a hell of a book about Sodus.