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Maine's new telephone company has been making news lately. I don't want to get into the details here, but the recent stories reminded me of telephone stories from my past.
I remember the first time I became aware of the phone company that served our small town Down East. One day there was a piece in the weekly paper about how our phone company was going to automate the town's service. It wasn't long before everyone in town was expressing their personal thoughts on the plan.
Some thought that automation would be great for the town and would make our telephone service more like the service in the cities. Others argued that if you wanted big city service you should pack up and move to the city and leave things in town the way they are, the way they've always been, the way we've always liked them. Some old-timers thought the world was coming apart at the seams. If you've ever lived in a small town you know how all those arguments always go.
I thought the switch to automation sounded pretty good, even though I didn't know exactly what it would mean. I would soon find out. First off, I learned that with the new automated system everyone would have to learn to use phone numbers and dial those numbers if they expected their call to go through.
It might seem strange to younger people today, but we had never used phone numbers in our town. I was 12- or 13 years old at the time and didn't realize that people in our town even had telephone numbers.
In those days the hand-operated switchboard for the town sat on a table in Thelma Ames' cluttered kitchen. As switchboard operator, she handled and overheard every call in and out of town, being especially attentive to phone calls of the rich people from New York who summered over on the neck.
On the rare occasions when Thelma went out, her sister Hannah, who lived across the street, would come over to mind the switchboard. No one ever knew the difference because the two sisters sounded exactly alike.
Some in town complained that Thelma didn't need the switchboard job since she and her husband Sherm were better off than most, and that Thelma should give the job to someone who needed the money. They knew the only reason she took the fairly demanding switchboard job was because she wanted to know all the town gossip. And that switchboard job indeed supplied Thelma with a constant supply of raw, unadulterated gossip.
Under the old telephone system whenever you wanted to call someone you'd pick up the receiver and nosy Thelma would come on and ask whom you wanted to be connected to. You understood right up-front that whatever you said on the telephone became the property of Thelma and she could do with your information whatever she wanted. She probably should have told you that anything you say into the mouthpiece could be used against you in a court of law. But people didn't talk like that back then.
Thelma's kind of eavesdropping may seem like an invasion of privacy in our modern hypersensitive age, but it didn't bother us much, and came in handy on some occasions.
For example, if Mother picked up the phone and asked Thelma to ring Marge Cook over on the river road, Thelma might say something like, "Oh, Alice, I just heard Marge tell Esta Watts that she was going shopping for most of the morning. If you want I'll give you a ring when Marge gets back." And she would. If you were interested, Thelma could even tell you what Marge said she was going to buy, or whatever else Marge and Esta talked about.
In this age of emails and cell phones, I'm still not back to the kind of friendly personal service I used to get from nosy Thelma Ames. And Thelma never charged extra.
Like the old timers say, change isn't always for the best.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly
throughout New England. John’s e-mail address is
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