I can't help myself. I feel a rose-colored recollection of the
Good Old Days coming on. Yes, here it is. It's about telephones.
In the little southwest Kansas town (700 inhabitants on a good
Saturday night) where I sort of grew up back in the late 30s, all the
40s, and the early 50s, we had a warmly remembered telephone system.
All the phone calls to and from went through a local woman whose
front room housed a pretty good-sized switchboard with all the phone
numbers in town and the nearby countryside.
The woman would invite me in once a month when I came around to
collect the $1.25 she would owe me for delivering the Wichita Beacon to
her door everyday. While she was scrounging around in her purse for
the money, I would look at the switchboard and watch for a little bulb to
light up which meant someone was trying to make a phone call.
"Number please," she'd say into the gizmo hanging around her neck
to whoever might have turned the crank on their phone. If the caller
"eight-six" the operator would plug a cord between the caller's number
and the 86 socket and push a button to make the 86 phone ring.
Everybody in town called her "Mert"after the telephone operator
in "Wistful Vista," the locale of the weekly "Fibber McGee and Molly"
radio show we all listened to.
"Number please," Fibber's Mert would say when Fibber cranked his
phone. "Zat you, Mert?" Fibber would answer, then the two of them
would gossip about various Wistful Vista citizens for a while.
That's pretty much the way the phone system worked in our town.
If nobody answered the number you were calling, you might ask Mert if
she knew why they weren't home.
"I think they went over to Liberal to have the dentist look at
that rotten molar Bill has," Mert would say. "At least that's what
they were talking about this morning when Bill called the dentist."
The telephone operator was something like a Town Crier. All the
phone users learned quickly not to say anything on the phone that they
didn't want the rest of the town to know about.
We grew so used to her telephone presence, we'd often include her
in our telephone discussion.
"So what do you think, Mert?" my dad might ask while he was
waiting for the Buick dealer in Dodge City to answer the phone. "Know
anyone who has a new Roadmaster?"
"Nobody around here," she might say, "but a guy in Meade said his
cousin in Pratt got one and it outran a souped-up Mercury."
And so on.
Part of her job was to tell us about the prognosis of our town's
sick people. During World War II, she'd tell us how the wounded from
our town were recuperating in such and such military hospital.
The Truth, Mainly
And she gave us the paralyzing news of each of the five local boys
who were killed in action.
All that came to mind earlier this month when we got the news that
the Bush administration's National Security Agency has been keeping
of who's been calling who since 9/11. Perhaps not listening in on the
conversations, but at least noting who's being called and who's doing
Lots of people are upset about it.
The good newsat least for usis that both Qwest and Alltel, who
handle most of Nebraska's long-distance calls, are apparently not a
of the whole messy business of secretly reporting who we call and who
At least not yet.
Edgar Pearlstein, whose opinions I respect, said this last Tuesday
in the Nebraska StatePaper.com:
"Although the National Security Agency claims it records only the
telephone numbers called, and not the content of the conversations, the
latter is just a small step away
. We are being asked to be cowards
about our libertieswilling to give them up in favor of a police state
which promises more safety."
And this newspaper a week ago Sunday concluded an editorial on the
subject with these words: "American tradition and values must be
protected not only from terrorists, but also from misguided officials
themselves above the law."
In the meantime, we can take some consolation that we have more
telephone privacy than many in other states have.
That knowledge, of course, doesn't keep me from contemplating
better things. Like the recurring dream wherein I make a long-distance
call to my old hometown in southwest Kansas and while I'm waiting for
to go through, I hear a lot of official voices asking me whose side
in the current telephone brouhaha.
And then in my dream I hear Mert say "Number please," and in my
dotage I imagine that everything's going to be all right again.
Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity
from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail