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The Truth, Mainly - 05/22/2006

Telephone ethics: the good old days

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 said "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.

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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 track 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 the calling.

Lots of people are upset about it.

The good news—at least for us—is that both Qwest and Alltel, who handle most of Nebraska's long-distance calls, are apparently not a part of the whole messy business of secretly reporting who we call and who calls us.

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 liberties—willing 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 who think 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 it to go through, I hear a lot of official voices asking me whose side I'm on 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 address is: leonsatterfield@earthlink.net.


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