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The Truth, Mainly - 07/09/2001

A remembrance of telephone services past

WARNING: This column contains material on How Much Better Things Used To Be. If that gives you heartburn, take Prilosec before reading.

What is it with telephone companies these days? Does anyone like them any more?

The answer is no, of course no one likes telephone companies any more. Not even the people who work for them (unless they get CEO salaries). If you doubt this, walk up to the next person you see in an Alltel uniform and ask him if he works for the telephone company.

"Of course not," he'll say. "I merely play the role of an Alltel employee in a twisted little psychodrama. And I have to put you on hold now because I'm late for rehearsal."

I have friends who work for Alltel, and I'm not going to hurt their feelings by mentioning all the customers who showed up at the Public Service Commission hearings last month to vent their spleen.

Nor am I going to ask you to snicker about the local lady who said she'd get better service from the Pony Express than from Alltel, or about the complaint that Alltel had hooked up a local flower shop with an answering machine that said "Thank you for calling Standard Meat."

Instead, I call your attention to a column by Trisha Flynn in the July l issue of The Denver Post. She tells of her aged mother signing up for cellphone service because the phone company—not Alltel—said it would save her money.

The problem was that her arthritic fingers couldn't press the buttons necessary to make the cellphone work. And her first bill was nearly double what the previous one had been. She tried "20 or so times" to call the phone company to say that she didn't want the cellphone and to ask how to give it back. But she never got through to the right people.

So she wrote letters, but the phone company didn't respond.

Then she got sick and was hospitalized. Trisha wrote a letter to the phone company saying her mother no longer lived at the retirement home and was concerned that she might be considered a deadbeat and could they please turn off her phone service.

The only response was another bill, higher than the previous one.

A friend tried to hand-deliver a letter to the company building in downtown Denver, but a security guard said you can't get on the elevator unless you're with the employee you have an appointment with.

And how, the friend asked, might one get such an appointment? The security guard gave her an 800 number to call. It was the same 800 number that had earlier put them through to "some guy in Montana" who'd told them it would cost more to get out of the contract than to stay with it."

Is that right out of Franz Kafka or what?

Enough whining. Let me get on to How Much Better Things Used to Be.

The Truth, Mainly


When I was growing up in a little town in southwest Kansas back in the 1940s, there was only the monopolistic Ma Bell instead of all the monopolistic Baby Bells we now have. Ma Bell's representative in our town was Myrt The Telephone Operator.

Myrt lived in a little stucco house with her bed next to her switchboard.

To make a call, we'd go to our phone, a boxy sort of apparatus attached to the kitchen wall, and crank hell out of the little crank on the side. Myrt, if she wasn't asleep or in the bathroom, would see our number light up on her switchboard and plug her jack into our jack hole.

"Number please?" she'd say.

"Hello, Myrt," we'd say. "Need to talk to Slivers' Service. Six-Oh."

"Six-Oh" was the whole number. No prefix. No buttons. No dial. Just "Six-Oh." Voice-activated telecommunication, circa 1947.

"I'll ring it," Myrt would say, "but Slivers isn't there. Had to go to Liberal for some kind of part for his Dynaflow. Left about 45 minutes ago. Probably won't be back for another half hour."

What telephone service today gives information like that?

We made and received long-distance calls only when someone died or was about to die, and Myrt was always the first to know. By supper time, the grief food would be coming in from all over town.

Everyone assumed that Myrt listened in on our conversations, so she was often included in them.

"I just put one teaspoon of vanilla in mine," my mother would tell Alma on the phone. "How many do you put in yours, Myrt?"

"I like mine pretty vanilla-ey," Myrt would say, "so I put in a teaspoon and a half. Hang on. Flossie's light just came on. Her cousin's pretty sick. Number please?"

That kind of community outreach cost us about $2.25 a month and anybody with a third-grade education could figure out the bill.

So tell me if that doesn't beat hell out of whatever next rough corporate beast is slouching our way to discombobulate us all with its power to simplify.


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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