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FORMER SMALL-TOWN OPERATOR RINGS UP MEMORIES

SHARE FORMER SMALL-TOWN OPERATOR RINGS UP MEMORIES

SOME ANIMALS are endangered (the Siberian tiger), some are totally extinct (the saber-toothed tiger).

The American small-town telephone operator is extinct. About the only place you can find one these days is in a museum - like those old Andy Griffth re-runs. You've seen them; Barney breaks up with Thelma Lou and decides to make her jealous by calling Juanita the waitress for a date. But Ida - the telephone operator - won't put him through, at least not until Barney has heard her lecture on being faithful.I remember things like that from the '50s.

Mayberry was Brigham City.

Just ask Joyce Whitten. She was one of our Idas.

"It was an interesting time," Joyce says today. "I remember being on the line with a woman whose baby was dying in her arms. But I also remember the wild night when the Ferguson twins were born. One day I said `Number please' and a solemn man on the other end asked me to call the ambulance. It was my husband's voice."

Back in the '50s, the Brigham telephone office was near the alley behind Mack's Pharmacy. Sometimes at night a police car would slide into that alley so the officer inside could catch a few winks. More than once Joyce couldn't raise anyone at the police station, so she'd prop the office door open behind her, run up the alley and bang on the windshield of the car to get things moving.

As I said: Mayberry.

"We'd get the craziest calls," Joyce says. "One day a woman called and said, `I know they're out in the yard, operator, so please ring real loud.' I told her I could ring real long, but I couldn't do real loud.

"On Valentine's Day kids would phone me asking how to spell names like Anne and Martha. Sometimes they'd call and say, `Operator, ring my grandma.' I'd have to start with the names of their parents and try to piece things together from there."

Perhaps the most touching moment for Joyce came on a night when a little 4-year-old girl called to say the baby was crying, her mom and dad were gone and she didn't know what to do.

"I instructed her on getting a bottle for the baby, how to prop it up so the baby could drink, then I told her to go get a blanket from her mother and dad's bed, lie down on the couch and put the phone by her ear," Joyce says. "I left the line open to her all night and spent the next few hours telling her stories. Finally I could tell she'd fallen asleep. I don't know what time those parents got home, but I made sure that little girl had their blanket wrapped around her - just out of spite."

Needless to say Joyce knew everybody's number and everybody's voice. And she also knew their secrets. She knew what woman was calling what man at what time of night. She knew the number of the little house on the west side where local men would set up late-night "emergency love affairs."

She was tapped into the private lives of every citizen.

And she kept mum about it all.

She was a professional.

Back in the '50s, analysts kept wringing their hands and saying the phone boom had created a crisis. Half the women in America would be telephone operators by 1960, they said.

Thanks to automation, all the gloom and doom predictions never came true. But as often happens, automation gave us something, but also took something away. It took away one more human touch that we'll never feel again.

"Number please. . . ."

"1192 please."

"Thank you, Jerry."

"Joyce?"

"Yes?"

"Are Craig and David gonna sleep out tonight?"

"I don't know, Jerry. When you're finished with Royle, I'll ring you through."