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Bob Lind, Published January 06 2009

’50s operator had small-town connections

This is phone service the way it used to be.

This story (condensed here) was published in Reminisce magazine. Charon Johnson, Mesa, Ariz., and formerly a farmer near Penn, N.D., sent it to Neighbors.

The story’s writer, Richard Pence, originally of Columbia, S.D., near Aberdeen, was in the Navy in 1950, and his ship had just arrived in Philadelphia. So he called his parents.

He put his nickel in the pay phone and told the Philadelphia operator, “I’d like to place a station-to-station collect call to the Bob Pence residence in Columbia, S.D., please.”

Operator: “You mean Columbia, South CAROLINA, don’t you?”

Richard: “No, I mean, Columbia, South DAKOTA.”

Operator: “Certainly. What is the number, please?’

Richard: “They don’t have a number.”

Operator: “They don’t have a number?”

Richard: ‘No, ma’am.”

Operator: “I can’t complete the call without a number!”

Richard: “The only thing I know is two longs and a short.”

Operator (snorting): “I’ll get the number for you.”

She made a series of calls and finally reached the operator in Columbia.

Philadelphia operator: “The number for the Bob Pence residence, please.”

Columbia operator: “Two longs and a short.”

Philadelphia operator (stunned): “I have a collect call for anyone at that number. Will you please ring?”

Columbia operator: “They aren’t home; they’re up at the schoolhouse at the basketball game.”

By now the Philadelphia operator was thoroughly confused. But the Columbia operator, who knew where everyone in town was at any given moment, tracked down Richard’s parents. His dad accepted the collect call and at last, parents and son were connected.

But it’s likely the Philadelphia operator was totally disconnected.

Penn phone line

Charon says this story breaks him up because “I recall many similar incidents from our rural telephone system that was headquartered in Penn.

“Our telephone operator, Jo Steinke, handled two rural systems out of her home, and most of the line maintenance was taken care of by the patrons.

“Everyone I have shared (this story) with, who is from that era, have related to it.”

One more thing from Charon: His first train ride was on the Galloping Goose from Churchs Ferry, N.D., to Devils Lake, N.D. You know a lot of people can relate to that, too.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107; fax it to 241-5487; or e-mail blind@forumcomm.com