That was all you had to say and the house was yours. From one end of Washington DC to the other; black, white, Latino, rich or poor the door opened wide; the telephone man received that kind of trust and respect in 1964. It was a strange time though; big changes we’re coming for the country, the world and even the telephone person. These are a few of the stories I remember from those days. I’ve used real names because these were real people.
When I was hired as a telephone installer, my first boss was Joe Gooch. I was eighteen, he was this old guy with one glass eye, stone deaf in one ear and a hearing aid in the other. Carried the amplifier and battery pack in one of his shirt pockets. He always wore shirts with two pockets. The other one was for a special box, like a jewelry box, that he kept his eye in when nobody was around. Said it was uncomfortable to wear. Every now and then we’d walk in on him and catch him cleaning it. He’d put his head down real quick, fumble around down there for a minute, then pop back up with two eyes. Sometimes he’d get it in wrong so it would be looking way off to the left somewhere while the good eye is looking right at you. Damn spooky. Great sense of humor about it, though. Sometimes we’d walk in his office and start moving our mouths like we were talking; he’d reach down and turn up his amplifier, then start banging on the thing. He did it every time, never got angry about it. The only thing about Joe, he was obsessed with work units. Each type of work done by his craftsmen (yep, all men in those days) was valued for so many units, and each day his crew was supposed to complete a certain number. A new installation was seven work units, a rearrangement was five, etc. His thing was to always have the highest work unit count in the Division. As long as we gave him that, we could practically do anything we wanted to. He was great to work for.
Once, Robbie Robertson came running into his office, “Joe, I gotta run. A little girl’s been hit by a car; they need Type AB blood down at GW right away.” Joe said okay but then grabbed a stack of orders from his desk. “Wait a minute; GW Hospital?” He flipped through the orders quickly and handed Robbie three or four of them, “Here, catch these disconnects on the way.” True story.
The area of Washington we worked in was called DuPont, and it covered a very large area from Northeast all the way over into Georgetown. In the morning we could be working in a shack with dirt floors trying like hell to keep from getting filthy, and the same afternoon be in a mansion with marble floors trying like hell not get a speck of dirt on anything. It was a valuable lesson for a young suburban white boy who thought he knew everything. The people who lived on those marble floors were often as not pretty hard to deal with, while on the other side of town it was exactly the opposite, There were a couple things, however, that took some getting used to…
Me and Woody Woodson were working late one night in an alley behind First and P Streets, Northeast. I was up a pole and Woody was down below about to throw me up a drop wire. “Shhhh!” he said, “What’s that?” I could hear something that I finally realized was the tinkling of a bell. “It’s a cat”, I said, “coming down the alley right there”. I could see its shadow bouncing along. A minute or two later Woody jumped up onto the back of the truck. “That’s no goddam cat!” He screamed. “Come on”, I said, “What do you think, it’s a rat with a bell around its neck?” Woody hated rats. He was scared to death of them. He shined his flashlight on this thing as it went by and, sure enough, it was the fattest ugliest rat you ever saw; with a collar around its neck and a little bell hanging from it. It went right on by, looked up at Woody who was yelling and stomping his feet, and just kept on trotting along like it owned the alley, which it absolutely did as far as we were concerned. In the garage the next day, one of the guys who’d worked that area for a long time said he’d seen it before. The kids sometimes catch the bigger ones, he explained, and make pets out of them. They bring them food and stuff until the rats get used to them, then catch them and put the collar on. I know; if I hadn’t seen it I wouldn’t have believed it either.
The cockroaches were the other thing I just couldn’t get used to. First time I encountered one of the really big ones, Panamanians they called them, I was down on the floor next to an old radiator connecting a telephone set to the block on the baseboard. I heard something walking behind the radiator. I mean, I could hear what were like footsteps and a kind of dragging sound. I was sure it was a rat. I jumped back and watched as this huge fat ugly disgusting roach close to three inches long came sauntering out from behind the radiator. It was the grossest thing I had ever seen, but it was still early in my career. Too bad we hadn’t started the ‘biggest roach’ contest yet, cause I would have won with that one. What we’d do, if you find a really big one, you catch him (imagine chasing this fat roach around somebody’s house trying to scoop it up into your empty telephone box, the people looking at you like you’re crazy) then bring him back to the garage and pin him up on the bulletin board. He had to be alive or it didn’t count. Biggest one for the week drinks free at the regular Friday night visit to our favorite topless joint called The Office. Yep, sorry Honey; working late at the office again.
And it wasn’t just the big ones that grossed you out either. It was the armies of small ones. They could fly, you see. Now those were just too much for me. It must have happened to me twenty times or more: I get a repair order for ‘bell doesn’t ring’. I get to the house, the nice lady takes me to her nice kitchen and shows me the nice wall phone that has been there since Moses. Of course the bell doesn’t ring, lady; you want to see why? I stick my screwdriver in the slot and pop the cover and she screams like somebody shot her as two hundred little brown bastards take off in every direction. Some are running up the wall, some are falling onto the floor and then running everywhere and some are flying right at us. They’re on our clothes, in our hair…I stopped doing that kind of thing after I grew up; or after I got bored with it, one. Anyway, I’d scrape all the nesting material, greasy scum and roach eggs out of the bell housing so it could ring again, put the cover back on and tell the nice lady to have a nice day. Snuffy Senft had a better idea that I was never quite able to master. He had the fastest staple gun in the west; used to pull it out and staple the little buggers to the wall. Yahoo! Whap! Whap!
The best ‘bell doesn’t ring’ story I ever heard came from an old guy named Kiefer; said it happened to his partner back in the fifties. A woman called the repair desk and said that sometimes her phone didn’t ring. The desk clerk checked the record and told the lady that this was the fifth time she’d called and that every time they sent someone out the phone worked fine. The lady said yes, that was true, but it was not ringing right now so they should send someone quickly. The desk clerk thought about that a minute and then asked her how she knew it wasn’t ringing. The woman said because her sister called. There was a note on the woman’s record that she might be a little wacky and now the clerk knew why, but she stuck with it. She patiently asked the lady how she knew her sister was calling if the phone didn’t ring. The woman said that her dog told her. The clerk apologized profusely through her tears and said they’d send someone right out. So, the repairman went out and, sure enough, the bell rang fine. He told the lady the phone was working and she said, well, that’s because it stopped raining. The repairman was having trouble not laughing so he went outside to have a smoke and saw the dog on a chain bolted to the side of the house. Then he noticed the telephone connector box which was mounted to the same strip of aluminum siding. He went over and opened the box and there it was: the ring side of the line was grounded to one of the mounting bolts for the telephone connector box. This meant that the dog provided a path to ground through his body by way of the metal collar, the metal chain and the aluminum siding on the house. When the ground was dry, the ‘dog circuit’ didn’t work and ringing current went to the phone, but when it rained the full 105 volt ringing current would go right through the dog to the wet ground and the phone wouldn’t ring. The dog, however, would howl like hell and the lady would go over and pick up the phone. True story? Kiefer swore it was true.
Here’s one I know is true cause it happened to good old Randy Snyder. It was a major screw up that made everybody happy, almost. One night about six thirty a man called the repair desk and said that his table was moving slowly toward the window. The desk clerk reminded him that he had called the telephone company. The man said yes, because he had just had his phone installed and right after the telephone man left his table started inching it’s way toward the window. He said he was getting worried because it was almost there. The clerk checked and, sure enough, Randy Snyder had been there that afternoon. Turns out it was almost quitting time when he got there and it was a new install with a new drop wire from the pole; at least an hour’s work. Randy had a softball game at six, so he connected his drop at the pole, pulled it up to the window of the room where the man wanted the phone, connected the drop wire directly into the telephone (which was damn near impossible), closed the window on the drop wire and told the man not to open the window till he got back to finish the job in the morning. Of course, the weight of the drop was more than the weight of the window could manage, so it slowly started pulling the phone and the table. Randy was happy cause he got to his ballgame on time, the man was happy cause he got his telephone, Gooch was happy cause Randy got seven work units for a new install that took him less than fifteen minutes and the repairman was happy cause he had a great story to tell. Everybody was happy except the District Manager, who docked Randy a day’s pay. Randy was famous after that one, so he didn’t mind.
He was famous for something else too; another contest we had that was even grosser than ‘biggest roach’. Randy was the best. One day, he yelled up from the bathroom down in the basement of the garage, “Hey, I did it! I did it! Get your asses down here and look at this.” We knew what he’d done; he’d been trying for weeks. So we all went downstairs and queued up at the booth to verify his achievement. He had done it, all right; the first one, in our garage anyway. It was a perfect ‘Q’.
Being a telephone man in DC was a pretty good deal in those days. Imagine being an eighteen or nineteen year old suburban white boy turned loose on the city every day with a handful of orders giving you access to people’s homes, all without supervision. When you say ‘telephone man’, the door opens…that was it. You were fully trusted. Plus, we had kind of an unwritten deal with the DC Police. An officer comes by while you’re in the back of your truck, says ‘whatcha got today?’, you slip him a Princess or a Trimline, a handful of jacks and some wire. You get stopped for speeding or whatever in DC, you show the officer your company pass and off you go with a warning. Another good deal was with landlords; like when Roger Kelham and I went to do a pre-wire at a remodeled row of townhouses being sold as condominiums. The landlord says if we could put jacks in every room of every condo, he could let us use an empty unit until it was sold. We never sold anything for money; it was always these kind of tit-for-tat deals, and that one was way too good a deal to turn down. We worked a few nights and a couple of Sundays on our own time and, next thing you know, we had our own upscale condo for four months. We were both separated before it was over, and Roger divorced soon after so maybe it wasn’t such a good deal after all. Anyway, it was a great job. We met all kinds of interesting people and encountered all kinds of interesting situations, mostly involving women. There was even one involving a man. He liked me for some reason, even though I told him again and again that I was straight. He was a rich guy; let me use his place, his car and other things. This also got me in plenty of trouble and I was separated again before I knew it. Anyway…
Jimmy Summers had a good one once where he had to run a new drop wire through a neighbor’s walled-in backyard but couldn’t because no one was home and there was this huge mean looking German Shepherd running loose, barking at him and bearing his huge white teeth. Jimmy called for help and Tom Jordan showed up. Tom was a little crazy. He looked over the situation, hooked his thumb in his belt and said, “Hand me that drop wire, pilgrim.” Tom climbed up on the wall, threw a stick to the opposite corner and jumped in. Jimmy couldn’t see anything from the other side of the wall but from the sound of it he was sure the dog was killing Tom. After a few minutes he heard Tom yell ‘Yee ha’, looked up and there was Tom back on top of the wall with the drop wire in his hand, the other end thrown over the wall to the house where Jimmy was working. His clothes were all torn up and covered with blood and dirt. “It’s all yours, Jimmy”, said Tom and drove off to his next job. Jimmy connected the drop to the pole and went back to the house to finish the job. That night the neighbor called in furious wanting to know why his dog had been beaten up and tied to a tree with telephone wire. True story.
Drop wires were always getting us in trouble. Drop wire is this very heavy weatherproof cable and it was often necessary to run it through trees. Most of us would just climb the tree and take the drop with us. Some would tie the drop to their heaviest tool and throw it through the trees, but this caused some very nasty accidents; plus, they would usually just get hung up in the tree anyway. To avoid this, Dave Silverman kept a bow and arrow on his truck. He would tie a string to the arrow, shoot it through the trees, then pull his drop wire through. It was a great idea; the fastest method anyone had devised, at least in our garage. Until one day he put his arrow right through a third floor window and smack into a picture on the wall. The picture was right above a chair in which a nice little old lady was sitting. Gooch was really pissed, not because Dave had almost killed the nice lady but because he had been planning on equipping all of his trucks with bows and arrows.
We all had plenty of dog stories. My personal favorite was the time when all these black folks came out on their porches and were laughing like hell upside down. I thought it was pretty funny too, until this huge St. Bernard came running around the corner heading straight for me, barking like hell upside down. I was hanging from a tree about four feet off the ground and couldn’t pull myself up. I had slipped trying to get my drop through the tree and my pole belt had gotten wedged in a fork. There was nothing I could do and the black folks were too busy falling over and high fivin’ to come to my rescue so I started clapping my hands and calling the dog. ‘Come on, boy; come on’. He jumped up and put his gigantic paws on my shoulders and batted me around like a piñata and licked me until a guy called Bones came and got me down. I know his name cause I sat there on his porch and drank beer until half the neighborhood finally drifted away, some of them still falling out laughing. I was a star around there for months.
There were, however, some tough things to get a hold of in those neighborhoods. Once, I was in an apartment no worse and no better than most, installing a phone in the kitchen. The woman was cooking and had two kids she was busy with, a baby in the back room in a crib and Man, a boy about two who was crying like hell in a bed in the same room. She called him Man like that was his name. Maybe it was, what the hell did I know. She’s chatting away while I’m working, very nice lady, after a while she says, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do ‘bout these rats. You see what they done?” She takes me back and shows me the sores on the baby’s toes. They were a mess. “They comes round at night”, she says, “I tried everything; I can’t keep’em away.” Meantime, Man is still screaming so she picks him up by one ankle and carries him upside down back to the kitchen. She turns the gas on the back burner and, still chatting and stirring her cooking pot with one hand, she holds Man up over the burner with the other. I’m too young and too stupid and too in shock to say or do anything. Next thing I know, Man quiets down and she takes him back to bed. She keeps on chatting and stirring and Man goes to sleep while I finish installing her phone. I was going to report it but never did. I figured there were too many things I didn’t understand. I thought about what my parents had done to me, and what my friends’ parents had done to them and realized that it was the same damn thing.
We never had any trouble in those so called ‘bad’ neighborhoods. We worked alone, white boys making good money in jobs that blacks couldn’t get, but never had a problem. None of us; not a single one. The telephone man was accepted and trusted in spite of all the growing racial tension in the city. In late ’65 things started to change and by the riots in ’68 it was all over. We had to work in pairs from then on; there had been some incidents so some of the guys started carrying weapons. Growing mistrust on both sides turned to fear and even hatred where only a few short years before there had been none. Joe Gooch said he was just too damned old for that kind of nonsense and it was all just too damn sad anyway. He retired, packed up everything he owned and moved lock, stock and barrel to his cabin deep in the woodsy green mountains of North Carolina.
Great fishin’, he told us.
Come on down, I’ll keep an eye out for ya.