There was an article in our small-town daily newspaper today about a group of former telephone operators who still ‘stay connected’. Fifty years ago, they worked in the telephone exchange, a small brick building downtown.
Anyone who has seen an old movie has seen the setup: they sat in front of a board with a lot of holes in it with their legs under a desk affair with plug-in jacks attached to cables. Each cable was a phone line. When a call came in on Line 1, the operator would answer it, and she would then plug the Line 1 jack into the receptacle of the party the caller requested and a light would come on to signal a connection had been made. When the caller hung up, the light would go out, and the operator would unplug the cable. If it was a busy switchboard you had to be careful because your lines crossed one another, and it sometimes was hard to determine exactly which incoming line was plugged into which receiver.
When I was seventeen, I worked for a while as a PBX operator at a small hospital. There were probably only about fifteen incoming lines and maybe fifty phones in the hospital, but I’ll admit I disconnected a doctor or two. I realized then that being a telephone operator was probably not a career path I should follow.
However, as a telephone user, it was great to be able to dial “O” and know that there would be someone on the other end to answer a question or help with a solution. Long after telephone exchanges had become automated, companies still had operators answering phones, and I appreciated having a warm body that I could put my query to instead of hearing, “If you know the extension of the person you are calling….”
About fifteen years ago I got unexpected help from an operator at the Church office building. I was in the middle of writing Counting the Cost, which is, on one level, the story of how my family came to join the LDS church. It was my Uncle Curtis, a cowboy, who first met and listened to the missionaries, and I wanted to know how that had come about. I had found and talked to one of the missionaries who taught Curtis, but he had transferred in and picked up where the other missionaries left off. He couldn’t tell me how the missionaries had first met Curtis, but he kept a journal and told me the name of the elder he replaced and the small Idaho town he was from.
I did some sleuthing and found that elder, now a doctor in California, but he wasn’t the one who first met my Uncle Curtis. He did give me the name of a previous missionary and where he was from, but it was a large city, and I knew I couldn’t just start calling people with that same surname as I had before.
I decided to try calling the missionary department of the LDS church, thinking they would have records that would help me find this missionary. He would be seventy-one or –two by this time, but I was sure that he would remember how he happened to come to teach my uncle.
I dialed the number for the Church office building, and an operator answered. “Could you direct me to the missionary department,” I said. “I want to find out about a missionary who served in New Mexico in 1940.”
“What is his name?” she asked.
“No, you don’t understand,” I said. “I don’t want to talk to him. I don’t think he’s in the missionary department. I want to talk to someone who can help me find him.”
“What’s his name?” she asked again.
I told her his name.
“He’s dead,” she said.
“No, you don’t understand,” I said again. My voice may have been getting an edge to it. “I’d like to talk to someone in the missionary department who can help me find this former missionary.”
“He’s dead,” she repeated. Then she explained that she had served in that same mission at the same time, and that missionary had married her former companion, so they had kept in touch over the years. He had died just a few years before.
I was disappointed that I would never, in this life, know how the gospel had found its way to our family. But I was really in awe of the way I got to that dead end. What are the odds that I would get an operator who could answer that question about a missionary who served fifty years before in an obscure corner of New Mexico?
To read a blog I wrote about one of the missionaries I did find, click here.
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