These days, a rancher on his saddle horse could use his cellphone to call a bushman in the Kalahari Desert to commiserate on the lack of rainfall – if both were within range of a tower and the country codes were keyed in correctly.
But just a few decades ago, before the advent of satellites, fibre-optic cables, and computerized telephone exchanges, long distance communication required a human touch.
Retired supervisor Shirley Cavanagh’s first task as an Manitoba Telephone System operator back in the 1950s was to link up a local caller with a number in China, of all places.
“The first call I had was to China. I can remember that as plain as day. I thought, oh dear God, how am I going to do this?” she said, at a recent reunion for MTS operators at Brandon’s Sokol Hall.
Part of the appeal of the job for operators was the feeling that they were at the nerve centre of local events, much like reporters in a busy newsroom.
Operators would connect callers with not only faraway countries, but also wireless ship-to-shore calls, as well as remote northern outposts such as Tadouli Lake and the DEW line. They even offered a kind of telegram service for isolated residences, with a taxi operator hand-delivering written messages.
In the centre of the room was a red phone, which was only used for emergency calls to the police or fire department.
“If a call came in, the operator would have to drop everything,” said retired MTS supervisor Marge McAllister. “The supervisor in charge would just run to that red phone.”
Cavanagh remembers the hostage-taking in Oak Lake, when a desperate gunman who had killed an RCMP officer holed up in the home of the local doctor.
“I was working that night,” she said. “We had one operator who had to sit and monitor the position. We had the RCMP in the building to monitor the situation. We didn’t know what he was going to do next.”
Cavanagh still remembers the days when operators had to use patch cables to connect callers. Back then, pushing buttons was the peak of high tech.
“We had a modern board. All the other places still had the old plugs,” she said.
The downside, she noted, was that modernization tended to remove the personalization of the process. At one time, operators could recognize certain voices from local companies that often requested “sequence calls,” which were long lists of numbers of people that they needed to dial up. But now, all the operators have since been moved to a central location in Winnipeg, she said.
Cavanagh, who retired in the early 1990s, said that it was “hard to say goodbye to the old place.”
The job was interesting, and at times exciting, even if the dress codes and other nitpicky rules made little sense.
“Nobody saw us, but we had to be dressed to the nines,” said Ann Evans, a retired operator.
“Then we finally got so where we could wear a pantsuit, but the top of your jacket had to be fingertip length,” added Cavanagh. “The chief operator could and did even come out and put your hands down to make sure.”
For reasons that still defy explanation, they had to choose their holidays months in advance at the annual Christmas party, where a turkey dinner was served.
In the early years, 150 operators were employed on three daily shifts.
But as the technology improved, less people were needed. Telephone operator jobs in Brandon were particularly coveted by local women, said McAllister, at a time when options for employment weren’t nearly as broad as they are now.
“We had more variety, and we had shift work,” she said, adding that her starting salary – 55 cents an hour – seemed like a dream come true in 1954.
In the days before Google searches put a world of information within reach, callers would resort to operators as an informal information service.
“Kids would call for help with their homework, and wives would call asking how to cook the Christmas turkey,” said McAllister.
Crank callers provided both entertainment and annoyance. One feckless youth gained notoriety for calling a supervisor a “fathead,” and one particularly chauvinistic man often called late at night to harangue the female operators for having the audacity to work nights.
“We had this guy – I don’t know where he called from – who used to call and give us night girls the roughest time,” said Cavanagh. “He asked, ‘How come you’re working nights?’ I said because I’m going on maternity leave.”
After she told the caller that she was expecting her sixth child, he hung up, then called again to harass another operator.
“Then, lo and behold, when we got off work at 7:30 that morning, there he was out there on Ninth Street. I came out as big as house!” she said, with a laugh. “Never had a call after that.”
Relations with the public, however, were generally cordial. Some high-volume callers would bring chocolates to the operators at Christmas.
During Queen Elizabeth’s visits to Manitoba, all of Her Majesty’s calls were handled by one operator who was assigned the task exclusively.
Details of the really big stories, they can’t reveal, however, because operators were required to maintain confidentiality about all calls.
“You’d get in big trouble if you divulged anything,” said Evans.
That means “the Liberace story” will have to remain a secret, forever.
“ThefirstcallIhad wastoChina.Ican rememberthatasplain asday.Ithought,oh dearGod,howamI goingtodothis?”
– SHIRLEY CAVANAGH