By David Snyder
My grandmother was a switchboard operator in the 1950s. In a time before the mass adoption of the telephone dial, the operators were the gatekeepers to the world of communication. Operators were charged with knowing exactly where everything was and who everybody was, allowing for the quickest transfer to be made, a signal zooming through those high above black cables. My grandmother, and all of her telephoning compatriots, were the original Google!
My grandmother used her post as a communications demigod to great effect. While she was operating back home, her then boyfriend, my now grandfather, was off studying law in South Bend, Indiana, at Notre Dame. The train ride in the early ’50s between upstate New York and Indiana was no less than a nine-day affair, making a quick drop by a tough sell. Though they did visit one another now and then, the lynchpin was long distance communication. The written letter was, of course, a constant. They’d write one another often enough, though a couple can only stay so in touch by such a few and far between mode. The hero was the telephone. However, New York to Indiana took a hell of a toll on the pocketbook. My grandmother rectified this by some finagling with her boss at work, who agreed to allow her one toll-free phone call per week to South Bend. Every Friday or Saturday night, my grandfather would manhandle his neighbors and classmates away from the communal phone booth outside his dorm room to make sure that he didn’t miss his weekly call. The stakes were high, after all!
That was the state of telephone communications in the ’50s. It took an inside job for the ages just for a girl to call her boyfriend once a week.
The operator is, much like the telephone call, just about confined to the dustbin of history. And that’s fair enough, too. With the introduction of the dialer and then the internet, the operator found himself in the same spot as the typewriter repairman when the word processor came off the assembly line.
Google is the world’s operator. With the click of a few keys, any fact or whim can be plucked out of the whole accumulation of human knowledge. This is quite the feat, eh?
However, whenever I think about the story of my grandparents and their weekly telecommunications plundering, I can’t help but feel a tug of romantic longing for that bygone era. I’ve written, at great length, about why one is a fool to worship the idea of the 1950s, and I stand by that objective assessment. And I’m not being wholly hypocritical — just a touch. What I feel nostalgia for is not the 1905s per se, but a time in which everything wasn’t on demand: relationships, of any sort, weren’t on demand, knowledge wasn’t on demand, the news wasn’t on demand. I suppose this is because I admire the idea of working for what was once earned, as well as high regard for the joys of scarcity, of limited accessibility to things of high value.
This is completely irrational, of course! Having everything at the tips of my fingers is a luxury I’d cease to be able to function without, but man is irrational, and irrational I am.
I think I’ll suggest to the Mrs that when the summer is over and the long distance game is back on that we ditch the texts and stick to letters and a weekly phone call. This is an enterprise that has failed before I put the words to page, but by god a man has to choose a hill to fight and die on at some point.