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The Captain At The Switchboard
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In his later years my grandfather worked as a custodian at the local phone company. I'd pass the big brick building every day on my way home from gradeschool. He used to let me in after closing time. I followed him down the deserted hallways to the closet by the dark stairwell where he put away his mop and bucket. I felt like an adventurer journeying through forbidden regions.

We'd stop by the echoing cafeteria for a soda from the machine then visit Mabel, the switchboard operator. This black, light studded panel wasn't the switchboard for the building, but for the whole town. How many local dialers had been privileged to glimpse the jolly gray haired lady who sat at the secret heart of their every phone conversation, calmly plugging and unplugging connections as green and yellow cats-eyes flashed amid the crossed cords?

More amazing still, Mabel allowed me to sit in her big soft leather swivel chair, don the headset, take plugs in hand and assume her duties for a few minutes. It was like sitting in front of the control panel of a spaceship.

And just as if I really were a spaceship captain, I could perform futuristic feats, like placing three way calls. They were unheard of back then, at least by me and my friends. Imagine their shock and delight when they realized the three of us really were speaking to each other, all at once, from different places. Telephones just couldn't do that, any more than they could transmit pictures or send you backwards in time, at least not twentieth century phones. It was incredible, impossible, downright science fictional!

But before I did anything, my grandfather always pointed out a large red light that glowed steadily beside a socket near the bottom of the board. "Just make sure you don't put the plug in there. That goes straight to owner. If you ring up the owner at home, we'll be in a powerful lot of trouble."

Of course, there's nothing like a hint of danger to make a task more exciting. I worked around that red light pretty carefully.

Years later, after my grandfather was gone, when I realized he'd had a dry sense of humor, I figured he must have been kidding. But I never plugged in there so I'll never know.

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