Whenever I find myself stranded on a far branch of a prerecorded phone tree, or shouting to a recorded voice that I would like to speak to a human being, I think of Bernadine (Honey) Winkelman, the telephone operator in the small Iowa town where I grew up. In my earliest transactions with her, our telephone — we had only one in the whole house — was a wooden box that hung on the kitchen wall. At the top of the box, like eyes, were two round black bells; at the bottom a morning-glory mouthpiece; on the left side a crank, and on the right, hanging on its hook, the earpiece, shaped like the bell of a little black trumpet.
When a caller — a 7-year-old boy, let us say, who wished to call his grandmother — placed a call, he would lift the earpiece from its hook and turn the crank vigorously once or twice, occasionally three times at peak calling hours. Sooner or later, there would be a click on the line, and a familiar, rather deep female voice would say, “Numberrr please.”
“135, Honey,” the boy would say in his squeaky voice (he wasn’t being fresh; everybody called Bernadine “Honey.” If her semiretired mother had been tending the switchboard, the boy, being properly brought up, would have addressed her as “Mrs. Winkelman.”)
‘Thank you, Michael,” Honey would say, and then, after another click, he would hear the whirr of his grandmother’s telephone ringing — unless, of course, his grandmother was talking on the phone to someone else, as she often was, in which case Honey would tell the boy that Grandma was talking to Emma Yohnke and they’d been at it for only 10 minutes, so try calling again in half an hour; but just as often Grandma was baking something yummy in the kitchen, and so, after two or three rings while she wiped the flour from her hands, the boy would hear another click and then, marvelously, an electronic transcription of his grandmother’s voice.
The nexus that made this communication possible was a vast console in the Winkelmans’ front parlor, a vertical bank of hundreds of brass-lined holes with red-and-green lights flashing here and there, rising over a desk filled with a thicket of plugs and switches. At this desk, on a swivel chair, a headphone on one ear and a mouthpiece curving around to her mouth, sat Honey, moving her red-nailed hands expertly over the switches and plugs, plugging and unplugging, saying “Number please,” and “Thank you,” and “Go ahead.” Sometimes she would talk with whoever was making a call, the latest information being a part of the service she provided to the community. If she listened in on conversations not her own, she was doing no more than anyone else in town, most of whom were on party lines and listened in whenever the phone rang. News traveled fast in Wall Lake, but Honey was always the first to know about births and deaths and scandals and engagements, the one to check with for the very latest lowdown on any subject of local interest — and in Wall Lake, Iowa, there were few interests that were not local. Any little boy who dropped in to talk to Honey had to put up with many interruptions, some of them lengthy, but it was just as interesting to watch her work, which she continued to do while talking to whoever was on the line.
In a town of 800 souls in the middle of nowhere, there were no exchange prefixes, and phone numbers were simple: 135 for my grandparents, 243 for my Aunt Norma, 11 for my uncle’s grocery store, 446 for us. If I didn’t know a number, Honey would look it up for me, if she didn’t know it already (as she usually did). The Winkelman house being near the center of town, there wasn’t much going on that she couldn’t see from her window, which sometimes added a helpful dimension to phone service in Wall Lake. I might give her my grandmother’s number, 135, and she might say, “I just saw your grandma go past on her way to the store. Want me to connect you there?” I would, and she would connect me, and my grandmother would be at the store.
Another of Honey’s civic duties was sounding the fire siren. Although the switchboard shut down every night at 10, there was a special line for reporting fires and medical emergencies, always open. When a call came in, Honey would sound the alarm, day or night: three wails for a fire in town, four for a fire in the country. The volunteers would rush to the fire station from all over town, and Wall Lake’s white fire truck would go roaring and wailing off to fight the fire.
Honey was also responsible for the noon whistle, the single wail of the fire siren that sounded every day to notify the town that it was time for lunch (or “dinner,” as the midday meal was locally known). One day at noon I was talking to Honey when she rose and leaned over and pressed a green button in a switch box on the wall above my head. The siren wailed out over the town, and, when it had climbed to its crescendo, she pressed the red button below the green button, and the siren descended into silence.
“You ring the noon whistle!” I shouted. “Can I do it? Can I do it?”
After much shouting on my part, Honey finally agreed that I could ring the noon whistle the next day. She told me to remember to push the green button to start the siren and the red button to stop it. The next day I was at my post before noon, standing on a chair. As the sweep hand of the big clock on the wall reached 12, Honey nodded to me from her seat at the switchboard, and I pressed the green button. The siren’s wail rose above the town, reached its crescendo, held steady.
“Push the red button, Michael,” Honey shouted above the noise of the siren.
“What?” I shouted back. I was in the middle of a power trip, not paying attention to anything but the gigantic banshee wail I had caused to sound over the town.
“PUSH THE RED BUTTON!” Honey shouted. Then she stood up and leaned over the console, and just as she was about to push the red button, I pushed it and the wail descended into silence. Honey gave me an exasperated look that said “never again,” but I didn’t care; I had stood briefly at the high point of my seven years. When I got home that day, my mother gave me The Look and said, “That was a mighty long noon whistle.”
Long distance calling in the days before direct dialing and pennies-a-minute was expensive and difficult, reserved for births and deaths and important occasions. I might, for example, want to call, with permission, my other grandmother, the one who lived in Minneapolis, on her birthday. I would crank up Honey and say that I wanted to place a long-distance, person-to-person call to Nena Nesset in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at PArkway2-9027 (big-city exchanges had names in those more personal days that often conveyed a sense of place; my grandmother lived near Minnehaha Parkway).
“I’ll bet Grandma’s having a birthday,” Honey would say as she began the complicated business of placing the call. After several clicks, I would hear the sound of a vast echoing space filled with many faint voices and with a high, wordless singing noise behind them all, like the ethereal sound the wind makes in telephone wires when you climb up close to them. Honey would talk to some of the voices, and a few minutes and several clicks later, I would hear my grandmother’s phone ringing and my grandmother’s voice, made faint by the many connections it was passing through, saying “Hello,” and a closer voice saying, “Go ahead, Wall Lake,” and Honey saying, “I have a person-to-person call for Nena Nesset,” and my grandmother, sounding concerned, saying, “This is Nena,” and Honey saying, “Go ahead, Michael,” and I would shout “Happy birthday, Grandma!” and my grandmother, sounding relieved and happy, would say, “Oh, thank you, gamle Mikkel.” Then my parents and my sister would all wish her a happy birthday, keeping it short, because long distance was expensive. (Longer news was for personal letters — first-class stamps cost three cents; my Minnesota grandmother wrote letters weekly to my sister and me, which we would answer promptly or our mother would know the reason why.)
Honey continued at the switchboard throughout my childhood and teenage years, with an occasional break to go shopping with my mother and my aunts or dancing with her latest boyfriend. On a visit home during my first year of college, I picked up my grandmother’s Slimline phone receiver that had something called an area code and a seven-digit phone number printed beside the lighted dial. But the new system hadn’t been activated, and Honey was still on the other end of the line. She asked me about college and congratulated me on my scholarship and connected me to 11, which was still the number of my uncle’s store.
Two years later, I picked up my grandmother’s phone and heard a dial tone. The new system had been activated, and Honey had retired (to marry, they tell me, a rich boyfriend). Since that day, though the number and speed of our connections to one another have increased almost beyond imagination, there is a distance between us, a distance of automated operators with prerecorded voices, of menu options that have changed and are never the right option, of bare-boned, cryptically abbreviated texts and tweets, a distance that feels like loss. I miss the time when a real human being and the network of busybodies she commanded were only a phone crank away. I miss a time when knowing that Honey and half the town might be listening in was comforting, not threatening. And I sometimes feel that I would give up even my cellphone if I could, just once, pick up my land-line receiver and hear Honey’s Iowa drawl saying, “Numberrr, please.”
Michael Nesset lives in North St. Paul.