While I was in college, I had the marvelous good fortune to work every Saturday and all through each summer at Skyline Telephone Membership Corporation. Based in West Jefferson, NC, I believe I am correct in saying that it was among the ten largest telephone co-ops in the country at that time. With members in Ashe, Allegheny, Avery, and Watauga counties in North Carolina and in Shady Valley, Tennessee, working there was almost always an adventure. Dealing directly with the customers was sometimes quite difficult and hilariously funny all at the same time. The memory of some of these encounters still bring a smile to my face. I would like to share a few of them with you.
First, though, let me remind you that these stories all took place in the late ‘70s. The land line telephone was revolutionary in our mountains. Receivers that emitted a dial tone were connected to telephones that were connected to wires that were strung out to poles with more wires that carried our voices from our homes into the homes of those we talked to. Most of us were on “party lines” which simply meant you could not call out nor could anyone call in if any of up to three other members were using the phone. You could, however, gently lift the receiver and listen in on a conversation that was really none of your business. As gossip got passed around, this caused no small amount of hard feelings among party line neighbors. Your membership included unlimited local calls in your home county, but any other calls were considered long distance and were quite expensive.
As Miranda Lambert sings, “It takes all kinds of kinds,” and I found that to certainly be the case at Skyline. Here are just a few illustrations of that fact.
One day, a small and fragile elderly woman came into the office with what we thought was a concern about a number of calls she had received. After researching the calls, it turned out that they should have gone to a phone number just one digit different from this lady’s number. Then we looked at the name for the listing. Horrified that this little lady had been forced to deal with calls that were meant for the “Swingers’ Hotline,” we apologetically informed her why she had received the calls.
She smiled and said, “Well, honey, I could’ve told y’all that. Do you know what it’s like to be 80 years old and get woke up in the middle of the night by someone wantin’ to talk about sex?”
Even more concerned now that these calls might be upsetting to the little lady, our receptionist suggested the only thing that made sense, “Have you ever thought about having your number changed, m’am?”
“Good gracious no, darlin’,” she declared, “that would take all the fun out of life!” I’m still not completely sure why she came in to tell us about the calls unless it was to gloat about the pillow talk she was privy to.
Sometimes We Can’t Solve Your Problem
At times, members came in with issues that we just were not equipped to handle. This happened to me one Saturday. A young woman came in with bill in hand. She gave the bill to me, I stamped it “Paid,” then waited for her to give me the money. The young woman just stood there, completely silent. The seconds ticked away, and I began to feel uneasy. After all, people who come in with a bill normally do so with the intention of paying it.
I was just about to subtly prompt her by asking if she needed a pen to write her check, but before I could get the words out, she suddenly blurted, “I don’t have the money to pay it…” I was the one at a loss for words then, but after a moment of silence, she continued, “I don’t know why I don’t have it. [another pause] Yes, I do. It’s ‘cos I run the roads all the time. If I didn’t keep them so hot, I could pay my bills.” She stood silently for another few seconds, then her face lit up. “I know what I need,” she beamed. “I need one of them phones you put in your car like they have on TV. Do you know what I’m talkin’ about?”
“Yes, m’am, (I was almost afraid to contradict her) but I don’t think equipment like that is available around here.”
“Well, why not? You’re a phone company, ain’t you?”
At this point, I decided I had better try to put a stop to our unusual conversation. “Well, yes, m’am, but I really don’t know anything about it. If you’re still interested, you might want to come back next week with the money to pay your bill, then talk to one of our engineers about the car phone.”
She agreed, and appearing satisfied, she turned and disappeared just as quickly as she had appeared. Two weeks later, a social worker came in and paid her bill. We were not really surprised to learn she had been admitted to Broughton Psychiatric Hospital in Morganton.
Men are Braver in the Dark
On Saturdays, we only opened the front office, and only three of us worked, one full time employee and the two of us college students. Usually, this worked out quite well, but once in awhile the not so usual would happen. This occurred one Saturday when we had a bad thunderstorm and lost electrical power. Instead of locking up early, though, we gathered some candles and worked by their light.
Things were fine until a man came in to pay his bill. At the time, I was the only one at the cashier’s desk. The regular employee was working close by but out of sight, and the other college student was taking an application for phone service, again close by but not in sight. The man walked straight up to me, gave me his bill, and the money to pay it. The low candle light was pretty bad, so it took me longer than usual to get his change. As I was fumbling in the money drawer, he started talking about the weather. Concentrating on getting the change counted correctly, I didn’t pay much attention to him. Then, all at once, he asked in a low, smooth voice, “Are you married, hon?”
Being a bit naive, and with my attention divided between him and the money drawer, I didn’t really think about what he had asked. I answered, “No.” Of course, if I had had any sense at all, I would have lied and said “Yes,” but no, not me!
“Well, do you have a boyfriend, sweetheart?”
He sure had my attention now, and I looked up at him warily. Here I was alone (for all he knew) in the dark with a man I had never seen before, a man asking very inappropriate questions. Of course, I wasn’t dating anyone, but I knew better than to tell him that. I was flustered, though, and didn’t have enough time to calm down and think, so instead of just saying, “Yes,” as I should have, my answer came out a weak, “Sometimes…” I immediately knew that I had blown it.
“Well, what d’ya say we go to the movies?” he asked in that same low, smooth voice.
“No, I…I guess I be..better not,” I stammered.
“Ah,come on, darlin” he coaxed.
Just at that moment, the full time employee started using her adding machine, and the clackety noise carried out front. It was the loveliest sound I had ever heard. The man looked around nervously, then quickly took his change, and walked out. I let out a huge sigh of relief. “Thank you, Sir,” I thought. “Just mail your payment next time!”
Interestingly enough, he came back twice in the next couple of months, but never said a word to or about me. I suppose that when he saw me in the clear, bright fluorescent light, I wasn’t quite the beauty he thought I was!
The Damaged Property Dilemma
A lady came in late one afternoon just livid about some property damage one of our installers had done while putting in her new phone. Our office manager handled these situations since they could sometimes involve large amounts of money, so our receptionist called her to come up front to talk with the lady.
Believing this was another run of the mill issue, I didn’t really listen to their conversation until the office manager called the installer up front to get his side of the story. Before she could ask him much of anything, though, the lady burst out, “That’s him! That’s the man that broke my bed! I know he did it ‘cos I was right there with him!”
That poor man turned every shade of red you can imagine. Looking straight at the office manager, he meekly said, “She’s right…I did damage the bed.” He turned to see that several co-workers had gathered around the cashier’s desk and were doing their dead level best not to laugh out loud. Head hanging low, he slinked right past everyone and back down the hall. As he slipped by me, I really wanted to ask him just how the damage to her bed occurred, but I figured he had been through enough for one day. I sure did give him a knowing look, though.
As Miranda sings, “It takes all kinds of kinds,” and these are but a few of those kinds. There were many more.
I loved working at Skyline Telephone, and I loved the people who worked there. They were excellent employees, hard workers, and just all around good people. They were a family, and as with any family, they didn’t always see eye to eye, but they always came around. And as with any family, they managed to find time for a little fun and still get their jobs done. They took me right in and made me one of their own. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to be.