Humor in Open Wire
Hey Gang! I’m sure there must have been some hilarious stories of working with this stuff. Here are a few brief contributions to get the party started…
The Mysterious “Scheduled” Interruptions!
As revealed to D. G. Schema in 1978
This story came by virtue of an oral history interview with a Northwestern Bell Pioneer:
Running through central Nebraska, roughly and occasionally following the U. S. 30 West segment from Omaha to the Wyoming border, one could find segments of the transcontinental open wire lead.
At Norfolk, Nebraska, Northwestern Bell operated a test center whereby all the trouble issues might be forwarded and then assigned to linemen along different sectors of the route. They also served various other open wire links within the NWBell territories of Nebraska.
One problem was persistent and irritating to say the least. It pertained to some open wire west of Norfolk and east of Grand Island. The test board would light up showing multiple “shorts” on the open wire circuits on certain poles and spans. The test board engineer–if he was experienced and well trained–was so good at his task, that if trouble occurred he could literally select the spans and poles having problems. These locations would be specified to the linemen who would then travel to the location of trouble to repair it.
In this case, open wire poles number 234, 235 and 236, on this particular lead were experiencing these repeated short circuits. Every day, very predicably between 6:00 am and 7:00 am in the morning and between 5:00 and 6:00 pm at suppertime, the test board would receive error signals.
The test board engineer wrote a trouble ticket and dispatched a lineman to review the situation. Encumbered with other duties, he wasn’t able to arrive on site at the specific trouble times but simply dropped by the location to scout things out. Finding nothing that mid-morning, he reported his visit to his superiors. Nothing amiss. The next day he went out again because the trouble board highlighted the same problem. Arriving at the scene in the afternoon, again he spotted nothing amiss. All the open wire spans were even, no floating insulators–as can typically cause such shorts and no uneven spans. Oddly enough, this problem seemed only to persist in the late spring, summer and early fall. Winter problems at this location were the typical ice loading or wind issues, which reflected issues with the wire encountering stormy weather and were up and down the route–not specific poles or spans.
Completely mystified at this problem, the lineman went out in his vehicle extra early between the actual periods of shorts experienced by the test board operator. Arriving a little before 6:00 am, he sat in his truck watching. Around 6:00 pm, a large flock of birds arrived and gathered for conversation on the wires. After grasping the line wire with their feet, some of these heavier birds contacted the wires fixed to the arms below. There they sat until it was time to circle a wetland area in order to catch insects. By about seven in the morning, the birds left and as they leaped off into the air, they released the line wires contacting other circuits below, causing reoccurrent short circuits. Later afternoon, the lineman encountered the same situation. Here, the birds gathered on the same wires, same spans between the same poles near the swampy area. Promptly at around 7:00 pm they left to roost for the night.
The lineman had licked the mystery. However, solving the problem was to take a little more ingenuity. Northwestern Bell dispatched their I&M people to the site to re-inforce the spans with extra structures at that location. Spans were tightened and arms distanced from the typical 24″ between 5/8 crossarm bolts to 36″. This allowed the birds to rest without a reverberation of the line wires after they resumed flight and kept the distance between circuits reasonable without excessive attenuation.
This problem was encountered in the early 1950s. The line is no more, of course, but the colorful problem lingered in the minds of various telephone pioneers for years afterwards as one funny story with a good ending. No birds were damaged in the resolution of this peculiar problem.
A “Dead” Engineer!
We (in Anderson, Indiana) had a repairman go out on a trouble report that said: “wallphone doesn’t ring in.” So the repairman arrives at the residence, takes the cover off the phone and it’s packed full of cockroaches. One roach was jammed between the clapper and the bell. He gets out his needle-nosed pliers, grabs the roach by the leg, and holds it up to the customer to see. He says, “Here’s why your phone doesn’t ring–the engineer is dead!”
The Alaska Communication System (ACS) station commander in Tok, Alaska, was a Chief Warrant Officer who shall remain nameless. CWO Nameless had a specialty in microwave−cutting-edge technology back in the late 50s−but apparently enjoyed knowledge of nothing else. Sadly, though the station had a tower destined to receive microwave equipment, the equipment was not there yet, so the poor chap had little to do except Army paperwork.
But he managed to keep himself busy. At the beginning of hunting season, he decided to go bag a moose. He took a 3/4 truck (mine, as it happened) out of our little motor pool, and set off into the wild, like a mechanized Elmer Fudd hot on the trail of wabbit. Roads were scarce in
Alaska, but the weapons carrier is a good off-road vehicle: four-wheel drive, plenty of gears, front-end winch for pulling yourself out of holes, etc. Once away from the town, he sought a way into the surrounding spruce forest, stunted, but tough. He found a small river with nice gravel bars left and right, and started upstream. The trouble with bars along a river is that rivers have bends, and at each bend, the bar on one side or the other is cut away by the current. Where the land is flat, the current is less, and Nameless managed to ford a couple of the gaps. Then he began to climb a bit and attempted to ford another.
The “puddle” there was over five feet deep. The engine stopped dead, drowned, and the cab filled with ice-cold water. CWO Nameless managed to get out of the truck, climbing on its roof to pull himself onto the bank, and walked briskly back to the station to rouse our mechanics, Lloyd and Nasty Jim, to fish the truck out with a deuce and a half and tow it home. Because many rivers in Alaska, including this one, are milky with glacial grit, they then spent 2 weeks taking apart the engine, transmission, differential, axles, wheel bearings, etc. to clean and lubricate the parts. They were good enough to dry out the seat, so when I got the truck back, it was at least livable.
One fine day, the CWO had two drums of gas delivered by a supply truck bringing some other materials to Tok. ACS people who owned cars in ACS bought their gas in 55-gallon drums from the commissary in Ft. Greeley, 108 miles to the west. We had a rack behind the motor pool for the drums, so they could fill their cars by gravity. Getting your drum on the rack was handled with the station crane, an unlicensed 1932 Model B Ford with no cab or bed that had been used in building the Alcan Highway. On its frame was welded a home-made lifting frame about 10 feet high, backed by a hand-powered winch, also home made. The winch consisted of a 2-foot gear wheel welded to a 1-foot drum and driven by a 3-inch gear powered by an 18-inch crank handle. The whole thing did not look like much, but it was quite powerful: I have raised a class 2, 45-foot pole single handed with it (I was younger then). Only one thing was lacking, a pawl to hold the load in place once it was raised, but that was no problem. There is no shortage of racks in Alaska, and you just jammed one of them into the gears when you needed to move the load horizontally.
After the delivery truck left, Nameless got the crane, played out the cable, secured one of the drums, and got it into the air, high enough to clear the gas rack. I cannot remember how many turns it took of the crank to rotate the large gear once; my dubious math calculates the two circumferences as ~9.5 and 75.4 inches, respectively, which works out to about 8 to 1, a good mechanical advantage when you factor in the 18-inch lever of the crank. That mechanical advantage works in both directions, translating speed to force to lift slowly, and force to speed, should the load crash to the ground. Not having a rock in hand, Nameless chose the second option, releasing the crank and being amazed at the rapidity with which the handle whirled back and caught him just over the right eye, cold-cocking him on the spot. After a 20-minute nap, he got off the ground to find a couple of linemen to rack his gas for him.
Today, he would doubtless have been carted off to receive medical aid for a possible concussion, but back then we were not so fussy. Nobody noticed any diminution of his mental abilities afterward, and that was good enough.
Every winter in Alaska brought its ice fogs. These did not precipitate downwards, but coated everything they touched with ice. Open wire came to look like parallel sausages running from pole to pole. When the sausages got to around 3 inches thick, we snowshoed under the lines to knock them apart with pick handles, but before the ice became a physical threat, it posed an electronic one. Each spiky ice crystal on the wire acted like a tiny antenna, broadcasting the high frequency carrier signals for tiny distances, but cumulatively dissipating signal strength over the 40 miles or so to the next repeater station.
CWO Nameless attacked this problem, as was his wont, head on. Our station, like most homes and businesses in rural Alaska, generated its own power. We had two diesel-powered 100 KW generators that we could not run together, as the Army had sent the control board to keep them in phase to the station at Big Delta, and the lesser board destined for Big Delta to us. “Well,” thought Nameless, “we have a perfectly good generator sitting here idle. Let’s fire her up, have the boys in Northway (the next repeater station toward the Canadian border) term off a pair there, and we’ll put the juice down that pair for a second or two. The ice will melt right off!”
Our frame room guys knew the resistance per mile of the steel-cored copper wire we had up there, and figured that loading 100 KW on an 80-mile circuit was more likely to vaporize the ice than melt it, and would probably crack every frosty glass insulator we owned and short out at point brackets if it did not manage to melt the wire, too, close to Tok. They managed to talk him out of making the experiment without even bringing up the possibility of frying a lineman up a pole miles away.
In 1958, the modern age came to the 150 civilian telephone customers in Tok and Northway in the form of dial telephones. They hated them. For years, they had been picking up their phones and having a familiar (everyone knew everyone up there) male voice respond, “number, please,” and they never really had to use any numbers. “Yeah,” they’d say, “I’m looking for Whitey Domstead.”
“Let’s see, the last time Whitey called anyone was from Rita’s. I’ll try there.” (pause) “Hi, Reet, is Whitey still there? Went to the Palmer House? OK, thanks!” (pause) “Hey, George, is Whitey there? Put him on, please. Go ahead, Ma’am.”
What’s not to like with such a system? It was an efficient human interaction that got the caller connected to the callee in the shortest possible time, and it was friendly: the pauses were usually filled with chat between caller and operator while the search proceeded; the operators were there 24/7, and at night were free to talk as much as you liked if you were lonely.
A dial tone is cold comfort after that. The system we used, was a good one, too. It was the Swedish North decimonic dialing system and probably superior to those in use in most rural areas of the lower forty-eight at the time. The telephone ringers were tuned to five specific frequencies, and they rang from one or the other side of the pair to ground, so you could have 10 phones on a party line and each one would only ring when it was the number called. The customers didn’t like that feature either; they had formerly enjoyed eavesdropping on the party line, alerted by the coded ring telling them who was being called.
Barry Phifer and I averaged about four installations a day, and in a couple of months had upgraded our customer base with dial phones that worked like a charm if you knew the (new) numbers. Unfortunately, by the time the people had learned those numbers, it was not working so well. CWO Nameless had struck again.
Having no real work to do, he focused on the official aspects of military command. One of these had to do with spit shining anything incapable of moving out of the way. He insisted that the frame room floors be buffed, as they always had been. This had not been much of a problem before the dial system brought in its wonderful automated switching units, composed of beautifully machined complex brass relays that ratcheted themselves up and down to find the right outlets, according to the pulses received from the distant dial. These were fascinating to watch and completely exposed to air. That air was filled with miniscule flakes of floor wax every time the floor was buffed. Wax is an excellent insulator, so it does not take much on a relay’s contact points to interrupt connections. The frame room guys tried to tell the CWO that his was not a good plan, but he did not wish to hear anything contrary to Army cleanliness standards. The buffing continued.
After 6 months, our customers in outlying areas were playing telephone roulette, dialing a number, getting an answer, and asking “Hi, I was calling . . . . Who did I get?”
When enough people had complained of this often enough, Nameless finally relented. Thereafter, the floors were cleaned with moist toweling on a push broom.
Dr. Don Martin
High Heels vs. Open Wire
An Idaho Story by Bob Tally
Our gang was in Pocatello, Idaho aroudn the middle of September of 1952, when the Company sent out a female reporter/photographer to do the story about the last major open wire addition in the Bell System. Since we were the only gang actively stringing wire at the time, we were featured in her article. The first morning, she met us at the Storeroom to take a few pictures. She was dressed in the usual office attire of the time–a skirt and high heels. Our Supervising Foreman, “Red” Matson, then took her out to the job site in his company car. Imagine her surprise when she discovered that she had to walk about a quarter mile through the sage brush in the hills above Pocatello to get to where we were working!
When she met us at the Storeroom the next morning, she had obviously purchased some jeans and work boots so she could follow us on the job. Needless to say, there were more than a few comments among the crew about her attire.
The Bell System Burial Plan
The following was provided to me back in the 1970s by a Northwestern Bell retiree who insisted he did not know the original authors. So, this beautifully phrased, pseudo-issued Bell Practice bulletin, fictionalized for reasons which are all too obvious to anyone who worked within the AT&T culture of the 1920s through the 1970s, has no author. It is a wonderful play on words; a corporate philosophy taken to the edge and farscially adopted to the typical format of the Bell Practice. As many used to say, “Logic omitted for clarity,” in bureucratize. . . we see fit to deliver to you this clever adoptation.
I wish that I could claim the authorship. It’s cutting, double-edged sarcasm is both biting and ascerbic while keenly insightful in many ways. It is hard to consistently ply through the sentences without pause–laughing your head off at the brilliant wit displayed–before experiencing the next facitious counter attack at the end of the next line.
It is formatted in keeping with the typical Bell Practice design for the black four-ring binders. Appropriate coded numbers and nomenclature for insertion into the appropriate Practice binders has been applied. To top off–or rather bottom off–this counterfeit Practice, the authoritative label, “NOT FOR USE OR DISCLOSURE OUTSIDE THE BELL SYSTEM EXCEPT UNDER WRITTEN AGREEMENT,” a typical cautionary rule where corporate proprietary rulings spun forth from great leadership heights above, completed the joke.
How did this literary product come about? I can’t say exactly. However, it is my suspicion–as from previous work experiences in the corporate millieu–several talented, creative and irreverent Bell people assembled as usual in a bar or restaurant after work. Brief episodes and experiences emerged from time to time. Talk wound around numerous work stories with “we ought to put this in writing.” After several months, someone volunteered a suggestion. From daily frustration or simply as a protest to the muddle-headedness which transpired frequently, the gregarious group decided something in print was overdue. Someone remarked, “These episodic experiences are so funny, these need to be put this into writing. . .” “Yeah! Good idea!” another chimed in. Following several laugh-out-loud working comedic sessions at individuals’ homes and post-prandial fetes work finally ceased. With a final draft in hand, someone in the secretarial pool volunteered to type and format the writing into “Bell Practice-eeze.” What finally materialized became a quiet but solid indictment of the daily corporate grind. With some reserve at first and then with some increasing enthusiasm and excitement, subtle distribution increased as various in-touch Bell employees sought copies. I’m sure this contribution was . . . popular. As for employees’ long careers, retirees appreciated this farsical example because it clearly accentuated their many experiences within the System. Taking great pride in their accomplishments in what was ordinarily a commendable career–could at times briefly take on an exasperating quality, too. By penning this whimsical gem, someone clearly took a humorous tone to define the system they were trapped in . . . for better or for worse.
If you are an author, please come forward and claim your brilliant insight for all of us to know!
Page 2 of the 7 page fictionalized BSP.
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Final page 7.
All right . . . brave souls . . . come clean! The Bell System is gone and you owe it to us and everyone who laughed at this great literary feat . . . to know who you really are!
Now . . . General Telephone folk, REA people . . . let’s see your literary expression here. We’d love to see your work. Contact me at: “Contact Information” and we’ll get it up (as long as it isn’t copyrighted) or if you can give me permission to use it.