By Dick Pence
This story appeared in The Washington Post in 1991, shortly after a computer glitch caused a “long-distance blackout” on the East Coast.
Those big phone outages of the past couple of weeks have had me feeling a bit guilty over what’s been happening. You see, I remember exactly how all this started.
Back in 1950 I was a novice seahand aboard a cruiser based in Philadelphia, barely six months out of high school and fresh from the plains of South Dakota. One Friday night in November, we were granted shore leave at the end of a two-week training cruise. Homesick and seasick, I headed immediately for the row of pay phones that lined the dock.
Depositing a carefully preserved nickel (remember?), I dialed “O.” The following is a roughly verbatim account of what transpired after the Philadelphia operator answered.
“I’d like to place a station-to-station collect call to the Bob Pence residence in Columbia, South Dakota,” I said in my best telephone voice.
The Philadelphia operator was sure she had heard wrong.
“You mean Columbia, South Carolina, don’t you?”
“No, I mean Columbia, South Dakota.” I had tried to call home once before and I was ready for that one.
“Certainly. What is the number, please?” I could tell she still didn’t believe me.
“They don’t have a number,” I mumbled. Like I said, I’d tried to call home before and I knew what was coming.
She was incredulous. “They don’t have a number?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I can’t complete the call without a number. Do you have it?” she demanded.
I didn’t relish being even more of a bumpkin, but I was in the Navy and I knew authority when I heard it.
“Well . . . the only thing I know is . . . TWO LONGS AND A SHORT.”
I think that’s the first time she snorted. “Never mind. I’ll get the number for you. One moment please.”
There followed an audible click and a long period of silence while she apparently first determined if, indeed, there was a Columbia, South Dakota, and then if it was possible to call there. When she returned to the line, she was armed with the not-insignificant knowledge necessary to complete her task.
In deliberate succession, she dialed an operator in Cleveland, asked her to dial one in Chicago, asked Chicago to dial Minneapolis, and Minneapolis to dial Sioux City, Iowa. Sioux City called Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and the operator there dialed one in Aberdeen, South Dakota. At last, Aberdeen dialed the operator in Columbia.
By this time, Philadelphia’s patience was wearing thin, but when Columbia answered, she knew what had to be done.
“The number for the Bob Pence residence, please,” she said, now in control.
Columbia didn’t even hesitate. “That’s two longs and a short,” she declared.
Philadelphia was set back for an instant, but valiantly plowed on. “I have a collect call from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for anyone at that number. Would you please ring?”
“They’re not home,” said Columbia, again not missing a beat.
Philadelphia digested this and decided not to press the issue. Instead, she relayed the message I’d already heard:
“There is no one at that number, sir. Would you like to try again later?”
Columbia quickly interrupted: “Is that you, Dick?”
“Yeah, Margaret. Where are the folks?”
Philadelphia was baffled, but her instincts told her to look out for the company.
“Sir, madam . . . you can’t . . .,” she sputtered.
Margaret ignored her. “They’re up at the school house at the basketball game. Want me to ring?”
I knew I was pushing my luck with Philadelphia, so I said it likely would be too much trouble to get them out of the game.
“No trouble at all,” said Margaret. “It’s halftime.”
Philadelphia made one last effort. Mustering her most official tone, she insisted: “But this is a station-to-station collect call!”
“You just never mind, honey,” said Columbia, “I’ll just put it on Bob’s bill.”
Philadelphia was still protesting when the phone rang and was answered at the school house.
“I have a station-to-station collect call for Bob Pence,” she said, knowing at that instant Ma Bell had somehow been had.
“This is he,” replied my father.
“Go ahead,” whispered an astonished Philadelphia.
I’m glad I couldn’t see her face when I began my end of the conversation in the time-honored fashion of all Mid-Westerners:
“Hi, Dad, it’s me. How’s the weather?”
“Jeez,” said Philadelphia and clicked off.
Here is the confession.
I have a friend who’s retired from AT&T and he insists it was the next Monday morning that the company began to automate its long-distance service.
Now look where we are.
About the Author
Richard A. “Dick” Pence (1932-2009) wrote this story and and self-published it along with several others in Two Longs and a Short (1997, 2008). A PDF of the book is available from Archive.org by searching for “http://www.pipeline.com/~richardpence/twolongs.htm”
The title story has appeared in more than 150 newspapers and magazines since it was first written about 1984. This version appeared in The Washington Post in 1991, shortly after a computer glitch caused a “long-distance blackout” on the East Coast.
I republish the story here because it has fallen off the Internet. It gives a simple and entertaining look at how phone systems used to work.