Don Warsavage - Person to Person

Telephones in the Wild West

The following was originally published in the 2018, Issue-4x, of the AUSWR Guardian. It is published here with the permission of the author, Don Warsavage.

Don Warsavage’s ‘Person-to-Person’

Telephones in the Wild West

We at The Retiree Guardian thank Eldon Schmitt for this remarkable story. Eldon started his career with Mountain Bell in 1955 as a lineman in Powell, Wyoming. He was also a combinationman and held several management jobs. In 1964 he became the exchange manager at Riverton, Wyoming, retiring in March of 1987 with 32 years of service. He said, “The job of exchange manager was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.”

She’d called him on Sunday and told him he’d better  come see for himself. The voice on the phone was the woman who cleaned the telephone company business office on the weekends in Riverton, Wyoming. So Eldon Schmitt, telephone exchange manager for Riverton, went down to have a look.

Bullet Holes.JPG

Standing out front, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. There were about half dozen bullet holes in the window of his business office.

Maybe he shouldn’t have been so surprised. Riverton has a rich history of the “Old West.” It was the site of the famous Fur Trade Rendezvous of the early 1800s, featuring the likes of mountain men Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith, fur traders, Shoshones and Arapahos. Small groups of gold prospectors fought off Indian raids along the Sweetwater River just south of Riverton. The very land that Riverton stands on was ceded to them by Wind River Indian Reservation.

But this was the 1960s — not the 1860s.

However, after World War II, the U. S. Government began offering large contracts for processed uranium called “yellow cake.” Uranium was discovered in the Gas Hills east of Riverton and the boom was on, exploding across Wyoming. And like the gold rush days of old, all kinds of people began showing up.

During the week following the discovery of the bullet holes, the service reps and Eldon were uneasy as they watched the bullet holes in the walls being patched, the window being replaced and the shattered debris on the floor being swept up.

They also thought they had a pretty good idea who had done it.

The new customer had been trouble from the first day he walked into the business office. He was about Eldon’s size, around six feet and 200 pounds. He was a large shareowner of a company that won a fat contract to dig uranium out of the Gas Hills. He demanded that his service be installed immediately.

A recent altercation that Eldon had with this guy had resulted in Eldon getting chewed out by the district commercial manager in Cheyenne, who told Eldon, “You can’t talk to customers that way.” Eldon had replied, “I’ll do whatever I need to if my home or family is in jeopardy.” Then Eldon related his side of what had happened with this now-infamous customer.

This customer, after getting telephone service installed at his home in Riverton, refused to dial his own long distance calls. He didn’t care if long distance dialing was now available to Wyoming customers. It was the operator’s job to dial his calls — and he wasn’t going to let the telephone company “pawn it off on him.”

Each time he tried to call long distance, the operator told him, as she was instructed to do, that he could dial the call himself. That would set him off. He would verbally abuse the operator using language laced with cursing. The operator would complete his call for him but then, often in retaliation, leave his line plugged up, disabling his phone from any further calls. Of course,

that just made him angrier. His complaints became well known to the phone company upper-management in Cheyenne.

One night, Eldon was in bed when the phone rang. It was this man who, unable to use his phone after one of these episodes, had gone to a pay phone to complain. He raged, characterized by his usual stream of unprintable adjectives, at Eldon and the phone company. When Eldon finally got a chance to talk, he agreed to look into the matter. He then called this man’s home phone. It was answered by the man’s wife. Clearly the operator had unplugged and the phone was back in service. He resolved to talk to the traffic manager in Casper in the morning. Casper was where all the telephone operators who served this part of Wyoming were located.

Eldon returned to bed. At about midnight there was a skidding of tires as headlights flashed across the windows. This was followed by a loud banging on Eldon’s front door. When Eldon opened the door, there was his “favorite customer.” He was belligerent, yelling and swearing. He pushed Eldon and tried to enter the home.

Eldon responded with some choice words of his own and that’s when the man found himself flat on his back on Eldon’s front lawn. Eldon informed him that if he’d like to take this up again, he’d be in his office the next day.

In the morning, Eldon talked with the Riverton Chief of Police. He found that the chief was well aware of this man, too. And by the way, he was also known for carrying a gun. After Eldon reported his office being shot up to the police chief, the officers came out, carefully looked things over, took notes and left. Eldon never heard any more about it.

The customer left Riverton and moved back to California.

Thanks to their efforts, neither Eldon nor his staff had to ever buckle on a six-shooter to come to work; otherwise this story may have been included as one of the many heroic tales of “How the West Was Won.”

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