Don Warsavage - Person to Person

The “Only Game in Town”

The following was previously published in the 2019, Issue-2, of the Retiree Guardian. It is published here with the permission of the author, Don Warsavage.

Don Warsavage’s ‘Person-to-Person’

The “Only Game in Town”

One Sunday afternoon back in the mid-sixties, Lowell Davis and his family had just returned home from church. They were about to sit down to lunch when the phone rang. It was his boss, asking him to check the toll line that ran to Wyoming. Calls were not getting through.

Davis was a combination man (that jack-of-all-trades of telephone work). He was living in Fort Collins, Colorado. He knew that a toll-line outage was a serious priority.

There was a rough road that followed the toll line off the highway. He bounced along in his truck north of the little town of Wellington, handling the jerking steering wheel as he looked up at the poles. He had the feeling things were very wrong, but he wasn’t sure exactly what. In fact, his mind was rejecting what he saw (or didn’t see). The weather was good; all the poles were upright. The cross arms were straight; the insulators in place.

Then it hit him. For over a mile, for more than 30 spans, the 20 copper wires that should be strung across two cross arms were gone. There were no wires. All the wire had been stolen.

Hard wires made of copper or steel were stretched between poles or passed through lead cables and were threaded through to all our homes. Those wires carried our voices — our joys and our sorrows — everywhere else in the country. It took AT&T, Bell Labs, Western Electric and about a million of us employees to advance it, to maintain it and to fix it when it broke. We were the BEST in the world at the time. We were THE Bell System.

But it was the “only game in town” for most of the country: a legalized monopoly. So, if a customer was unhappy, his or her only choice was to complain to their local telephone company or to a state regulatory commission.

The fact that it was the “only game in town” weighed heavily on those telephone employees who were at the frontline, keeping the system working every day.

They were acutely aware of how important the telephone had become to everyone. And so it was with Lowell Davis that day. He had discovered one of the few, but well-organized criminal operations that carried out copper wire thefts in those days.

Getting service restored was a scramble. After Davis reported what had happened to his astonished boss, they gathered as many workers as they could get on short notice. They took all the drop wire reels they could find in the garages in Fort Collins and Greeley. They strung the wires on the ground for over a mile, patching the gap in the missing circuits on a temporary basis to get the lines working again.

Though this story of Lowell Davis was an outage perpetrated by criminals, the Bell System managed many outages caused by natural disasters. Heroism in restoring and keeping service working was the well-documented hallmark of the Bell System.

In 1921, the Arkansas River flooded the town of Pueblo, Colorado. Josephine Pryor, Chief Operator, and a staff of operators stayed at their positions on the third floor of the telephone building. They made calls warning people in low-lying areas of town. They notified authorities of emergencies as calls for help came in. The waters soon reached the telephone building and rushed in.

Byron Thady, night-switchboardman, waded through rising waist-deep water on a lower floor, saving what records he could. He found an oil can and soaked some rags with the oil to serve as wicks for makeshift lamps. The power failed, as did the switchboard, knocking out all telephone service. They were all trapped inside the building as waters rose and night fell. Pryor and Thady knew they had to try and keep up morale. So, they got a crank-powered record player and some 78-rpm records from the operators’ break room. They passed the night all huddled together in the flickering light from Thady’s makeshift oil lamps, listening to music. Rescuers arrived in the morning in rowboats, taking them all to safety.

In December of 1940, a blizzard descended upon the plains of eastern Colorado. The Omaha-to-Denver toll line went down. Frank Atkinson, combination man, and a fellow workman set out in their truck to find the trouble reported by the test board to be west of Fort Morgan.

The truck got stuck in deepening snow, but the two men were able to dig it free and continue following the line. The truck got stuck a second time. Atkinson thought the trouble was nearby, so he set out on foot. He told his partner to work on getting shoveled out, then to follow with the truck. This time the truck couldn’t be dug out, so it wasn’t able to follow and Atkinson didn’t return. About 200 people formed a search party the next day. They found Frank Atkinson frozen to death, wearing his safety belt and clutching his tools.

Josephine Pryor, Byron Thady and Frank Atkinson were awarded Vail Medals. Telephone people have been “friends in need” to thousands of people in times of emergency. The Vail Medal was established to be awarded to those employees. More than1,300 Vail Medals were awarded to telephone people between 1920 and 1948. Even more after that.

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