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Number, Please? Telephone pioneer dies at 80

By By Bonnie Bartel Latino
Special to the Advance
[Editor's note: The following is a slight rewrite of a story published in "The Advance" in 2000. It is reprinted in memory of Atmore resident Hazel Godwin Kuner, who was buried Wednesday at 1 p.m. at Oak Grove Cemetery. A member of Southland Telephone Company "Golden Girls." Hazel, a beloved telephone operator for many years, died April 26,2003 at age 80.]
The operators' jobs may be lost to automation today, but the people who held those jobs are not lost to our memory. Here's to a special bunch of folks who "walk straight, tote a big stick, and don't take no wooden nickels." They are still among the most "gen-u-wine"people around these parts!
Think back before the days of instant gratification-before the Internet, 24-hour radio, and Cable news networks. Think way back to when the closest thing to a cell phone was two Dixie cups with a waxed string connecting them. Ahh, but even in those days Atmore folks had up-to-the minute access to everything they ever wanted to know about what was going on around town. Atmore had living breathing operators on the other end of the line and, let me tell you, they were always deeply "in the know."
If you heard a siren-police or fire-at any time, day or night, all you had to do was pick up the phone in the pre-dial years, or dial 0, around 1960, and the operator could fill you in immediately about where the accident, fire, robbery or lost dog tale was unfolding. They also knew who was involved by the event in question.
In those good old days of yester-year, Southland Telephone Company customers, or subscribers as they were then called, picked up their phones and consulted the voices that were the forerunners of "911." This was decades before the term 911 even existed. Subscribers contacted Atmore's "Number, please?" operators to "send the police!" or to find out what time it was it was. Sometimes operators were asked what the weather would be the next day. They were often asked, "Where's the ambulance going?" "Is there a fire?" and even, "Hey, did anybody die last night?" Other subscribers counted on the operators to be their personal wake-up service.
Perhaps the most important trait an operator could possess, especially in such busy times, was the ability to be a good listener and even better, a would-be detective because the callers often didn't know the correct names of the businesses to which they wanted to be connected. It often helped if an operator were skilled at the children's game of Cross Questions and Crooked Answers.
Callers seeking connection to the Internal Revenue Service sometimes asked for the "Revolution Service," the "Returnable Revenue Service" and best of all, the "ETERNAL Revenue Service." Also in the financial realm was the person who was trying to get the number for Waller and Anderson Tax Accountants, but asked for "Waller and Anderson Taxi Counters."
Callers asked for the "Employment Office Conversation" when they meant the Employment Compensation Office. Another seeking the "Honorary Corsage" actually wanted the Army Recruiting Office. Surely one caller didn't really want the "Atmore Customer Slaughter House," rather than the Custom Slaughter House. Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, Florida, was often referred to as the "Cigar Hospital" or "Secret Heart." In other callers' mouths, the Mobile Infirmary became the "Inform Hospital." It took awhile but the operators finally figured out that the man calling the "The Confirmary" really wanted the Exxon Refinery. Callers seeking connection to "Certain's Amusement," or "Suction's Amusement" wanted Sutton Amusement but even worse, Lee's Photography became "Lee's Pornographic."
People who wondered what movie was playing at the "drive-in picture show," as we called the Palms Drive-in, often requested the number for the "Psalms Drive-In." This was not particularly appropriate for a place many called "the passion pit." Other subscribers requested to be connected to: "Racket Ville," (the Wagon Wheel); the "Strange Theatre," (Strand Theatre); and "Nicodemus Trailor (Nokomis Trailer) Park."
Perhaps Lucy Ricardo was visiting Atmore one day and asked, "Would you ring a number for me? My phone book is out of order." A clerk in the business office reported a customer had complained, "There's a call on my bill I don't think I'm eligible for!" To inquire about the time, some subscribers asked, "What o'clock is it?"
Then there were the subscribers wanting to make a collect call, who asked the operator to "Re-inverse this call," or they wanted to call "Code free" (toll free), or have the operator "insist" (assist) them in ringing so and so. To request a telephone number, it wasn't unusual for a subscriber to say, "Gimme the air number."
When pay phones first arrived in Atmore, folks weren't exactly sure how these new fangled contraptions, phone booths, were supposed to work. Some of the comments callers initiating calls made to local operators were priceless. These included: "Collect on her end." "So, I'm to supposit the dime after they answer?" "I'm in a cabooth." "Flush the charges to the other end," and "I'm in a phone booster."
There were also heart-touching stories such as the little girl who was in bed with a collapsed lung and talked on the phone, on and off, for two months to an operator she considered her "make believe" friend.
Subscriber Alfred Brown, often called to serenade the operators on his guitar. Everyone on duty would plug in and listen to Mr. Brown sing and pick.
Nothing could confuse an operator more than to take a call from Mr. Thursday on a Wednesday and the same week receive a call from Mr. Monday on Friday. Then too, subscribers might have laughed had they known the names of some of the company employees over the years who made Southland sound more like a zoo than a communications company. Those employees included several Byrds, two Peacocks, and one each Buffalo, Crane, Pigge and Roach.
A newly employed male operator couldn't remember the correct phrase to use to notify a pay phone customer, "Your three minutes are up. In a deep, booming voice, he declared, "Your time has come!"
The operators also shared names and stories from the past that evoke an era that many of us are still fortunate enough to remember as if it were yesterday. The women recalled Jessie Lee Clemmons, the Southland janitor in the 1960s. Perhaps you remember him from the gospel group, "The Mighty Southern Echoes," who were often featured on Sunday morning radio at WATM. The women said he was their "best ever janitor who polished and cleaned and always had a white handkerchief in his pocket. They could set their watches by him. He always arrived right on-time, at 6:30 A.M.
Shirley Douglas Arrington, Atmore's first black operator, was hired in the 1970s. She worked until the late 1980s when she suffered a bad fall and moved to Atlanta to live with her daughter.
The operators' jobs may be lost to automation today, but the people who held those jobs are not lost to our memory. Here's to a special bunch of folks who "walk straight, tote a big stick, and don't take no wooden nickels." They are still among the most gen-u-wine people around these parts! Thank you for your many years of dedicated service to Atmore and the surrounding communities.
Many thanks to the following former Southland operators for sharing their time and information so generously with me: Emma Horton Andress, Patsy Buxton Brown, Nell Rushing Bryars, Hazel Godwin Kunert, Ruth Killam Martin, Ouida Troutman McGill and Marvis Shipp Ward. Each of these women worked for over thirty years as telephone operators. Special thanks to Mrs. Rushing for hosting the operators for coffee, so that I could interview them and thanks to Mrs. Andress for providing notes she had kept over the years.
[Atmore native Bonnie Bartel Latino is a columnist for "atmore" magazine and is a former columnist for Stars and Stripes newspaper in Europe.]