The Block Island Times

When I was the nighttime operator on Block Island

By Edith Blane | May 15, 2013
Source: File photo

When Bob Downie’s article about Henry Dodge, the night telephone operator, appeared in The Block Island Times it made me think back to the days when I became acquainted with Henry.

At the age of 19 I applied for the job as telephone operator. Gladys Steadman was in charge of the office on Block Island for many years. So with great trepidation I made an appointment with Gladys and in a short time she called me in for an interview. After I had answered all her questions (she had known me since I was born), she handed me the telephone book and said when I had memorized all the names and phone numbers I could come in and be hired as an operator! I couldn’t believe that it was a requirement for the job. Gladys explained that folks would ring the operator and just say the name of the person they wanted to speak with and rarely had a number.

So home I went with the book and by working diligently memorized all the numbers in two weeks. In those days there were few private lines, most were four-party lines, each one with a number followed by a letter. For instance, our phone was 18-M but it also had R, J. and W in other houses around us. The letter indicated how the phone was rung, a long ring and one short; a long ring and two short; three short rings, and five short rings. It was rather daunting to remember all the names and numbers.

Armed with the book, I returned to the telephone office and Gladys, after testing me, pronounced me ready to begin as an operator. Guess what my hours were? From 7 to 10 p.m. Since I did not have a car that meant walking to the office at 6:15 p.m., working until 10 and then walking home. It was a five mile round trip in all kinds of weather. My weekly paycheck was $7.90.

As I settled into my new job I was selected as the operator to relieve Henry, the night operator, on Sunday nights. I was chosen because I was low man on the totem pole and got the least tempting hours. I worked from 10 p.m. until 7 a.m., still walking to and from the office. That was when I really got to know Henry, known by all islanders as Shack. Why he had that nickname I never did know, and thought it best not to ask.

Henry was a great chap, full of fun and a terrible tease. During World War II, Block Island boys in the service would call him to get all the news of home. I wish I could have listened to some of those conversations. Henry told me one time he saved all the Christmas presents he received during the holidays. He would stack them under his bed and take one out from time to time, stretching the opening until Easter. So we always had to tell him if food was in any of our gifts.

On March 19, 1956 it began snowing hard in the afternoon. It was a Sunday, so I left home early, about 8:30 p.m., to make sure I got to the telephone office. I got there and the snow continued for two days. Marie Dodge and I were marooned in the office, along with Tommy Gorman, the telephone repairman at the time. We took turns sleeping in chairs and I was designated as the person to walk to Ballard’s Inn to bring food to the office. I got home at noon on Tuesday, March 21, walking by the beach, and cutting in back of Littlefield Farm and Bill Ball’s house (where Martha lives now), to get home across the fields. My son Peter was about 10 months of age and learned how to stand up while his dad was taking care of him.

In April, 1957, the phones were cut over to dial. No more ringing for the operator and saying “give me the Seaside Market” or “connect me to Doctor Perry,” or calling in to say “I am expecting a long distance call tonight but will be playing cards at Tom’s house, ring me there.”

Progress on Block Island.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Suzanne D Cotter | May 16, 2013 10:43

Edie, I cannot fathom having to memorize the phone book!!!!  Although a few less people then than now!!!  Must have been a hoot!  If my memory serves me correctly, we at 'Smilin' Through' were 132-W!!!!  Ah, but as kids we loved that old crank phone!!

Flag as inappropriate

If you wish to comment, please login.