TUESDAY: Hello Central

BY RUTH ZAVITZ

Copyright is held by the author.

BOTH HENRY Green and Jock Mclaughlin saw the article in the February 1922 Canadian Farmer’s Journal extolling the virtues of that new-fangled invention, the telephone, and the ease with which a system could be installed. They researched the idea and each decided, unknown to the other, that such a project was not only feasible but would be of great benefit to the community. Henry thought he could get it operational before seeding but Jock was more cautious.

“You know, Rita,” said Henry, “if somebody had an emergency, help would be only a handcrank away.”

Jock said, “Looks like the comin’ thing, Lottie. I think I should get in on it.”

Both wives agreed, as behooved dutiful spouses.

Henry began to canvas his English neighbours for subscribers and Jock likewise the Scots. Jock was a tall rangy man, as long-legged as his beloved Clydesdale horses. His eyes were spring-sky blue and his hair the same sandy red as the scrub-brush moustache under his craggy nose. Henry was much shorter but solidly built. He had a mop of dark hair that always looked freshly combed and his skin tanned to a golden brown unlike Jock’s perpetual sunburn.

Neither was aware of the other’s activities. This was not surprising. When the Scottish and English settlers came out to the new world they brought their prejudices along with the rest of their possessions. The English had considered the Scots a conquered population ever since they had defeated that rebel the Scots called Bonnie Prince Charlie at the battle of Culloden in 1746 and the Scots naturally resented this attitude. Each group set up a tightly knit community and viewed with suspicion the activities of the other.

As time went on, land became scarce and fathers were forced to buy whatever farms were available for their sons. As a result, English sons began to infiltrate the Scottish concessions and Scotch sons the English, but social life still revolved around their respective churches. There was little contact between the cultures, even when they were next-door neighbours.

When the two entrepreneurs had enough money and subscribers, they prepared to install poles and wires along the concession roads.

On a bright Monday morning as Jock drove around the corner onto the seventh concession he spied Henry unloading shovels and a pickaxe right where Jock had planned to install his first telephone pole.

Jock pulled in behind Henry’s democrat and shouted, “What are ye doin’?”

“I’m installing the poles for my telephone line,” replied Henry.

“Your telephone line? I’m puttin’ a telephone line right along here.”

“It’s a free country, Jock. I can put up a line if I want to. Besides I was here first.”

“Bloody Sassenach. Stealin’ my idea. I’ll show ye,” Jock muttered. He yanked the reins. “Gee, team.” He pulled the Clydes over to the opposite side of the road, jumped off the wagon and began unloading his own tools.

When Major Martin came along in his buggy on the way to Cedarville, he observed the action, sized it up correctly. “Why don’t you fellows get together and put up a joint line? Much more efficient.”

Major Martin had been in charge of a portion of His Majesty’s Imperial Forces during the late Great War. On his release from the army he and Mrs. Martin had immigrated to Canada where he had been appointed Justice of the Peace for Kamata township. In this capacity he felt it his duty to guide and counsel the inhabitants.

“Join up with a Sassenach? Not on your life!” protested Jock. “Give him an inch and first thing ye know ye’ve lost your trousers.”

“When would an Englishman ever want to call a Scot?” said Henry in his turn.

Major Martin went on his way and the two entrepreneurs worked silently through the morning until Henry suddenly erupted with un-Sabbath-like remarks.

“What’s the matter, Henry?” shouted Jock.

“Hit a $^*&#% stone.”

Jock chuckled and continued his work, happy that his side of the road appeared to be stone free.

Straightening up to wipe his perspiring brow with his red bandanna handkerchief, Henry noticed the angle of the sun. Dinnertime. Thankfully he untied his team of Bloods from the fence and set off for home. The rattle of wagon wheels alerted Jock who corralled his Clydes. They had wandered off down the ditch a little way, cropping grass. He loaded his tools into the democrat, noting with disapproval that Henry had dropped his where he had been working.

After dinner the men returned, each crew doubled. Jock had brought Donald Fletcher as second in command and Henry was accompanied by Danny Moore to help set the poles, which protruded from the back end of the vehicles.

By chore time, Jock and Donald were two poles ahead of Henry, he and Danny having struggled mightily to remove the boulder blocking their way.

As a result of all this labour, on many concessions, telephone poles marched down each side of the road, the English line on one side and the Scots on the other.

“Ridiculous,” said Major Martin.

Shiny oak boxes, adorned with weird appendages, appeared on kitchen walls throughout the township. Jock’s wife, Lottie, worked the switchboard in their parlour, and Henry’s wife Rita, took over like duties in her summer kitchen.

The two systems worked beautifully. The women on the switchboards, after a few false starts, became very proficient. In the beginning, though, Rita accidentally hooked up Major Martin’s wife with the widow Summers. Jessie Summers was reputed to be no better than she should be and was in Mrs. Martin’s bad books for flirting with the Major at the last pie social. Rita heard about her mistake all right. Some said Mrs. Martin had taken lessons from her husband in dressing down the troops but others said she was born that way. Rita rang up in tears to apologize to Jessie and said she was giving up the job.

“I never wanted to do it, anyway.”

Jessie said, “Don’t be silly. You’ve got the whip hand over that ogre. Just don’t put her calls through if she gives you any sass.”

The Mclaughlin line had fewer slip-ups. When Donald Fletcher needed help putting a new roof on his barn it took only a matter of minutes (Donald was a man of few words) to contact enough neighbours by phone to set up a bee. It would have taken a whole afternoon (even for Donald) to have visited them all in his horse and buggy.

At dinner Lottie said, “He didn’t need the phone at all. He was shouting loud enough to be heard over in the next county. Near took my ear off.”

When Edna Turner discovered a drop of chili sauce from last year’s batch had obliterated some of the ingredients in her recipe, she called Ethel Jones to whom she had previously given the recipe. Ethel was out in the garden and didn’t hear the phone. Edna didn’t know what to do. Her chili sauce was bubbling merrily on the wood stove and the rest of the ingredients should be added at once — if she only knew what they were. She confided her dilemma to Rita.

“I have that recipe,” said Rita. “Ethel gave it to me last year. Hold on a minute.”

She abandoned her post to rummage in her recipe drawer. Coming back to the switchboard she gave the information to Edna, and waited while she wrote it down. Meanwhile, Andy Anderson cranked his phone with growing impatience and wondered why that scatterbrained Rita on the switchboard didn’t answer. He was in a hurry!

Of course there was no need to take the newspaper now that all the news worth knowing was free for the listening on the party line. Women, both Scottish and English, became adept at feeding babies and stirring pots with one hand while the other held the receiver tightly clamped to an eager ear.

It was said that Ethel Jones could hold the receiver braced between her ear and shoulder, allowing her to do two-handed jobs while listening. The women tried, but could not accomplish this feat. Everyone wondered how she managed it. Of course they couldn’t ask, for no one would admit to eavesdropping, and certainly Ethel wouldn’t demonstrate. The rest of the ladies were forced to miss some tidbits while employed in two-handed jobs like diapering babies or peeling potatoes. The men deplored the invasion of privacy and scolded their womenfolk but didn’t leave the room, nor forbid their wives to speak, when the day’s harvest of gossip was distributed at the supper table.

Now it happened one fine July day that Freeman Jones’s cows broke through the pasture fence (he’d been meaning to replace that post as soon as he had time) and in the course of checking out Ethel’s yard and garden one of them fell into the well. Ethel had been telling Freeman to put a new top on it. Ethel often wished she’d been born a man. Things wouldn’t get in such a mess if she were in charge.

Going out to the well for a fresh pail of water, Ethel discovered more than water in the well and called Freeman from the hayfield. Even she wasn’t able to solve this dilemma without help. They observed the cow, sitting on its haunches, its head and shoulders above water, bawling piteously.

“Well, it serves her right,” said Freeman. “She’s forever breaking down, or jumping over, fences.”  But in the interests of economics and a clean water supply he fetched the sling ropes from the hayloft. He managed to get the rope around the cow’s neck.

“Now, Ethel, grab hold here and pull.”

The cow ceased her bawling, her wind cut off by the rope around her neck, while Ethel and Freeman tugged and grunted. The weight of the two of them together was not equal to the weight of the cow, although Ethel had been, on occasion, compared to one by uncharitable persons.

“We need more help,” said Ethel.

The telephone! Freeman loosened the rope (the cow was more in danger of strangling than drowning at the moment) and tried to quiet the beast that was flailing at the sides of the well with its front feet, threatening to cave in the bricks on top of itself.

Ethel ran to the house and cranked Central’s ring without taking down the receiver. When she put the receiver to her ear Jessie Summers was shouting, “Who’s doing that? Don’t you know the line is busy?”

“Get off the line, Jessie. The cow’s in the well and I have to get help.”

“Who rang Central?” Rita’s voice broke in.

“The cow’s in the well. Get help,” Ethel shouted.

“Who is this?” asked Rita.

“It’s me. Hurry up.”

Ethel’s voice had risen an octave or so in her panic, but eventually Rita recognized her and rang the single, long fire/emergency ring on the English line and made known the problem. Womenfolk rushed to the fields to call their men. Jones’ farm was a fill-in on the Scots concession and the nearest English neighbours were a mile away. It was almost half an hour before anyone showed up.

In the meantime the overwrought cow had slipped sideways below the water and all they managed to recover was her carcass. This was a serious loss and all the men who had come to help agreed that the lag in response time had caused the tragedy.

Ethel said, “The rotten well-cover had something to do with it. Freeman, I told you and told you to fix that well.”

“You know,” said Major Martin, “if Ethel had been able to contact the Scots neighbours, surely they would have come. Even a Scot would appreciate the serious economic consequences of the loss of a cow.”

“Especially a Scot,” said Freeman.

“Well, something has to be done,” said Ethel, and in her usual efficient fashion she appointed a committee to approach Jock and Henry about merging the two lines. Neither was impressed with her arguments until she said, “What if it had been a child?”

This put a more serious slant on the mishap. Jock thought of little Archie, and Henry wondered if such a thing could happen to Cissie. She was always into something. But neither wanted to be first to give in.

Ethel rallied the more liberal-minded neighbours behind her. They agreed with her that the lines should be joined.

“Shake hands on the deal,” said Ethel.

The two men glared at each other like Bantam roosters.

Ethel grabbed their right hands and forcibly joined them together. “Now shake!” she said.

The hands moved slightly then disengaged. Jock wiped his on his pant leg.

She appointed Jock and Henry as joint managers with Major Martin to referee disputes, of which there were likely to be a few.

1 comment
  1. Two donkeys tugging on a rope in opposite directions. Did we really need the retelling?

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