I Learned Euchre At Ma Bell
Twenty-one Seems So Old When You Are Seventeen
The telephone company where I began working at the age of seventeen was a great employer with opportunities for women. In those times it was allowed, and the woman hiring manager asked me the question, “If I hire you, are you going to get pregnant and quit?” Those were the days prior to laws against such personal questions.
That question was frightening and intimidating, so the intention of it worked. Wait, I had to promise something I couldn’t truly promise to get hired? I solemnly responded no to this intrusive personal question.
I was a good student in high school; not an over achiever, yet an honor roll and mostly “A” student. Occasionally we would test our limits and remain standing rather than adhering to the rule of being seated in our desks when the bell went off. The teacher would query us by name, in warning, and when we didn’t get into our seats, we got a detention that day. It was a way to go against the establishment but not have our parents called in; we pushed the limit, but no harm, no foul and stayed the hour after in detention. Once I skipped school for a day, playing “hooky,” and went to The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago with my boyfriend. When we got home and I walked up the driveway, I was met by a family member and was nervous my hooky was discovered. I had to stay calm and play it off; nothing was said so I presumed they weren’t aware of my shenanigans. I was safe, but I didn't share the photo we had taken in an old Model T auto at the museum because I didn’t want to lie about how I had gotten it.
I was sick of school, term papers, and studying, so intentionally graduated from high school six months early, then decided to get a job instead of attend college. The phone company had openings and I had an older second cousin who had worked there for years. It was in the town where I was born, just a few miles from where I lived. Nicknamed “Ma Bell” the company was known as a place many women worked, just as other women attended college to become teachers. This first corporate job gave me exciting lessons in the inner workings of telephone operations and working women.
Phone operators kept track of the length of long-distance phone calls and the “timing” cards were punched by the mark sensing machines, and afterward the phone bill was created. Long distance calls were expensive with a base rate of several dollars and then so much per minute afterward. We carried two-to-three-feet high stacks of small rectangular mark-sensed cards from the card sorting machine to the large IBM data processing machine. It was a source of pride to have the largest stack of cards without dropping them on the way to the machine. Often, we kicked the front of the machines to get them out of their slump; if all our unprofessional tricks didn’t work, we called for service. We loved it when there was an issue because we enjoyed visits from the charming and handsome IBM computer technician who did maintenance, cleared machine jams that we couldn’t, figured out why the machine punching was not aligned correctly, and handled more serious issues.
The computer room was situated up a ramp behind large glass windows; from where we sat it was an almost God-like visual of a mysterious and restricted territory; higher than us physically, as well as its stature, and importance. Only a few people were allowed into the computer room with the refrigerator-sized IBM Mainframe computers and large tape reels. We could see the computer operators changing the reels, working efficiently, and the occasional manager entering to check on work and have discussions about what we never knew. We weren’t high enough on the echelon.
CO-WORKERS AND CARDS
The different work assignments I had were interesting and my co-workers and I had fast, friendly card games on our fifteen-minute breaks. We all wore hip length work smocks, like short doctor jackets, to keep our clothes clean; the pockets were handy for pens, candy bars, and cigarettes for those who smoked. On our breaks, we scurried to the elevator and down to the cafeteria; we ordered some “light white buttered toast” which meant lightly toasted and buttered, creating a soft and quick snack, and we immediately dealt out the cards for our speedy Euchre games, listening for our food orders to be called out.
I was a fast study for Euchre and loved it. Those times were inclusive where all who wanted to play were included, no “cliques” allowed. I had played all sorts of cards growing up including Pinochle and Canasta, and here was the new challenge of Euchre. Our fifteen-minute breaks only allowed for quick games which fast-paced Euchre allowed. The goal is to win at least three tricks; we continued games from one work break to another, knowing whose deal it was. Now I don’t remember how to play the game, but I do remember how much fun it was.
The “older” women of twenty-one through thirty-five seemed so old to me at age seventeen. I loved all their personalities and was a quick study to their quirks. Maryann (names all changed for privacy) was great at cards, outspoken, funny, assertive, and her jaw jutted out when she told stories of her life, like the time a man was honking at her, so she put her car into ‘park’ and strolled back to speak to him (oh, those safer and saner times back then!). We had a card shark blonde, Paula, about 32, who they teased mercilessly about her husband chasing her at home while they played strip poker. Paula vehemently denied this and said they played regular cards, not strip poker with each other in the evenings.
There were two computer room gals, one blonde, one brunette. Jacquie, dark haired and quietly assertive was twenty-four, petite, had long hair, beautiful dimples, and a newly acquired enormous pear-shaped engagement ring on her finger. Most were frightened of Lonnie, the computer room blonde, because she would shout when angry and tell anyone off. Maryann and Paula, being a bit older than all of us, were not afraid of her; Lonnie knew who feared her and could deliberately terrify those. No one wanted to cross her but having grown up a tomboy with three older brothers, I made it my mission to become friends with her so she would go light on me; thankfully it worked. She was my partner sometimes in our fast card games. I aspired to eventually be one of the computer room workers who ran the IBM mainframes.
One older plump supervisor with white curly hair, Cathleen, was famous for timing our jaunts to the restroom. She would come into the restroom and hover or wait in the hallway! I remember Lianne, another supervisor, so sweet and kind, born with a small mole “beauty mark” near her lips; she wore skirts with a jacket and low pumps, was newly engaged, and always counseled us on any of our errors gently. Lianne reported to a slim female manager, Caroline, who wore tight pencil skirts, blouse tucked in with no jacket, high heels, had a duck-tail pixie hairstyle for her platinum blond head, and smeared her dark brown eyes with a heavy outline of black, like Lady Gaga, starkly contrasting her platinum hair. She pounded the floor back and forth in her stiletto heels conducting her supervisory duties, frequently with a cigarette at the corner of her mouth or left in her desk ashtray. Her face was tanned and wrinkled from too much sun and smoking, making her seem a bit older than early thirties, her tan also contrasting sharply with her hair. It was rumored she was the mistress of one of the big-dog bosses upstairs. Power emitted from her high heeled steps, her hips in the tight pencil skirt swiveling as she strode to the elevator, ascending to the floor where upper management was ensconced. Her favorite saying for any errors she found was “heads will roll, and not mine!” tilting her head and squinting at us.
Two sisters in their thirties always deliberately got sunburned on the first warm day so that they could “tan more quickly,” claiming to have done this all their lives. Both kept their hair short and wore a lot of black eyeliner and heavy black mascara. When they came in all burned, their Caucasian skin was a deep brown red. Even at age seventeen, I thought their idea was stupid.
Forty-eight-year-old Edie found out she was pregnant at work by getting ill and fainting. She was shocked, then pleased, saying her husband always said their home was not a home without a child in it. Our very quiet co-worker Doreen, who couldn’t have babies and was in her thirties, was in the process of adopting a baby boy.
When Eve came on board, I was fascinated with her looks and mannerisms; she seemed sophisticated and worldly compared to my just-out-of-high-school seventeen-year-old self. She was a twenty-one-year-old divorced mother of one, and I covertly watched as all the male workers fawned over her. I could see why; while she walked around the office, in very short skirts and platform sandals, her shoulder length curly strawberry blonde hair bounced; when she smiled her dimples showed below her freckled cute turned up nose, a femme fatale. She was good at her job and focused on supporting her child.
Twenty-three-year-old Mandy had two young kids, and shared many humorous lessons on married life, child raising, and working while raising a family. She smoked her cigarettes, laughingly blowing out the smoke sideways while telling stories of her kids and husband. I became friends with her and a hippie chick who got high on weekends and wore bell bottoms to work. Sometimes we got together on the weekends. We were co-workers during the years of the Nixon “I am not a crook” Watergate and the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Occasionally the three of us left in Mandy’s car for lunch elsewhere. One day the bridge over the river was up, stopping traffic when we tried to get back to work. We were already running late, Mandy puffing furiously on her cigarette, blowing smoke out the open window, negotiating traffic, speeding while we watched for police. Our hearts dropped when we saw the open bridge, stopping our return and making us more than just a few minutes late. Impatiently we waited with other lined-up vehicles, drumming our fingers, and urging the boats to speed up and the bridge operator to close it. Once across, Mandy picked up speed again and we hoped fervently we could slip back into the office with no one noticing our tardiness. Luck was with us that day, no Cathleen, or Caroline spotting our tardiness.
We worked in a suburb south of Chicago, a blue-collar town with a steel mill, state prison, corn fields on the outskirts, transportation canals, wooded parks, rivers, railroads, many bridges, and a Texaco plant in the town where I attended high school. Occasionally I would run into my older second cousin downstairs or on the elevator. She retired from the phone company after some thirty years, but I was long gone and in another state by then.
After taking some time off work to care for a young son, I went back to the phone company, moved to another location northwest of Chicago and transferred there. That office had a few young men working alongside us. A group of us competed in our task of “timing” the phone call cards. The cards were marked with pencils, and we had small bins in front of us, each marked one through ten corresponding to minutes. We quickly glanced at the numbers and markings on the cards and with a flick of our wrist flipped them into the bin that corresponded to the time. For example, if the card was marked seven minutes and less than thirty seconds, it went into the seven-minute bin. We sorted those cards so fast, racing each other to finish a stack and grab another. One would have thought we were Las Vegas dealers, our hands moved so fast. When the timing bins were full, we grabbed the cards from the bins, stacked them quickly and put them into a mark sensing machine.
In this office there were two young Italian family sisters, Amelia, and her older dark-haired sister Carmen. Amelia was a bit hot headed and her sister calmer but quietly fierce if crossed. For potlucks they brought an olive, tomato, onion and green pepper salad, dressed simply in olive oil and salt and pepper. The dish was delicious and we loved the lasagne that young dark haired Chrissy brought. She taught us that eggs must be in the sauce for lasagne to hold it together and keep it from being watery and runny.
We had the older woman in her sixties, Connie, who had five children and giggled about how her husband could have all the snuggling he wanted whenever he wanted. Barbara said she was from Spokane, Washington. She pronounced it “Spocan (long O), and I asked her why it wasn’t pronounced “Spocane,” Washington. My “A” s in English just didn’t jive with the letter “e” at the end of Spokane being silent. She laughingly explained the town name just wasn’t pronounced like it was spelled and assured me since she was from there, she knew how to pronounce it. Just as to this day, I correct people when they pronounce the “s” on the end of Illinois, exclaiming, “It’s Illinoy, not Illinoys!” Little did I know that one day I would have moved to the state of Washington, driving through Spokane to Seattle!
Gerry, a shy young man who hailed from one of the very wealthy northwest Chicago suburbs had studied meteorology and gave us demonstrations of humidity in the air using a Kleenex, fascinating us with his keen intellect and knowledge of the weather. My work life at Ma Bell was an amazing myriad of many personalities to contend with, ages ranging from nineteen to sixty-five, both males and females, married, divorced, and those never, or not yet, married.
I met Maggie, a year older than I, with a daughter the age of my son and we because fast friends. We tried to beat the younger workers when doing our card sorting in the timing bins, and it sometimes created a bit of tension in the office; four of the young ones made an alliance against the two of us. I loved it when Maggie would bring leftovers from her large Thanksgiving dinners. She and I would sit in the cafeteria making turkey sandwiches, slathering the bread with lots of mayonnaise and sprinkles of salt. She and her husband had snowmobiles and let my husband and I use one; we all went snowmobiling on frozen northern lakes near their home on the winter weekends. Each week, she and I had a dinner night at my apartment, trading off who made dinner. One week she brought the ingredients, or some leftovers, and the next week I selected and made the meal. We occasionally went to the grocery store together after work to get the dinner ingredients. Our husbands worked long hours and we enjoyed each other’s company in and out of work. She lived quite a distance from me, but I lived about twelve miles from the office; we picked up the kids from the daycare near the office, and after our shared dinner, she would drive the forty minutes north to her home.
I do not like whiskey. I switched from whiskey 7 and 7s to margaritas and wine with an occasional cuba libre after a Lake Michigan cruise courtesy of Ma Bell. The regional office in Chicago had some middle managers who booked this evening on Lake Michigan for all who wanted to partake; the cruise boat held about two hundred people. There was food, dancing, an open bar, and the lovely event was filled with lively conversation as we traversed the immense shoreline for hours. Cruising the lake, we ate, danced, and drank our full. Unfortunately, my “full” was such that I became embarrassingly drunk on too many servings of Seagram’s 7 and 7 (Seagram’s 7 Crown Whiskey and 7-Up). I was celebrating; I had recently passed my twenty first birthday and now could legally drink liquor. When the boat docked once again in Chicago, two of the male regional managers stood on the boarding gangplank, observing my drunken swaying. They knew me by name, and together decided I needed help to de-board the boat. They came up next to me, and each grabbed me under one armpit, rapidly and gently, and then easily lifted me off the boat and placed me safely onto dry ground. That is my strongest memory of that cruise.
I moved on from work at the phone company and was not destined to retire from there as my second cousin did. I fondly remember those years; everything I learned at work: the companionship and tensions with co-workers, the differing communication and management styles of our supervisors, how to have a good work ethic, and ways to make work processes more efficient. Best of all are the life experiences gleaned from the older women. The competitive card games of Euchre are not forgotten; I must begin playing it again.
About the author
Leo obsessed with saving African wildlife. Passionate about environmental issues and healthy living. Love a great cup of coffee or bar of dark chocolate. If I’m not traveling the world, you’ll find me on Twitter.
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