We live in a world of numbers. It used to be worse. 8753M3. EM73725. In the SCV, you had to remember those numbers, or ones like them, just to make a phone call. And when you made that phone call, you never got a recording. You always got a real, live, human voice. "Number, please?"
On Newhall Avenue near Market Street, there is a little piece of property shaped like a triangle. At one time, that land held the whole valley in its hands.
It was the telephone company. It was where the operators worked. If you wanted information — on just about anything — you could get it there. And they wouldn't let you make stupid calls.
One time, I wanted to talk to a neighbor just across the street and was told to walk over and talk to him so I wouldn't tie up the line for any important calls. My 8-year-old ego was smashed. But I did as I was told and walked across the street. Those operators had power.
Our phone system was simple, effective and must have been expensive, because we hardly ever called "long distance." Just calling my grandmother in Sylmar had to be planned and budgeted.
It was a simple black phone. No buttons. No dial. Just pick it up and the operator would say, "Number, please?"
We can't forget those wonderful "party lines" either. No, I'm not referring to Democrats or Republicans. I'm recalling how up to 10 homes in a neighborhood shared the same line, but had different rings. If it wasn't your ring or rings, you were honest enough to not answer the phone.
We had three short rings at home in Castaic. You knew who was getting calls. If you timed it right, you could pick up and listen to a couple of teenage girls giggle about some boy they hoped would take one of them to the movie on Saturday. (We had only one movie theater, the American.)
If there was an emergency, the operator would likely cut into the conversation and tell you she was going to ring another number on the line for the emergency. Sometimes, the neighbor would make it to the other house to tell you there was an emergency call coming before the operator could connect to your phone. It was a great system to make sure you knew your neighbors.
Forget about crank calls, phone sex, and all those other calls that are being made today. You had to get past the operator to make a call.
She could also listen to your calls — or so we thought. One cuss word and the line may go dead, if you were a kid. Worse yet, your parents would find out about that word, and then you got to (once again) taste the goodness of Ivory soap. I speak only from experience.
When we moved from Castaic to Pico Canyon, we had that wonderful marvel of a dial phone. We no longer had the operator to screen our calls. Since it was a company phone and number, we didn't have a party line. We could dial any 259 prefix without the operator. We still had to dial "0" to call Castaic.
Along came "area codes," and we had another number to remember. It was 805 back then. Heaven help you if you wanted to call Sylmar and dialed incorrectly. Sylmar was 213. A simple slip of the dial and you could be calling 212 in New York City.
In the mid 1960s, there was a brief period when we had a party line again. Standard Oil put a phone up the canyon near the fist oil well, CSO No. 4. They used the old two-wire line that ran up the canyon on poles that had been erected when Alex Mentry was the superintendent of the oil field in the late 1800s. The lines still worked. If the call wasn't for us, we would tell the caller we'd let it "ring through," and we let it ring until it was answered. We heard a lot of rings that year.
I wrote a friend in an e-mail yesterday that I kind of miss not having two cells phones to carry. I had one cell phone for the Navy and one personal phone. For a while, I also carried a beeper, and when I traveled, I also had a laptop computer. It was a real pain going through airport security systems. And there were all of those numbers to remember.
It was once so easy. Today, in retirement, it is easier at the airports — just one cell phone.
From that cell phone, I can call any place in the world. I can leave a message, a callback number, and any number of other "needs" can be met by that phone. But I still miss our operators on Market Street and Newhall Avenue. I miss that real human touch when I use the phone.
Like the time I called home from the Castaic pool, wanting a ride home. It went something like this:
Operator: "Number, please?"
Me: "8753M3, please."
Operator" "Sorry, that line is busy. I'll ring back when it is free. Why are you calling, Darryl?"
Me: "I need a ride home from the pool."
Operator: "Darryl, I just heard your mother say she needed to get a loaf of bread and some sugar at the store. Why don't you walk home and stop by the store and get those things for her? It would save her the trip, and the cake she has in the oven wouldn't burn up."
Me: "But I really wanted a ride home."
Operator: "Just walk. It's good for you."
So, I walked to the Rainbow Grocery and got the bread and sugar. (Mr. Brown put it on our account.) When I got home, I was a hero. I saved my mom a trip and I got an extra slice of cake.
I never got to thank that operator, so I'm doing it now, wherever she is: Thank you, Miss Operator. I wish my cell phone could be programmed to say, "Number please?" in your voice. It would seem more real and soothing.
And yes, ma'am, I grew to like the taste of Ivory soap.
Darryl Manzer grew up in the Pico Canyon oil town of Mentryville in the 1960s and attended Hart High School. After a career in the U.S. Navy he returned to live in the Santa Clarita Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and his commentaries, published on Tuesdays and Sundays, are archived at DManzer.com. Watch his walking tour of Mentryville [here].
©Darryl Manzer | SCVHistory.com