Long before the Internet, in Malakoff, “Alexa” was Miss Edna.
Of course, no one referred to her generically as a voice-controlled personal assistant. What folks in East Texas called her was “operator.”
Back when someone had to crank a wooden wall phone to contact “central” to tell an operator who you wanted to call (no one had telephone numbers), Edna Broyles ran the telephone exchange in the small Henderson County town.
These days, Alexa does what she’s asked, though she occasionally will interrupt a conversation when she thinks she’s heard her name. Miss Edna also tried to be helpful, though she sometimes had her own ideas about what constituted help.
For instance, she believed that on Sundays everyone should attend church, come home for dinner (as lunch used to be called in old Texas) and then take it easy. Therefore, she closed the exchange from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. No exceptions.
One day, a young recently married woman rang central and asked Miss Edna to connect her with her mother.
“Dorothy, your mother isn’t at home,” Miss Edna reported. “Mrs. Gentry called her a few minutes ago and they have gone to Sam Moon’s to get a coke.”
On another occasion, Dorothy’s mother was giving her daughter a recipe over the phone. When she said she would need to add one cup of sugar, Miss Edna broke in. “No, Mary Julia, you use two cups…” Not that the operator was listening in or anything.
Alexa, uh, Miss Edna, also gave the time and handled wake up calls.
One night when a bunch of folks had a rollicking party, a humor- minded guest rang Miss Edna shortly after he left his host’s house and asked her to give the man a 4 a.m. call since he had to be up early.
The tired party thrower was barely sleep when his telephone rang.
“It’s 4 o’clock,” the operator said.
“What did you say?” the groggy man shouted.
“It’s 4 o’clock,” Miss Edna said.
“What in the hell do you think I care what time it is!” he yelled, obviously a tad annoyed.
“Someone left word to call at 4 o’clock,” Miss Edna explained.
“Well,” he said, “If they left any other call for me later, please cancel!”
Unlike Alexa and similar modern devices, Miss Edna not only could hear, she could see.
One night, her switchboard silent as a cemetery, Miss Edna stood to stretch her legs. Looking out her window toward the town grocery store, she was comforted to see the night watchman strolling toward the closed business.
But as she watched, rather than checking to make sure the door was locked, he opened it, walked inside, flipped on the lights and started browsing around the store. At the cookie jar, he took the lid off, extracted a couple, and brazenly ate them. Next, as the telephone operator watched in shock, he walked to the meat counter. Then he selected a large ham and placed it in a paper bag.
Miss Edna could not believe the town’s trusted night watchman would be shoplifting–surely he planned to return the next day and pay for the goods–but she decided that on a dead night she could at least have some fun.
Returning to her switchboard, she plugged the line in for the store and set it for an automatic ring. As it happened, the fellow was standing near the phone when it began jangling. At that, he dropped the ham, hoofed it to the door, killed the lights and ran down the street at full speed.
Another early day telephone operator had a more perverse sense of humor. On quiet nights, she enjoyed criss-crossing the lines of two tempermental guys she knew.
When their respective phones rang, each picked up the line and asked what the other wanted. “I didn’t call you, you called me,” one said. “No, I didn’t call you. You called me.”
The operator then pulled the plugs to both parties, waited awhile, and did the same thing again. She thought it pretty funny until one of the men shouted, “If you call again, I’ll meet you and we’ll fight it out.” That ended that practical joke.
As the decades passed, telephone technology continued to improve and soon, telephone operators only got involved if someone dialed “O” to ask for a number or summon help. Phone companies had even begun installing glass telephone booths, and two went up on either side of the Henderson County courthouse in Athens.
One stood across the street from a barbershop whose proprietor possessed a sense of humor. Sensing the prank potential, he had early noted the telephone number for the pay phone.
Seeing a stranger enter the booth, the barber dialed the number before the man could place his call.
“This is the telephone company,” he said. “We have just installed an electronic eye in this new phone booth and I see that you appear to be having trouble finding a number. May I assist you?
The man said he had the number he needed and thanked the “operator.”
After the man made his call, but before he could leave, the barber dialed the phone booth a second time.
“This is the telephone company again,” he said when the man answered. “Were you able to complete your call?”
Yes, the man said, no problem.
“Well,” the “operator” concluded, “this isn’t a service of the telephone company, but I thought you ought to know your fly is unzipped.”
At that, the man dropped the phone like a hot baked potato to urgently check his pants while frantically looking around to see if anyone was looking. He didn’t notice all the men in the barbershop shaking with laughter.