Stories from Real People that worked
for "Independent" Telephone Companies
As told by Guy Giordano
Shortly after I joined the Commonwealth Telephone in 1965, they replaced their last common battery exchange … around October as I recall. After the cutover, they sold a whole dump truck full of wood wall phones for 25 cents each. I really didn’t appreciate what I was looking at but I can remember this big pile of wood phones in one of the garage bays. None of my friends got any of these phones either. We all looked, and some drooled, but there was this old fellow (named Paul), just going into retirement, and he bought every last one at that great price! Now in those days a $6000 annual salary was good money … but 25 cents? … It was like the accounting department must have had these on the books at prices from the great depression. For all I know, that old fellow Paul made himself a great little retirement plan with that purchase!
Most of the 72 exchange central offices were SxS (Step-by-Step). At that time, in 1966, they did also have a couple of small relay exchanges, They were called "Relaymatics." And they also had two crossbar offices made by North Electric.
was a traffic engineer so I didn't do much work with phones until I had to fill
in as a field serviceman during a 3-month strike by our union. To put this in
proper perspective, you need to know I quit working for the company in 1968 and
didn’t come back full time until late 1972. It took me 3-1/2 years to go back
to school and “upgrade” my Associate “EE” Degree to a full B.S. degree
at American U in Washington D.C. While I was at it I figured I’d stay out an
extra year to also earn an MBA with concentration in Finance & Accounting
from Lehigh University in Bethlehem PA. In retrospect, Commonwealth was good
about it. They gave me work for all 3 summers at a decent wage while I was
“preparing” myself for life in the phone industry.
years of schooling were very unusual I guess. All I knew and wanted was a career
in the telephone industry. Nearly every research paper I did involved the
telephone business. I can remember doing an interesting paper on international
telephone communications (satellites, undersea cable history, etc) for a course
in International Business. I did say Commonwealth treated me good but it would
be totally unfair to leave out the fact I got a scholarship for two years of my
study from the Sordoni (Commonwealth’s founding family) Foundation. Yep,
although they never once made any commitment to me, I knew right where I wanted
to work when I finished going to school!
happened just like I had hoped! After letting me string it out for about a year
in Hospital Administration (above all things), I got my phone call. This big
fellow, a giant in both stature and heart, hired me into his Switching
Engineering Department as an engineer, in the planning section. From there my
career took off like a rocket! Almost faster than a speeding bullet (certainly
faster than I could believe myself), I became the manager of a whole new 8
man-planning department … it took about one year from the time I was hired
back full time! The one thing you’ve got to know, speedy promotions like that
aren’t too popular with the competition, if you get my drift!
of my friends weren’t friends anymore! Not to be unfair, those who were real
people were truly happy for me. That includes all of my subordinates, one of
whom actually trained me as my boss in traffic engineering years earlier. The
planning work also carried responsibility for Cost Separations. I did continuing
education in these fields at Iowa State University, The University of Michigan
and even The Bell System Center for Technical Education at Lyle, Illinois. The
knowledge of how toll revenues were broken down and shared between us, Bell of
Pa and AT&T was invaluable in planning work. Still, all this good
theoretical stuff was not too valuable in fieldwork as a Telephone Installer or
Combination Man as I was next called.
Yes, you got it! The CWA Union strike I was talking about earlier didn't happen until a few years after I was rehired upon finishing my education. I certainly must say that 3-month strike (Winter: 74-75), was something I'll just never forget! I was newly married and had just purchased this big barn of an old house. So what did they do with me? They sent me far away ... so I had to stay on, overnights, all week, and every week for what seemed like an eternity! I got pretty good at doing service work owing to my own deft with hand tools and do-it-yourself house electrician. But my poor young wife was all-alone, “home alone” and she really was a youngster. I remember we only had a single working phone in the house down in the kitchen. Every night I would go to sleep in the motel thinking the worst might be happening back home. It was mid-winter with power failures and regular heavy snowstorms. I worried about my 24-year-old wife of 4 months ... worried in case somebody broke in, or there was a fire or any other calamity my imagination could dream up. This was a girl who just lost a baby, alone in a 17-room house and I couldn't even talk to my temporary boss about it ... what a jerk he was! Yep-per, trouble was brewing in my paradise.
Well, let's see, the company wasn't doing any new installs except for emergencies or critical services. The only way to get new extension phone installation was "do it yourself." I fixed that quick. I remember, I actually had to steal a couple phones so I could give my wife good and safe communications … especially from our bedroom at night. Heck, I regretted having to just take those phones out of inventory in Bangor PA. I then installed them myself on a weekend trip home. Remember, you couldn't just go down to Wal-Mart and buy a phone in those days. What a guilt trip it was at first. I remember rationalizing ‘Eh, it probably didn't matter I figured, because I held a job that gave me "full professional courtesy" on my monthly phone bills anyway.
The top echelon bosses (VP-level) didn't give a darn about their men and personal problems during that strike. They made a promise they could buck the union for the first time in history and NOBODY or nothing could get in their way while proving it. OH boy did I get chewed out because I suggested maybe we could rotate men around the state so we could work closer to home once in a while. I can remember bringing up the idea after about 2 months working the strike. There was this special meeting held to discuss personnel problems ... or so they said!
This awful VP level creep chewed me out in front of the other 10 or so "working" managers saying the idea was totally unreasonable and disloyal. Then he proceeded to tell me I shouldn't complain because I was the highest paid man in the room. He told me that at the top of his voice in front of all the other men who (he said) were working just as hard as me! It was right then, at that very moment, I knew I would never be a lifer in the industry I had grown to love. Incidentally, it was also right then that I learned practical verification of how wrong it was to discipline anyone, in front of other people. The embarrassment factor is tough even if the criticism is unfounded. Well the strike came to a settlement after many acts of terrible sabotage and a final threat to hire a new workforce. I got to go back home but things were never the same. My own VP level boss told me how my new enemy would always veto any pay raise incentive beyond minimum for me. I guess he knew I would never be a lifer in my beloved telephone industry, even before I did!
We never used Western Electric phones, mostly AE, Stromberg, ITT, Northern Electric and even the fabulous Ericofon. Oh, I do I remember this one big controversy. It happened when we started to meet the demand for touch-tone service by putting these converters in the COs. These converters would turn the tones from real touch-tone phones into dial pulses at the CO end. I can't say it was right or wrong, but it sure was cheap and we were able to meet the public demand for touch-tone created by our own marketing hype. The tone converters were a way of bringing in extra revenue instead of looking like an antiquated Mickey Mouse independent company. Folks didn't know they still had the same slow dial pulse service as before ... they had buttons to push and that was all that seemed to matter. I remember being quite surprised at this phenomenon. I guess one could even make the argument this was a wise decision because, once the stepper offices were replaced, we didn't have to go back out and deal with massive demand for changing our subscriber's phones. We got that extra $1.25 a month for touch-tone long before the CO had to be replaced.
Near the end of my employment with the company, we began installing fully electronic offices. The first was a reed relay system installed at Quarryville, Pa ... we jumped the gun with that one. A little while later, the first "time-division" digital switch became available. We installed our first made by Northern Electric and it was done right here at Harveys Lake, Pa. Where I still live That was the last Engineering Planning job my department completed with me at the helm but it wasn’t our greatest. I BELIEVE we got rid of our last party line in about 1974. At one time, long ago, I understand we came close to maximum with as many as 20 parties on a line. When I first went to work for them, in 1965, the worst service was 4 party lines with a very few "multiparty" lines with 5 or 6 subs on them.
It is notable that back when I joined the company there were three toll centers in 1965. When I left in 1977, we were well on our way to establishing a single remote/modern operator office. We put all the toll traffic on microwave radio systems and brought it into a single new electronic operator office. That move seemed to mark the beginning of new wave of industry modernization. I began to read about operator office consolidations more and more. I have often wondered if this trend had anything to do with the el-stink (o) operator information service we now experience. Ever wonder about that? I guess there will never be a substitute for good old-fashioned personal service by somebody who knows what he or she is doing. If you ever just look at some of those old Bell System advertisements you can find on eBay, particularly after World War II, you can see a vision and feel certain pride that is just not there today.
Commonwealth Telephone itself has a pretty rich history. Their first exchange had a single wire, earth ground, and connection to the outside world largely by way of farmers’ barbed wire fencing. The system grew neighbor to neighbor between the areas of Dallas, and the City of Wilkes-Barre in Northeastern PA. That single wire line dated back to the beginning of our last millennium. Commonwealth Telephone was the absolute first Telephone Company to install a fiber optic toll telephone cable in the entire USA. It was put up as a toll traffic link in the Mansfield University area of Northern Pa.
The Amish area outside of Lancaster is also worth remembering. Some more progressive Amish had the company install phones in outhouses or tool sheds because having a phone in their homes was taboo/forbidden. However, it seems even the Amish recognized the need for good communications ... as the Amish are famous being able to build a barn quickly, when they all pitch in to help; but, if they could summon fire apparatus to "outen the fire," well, I’m just not sure, but I bet some of them thought calling the fire department was a lot easier than to build a new barn!
Always a joy to recall the past … I guess I should also tell you I had my first telephony experience as an Associate Engineer with Western Electric in the A.T.&T. building at 225 Broadway. I was a TD-2 Microwave Radio Engineer. I'll never forget that either. It was so crazy and totally off the wall. We took microfiche and copied measurements and model numbers to write specifications for mounting the rack equipment. We never had the right films! There was this department head (my boss's boss) who had to sign this form with the words "Emergency" to get the films we needed in a reasonable time. The only thing is, I don't think we ever placed an order for microfilm that wasn't an emergency. I never could understand why we had to make up these paper prints when all the information was already on microfilm anyway. I guess this was part of the $800 hammer era. Most of the systems we laid out were substantially used for alternate routing of government communications.
You must also guess, I can tell you I wasn't very impressed with that WECO job. The only sure thing is that WECO name got me my job with a real telephone operating company. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything except another opportunity to go around once more ... like after being reborn or something like that. I know a few things would be done differently next time.