"Well, I'll Be John Brown"

Real stories about folks who have blessed my life with the joy and fulfillment of laughter. Long may they live.

Location: Atlanta, Georgia, United States

A Southern Boy - Born In Alabama, Reared In Georgia, and Matriculated, Married & Initiated Into Manhood In Tennessee.

Monday, September 15, 2008

“Darrell The Phone Man”

Prior to Al Gore’s inventing the internet, and even before the advent of cellular devices, there was another timeless entity that brought great blessing to American culture – the land-line telephone. Alexander Graham Bell could not have foreseen what his crude “wireless telegraph” would one day become.

In its early days, the common home telephone apparatus was a large box mounted on the kitchen wall. It was always located in the kitchen because of the perpetual presence of (stay-at-home) wives and mothers. These dear ladies spent the majority of their time in the kitchen preparing meals for their hard-working agrarian families. When the telephone rang, there would almost always be one of these great women at home and in the kitchen to answer it.

If she or someone in her family wanted to make a call, the receiver was lifted from its fork-shaped rest on the side of the box, a crank was turned several times to gain the attention of the central switchboard operator, and the caller would speak into the round speaker or transmitter. Early movies and television shows such as Lassie and the Andy Griffith Show featured this variety of telephone.

Later, during this writer’s childhood, the old Western Electric rotary telephones were widely used. These large, black monstrosities were heavy as lead, and would have made excellent boat anchors. They were connected to the wall by an extremely short and brittle telephone cord, and always sat on an end table or in the corner of the living room.

The bell on these now antique phones was loud enough to wake the dead. The receiver was powerful enough to allow anyone in the house to hear what the party on the other end was saying. The only “call waiting” there was occurred when three or four widow women were hotly engaged in a Sunday afternoon party-line conversation.

Not only was technology different in those days, telephone company personnel were as well.

In Andy Griffith’s timeless community of Mayberry, there was “Sarah” the telephone operator. Though not an actual person, Sarah was much more than a name and a segment of one-way dialogue in a script. Sarah was a busybody, a natural healing remedy consultant, a confidant, and a friend. Operators in Sarah’s day helped baby-sit kids, listened as lonely senior citizens shared their hearts, passed along grocery list items for husbands to pick up on their way home, gave romantic and marital advice to the lovelorn, and were generally good neighbors and friends to every voice they “met.” All while speaking American English without a trace or hint of a foreign accent. Oh, for those days to be back once again!

One other priceless commodity in the Bell Systems of old was the “phone man.” Dressed in work clothes and wearing a tool belt that would make any blue collar worker envious, the phone man did it all. He climbed poles with funny looking braces on his boots, strung wire from one high point to another, installed jacks and other cool, wire-driven accessories in homes and offices, and carried a big yellow handset that allowed him to hang on a telephone pole and talk to operators and all sorts of other technical phone company folks all over the place.

Little boys of this writer’s day often grew up dreaming of being phone men.

Darrell Copeland was a phone man’s phone man. He never thought of being anything else. Right out of high school Darrell hired on at, “Ma Bell,” and never looked back. Through his years as a phone man Darrell worked in residential service, drove a bucket truck doing “long lines” installation and repair, did a few years as a commercial “Communications Consultant,” and finally retired as a supervisor working out of a regional service center in metro Atlanta. Someone once asked Darrell that if reincarnation were really true what he would like to come back as. His answer – “Either a pimp or a phone man, there ain’t much difference between the two.”

Through his years of climbing poles and pulling cable, Darrell the phone man had many interesting phone man experiences.

Like the time he went to do an “install” at an upscale Atlanta apartment complex. Darrell had to show I.D. at the security gate and wait for the guard to phone the apartment resident for confirmation. When finally given the ok, Darrell pulled through the gate and parked his phone van crossways near the building he had been told to work on. Before beginning the wiring and connecting that would have to be done on the outside box, Darrell decided to go meet the customer. He would need to see the inside of the apartment and find the proper phone jack, if there was one, before starting his outside prep work for the install.

When Darrell rang the bell and knocked on the apartment door, he followed his Bell System training to the letter by loudly announcing, “phone man – here to hook up your phone.” Phone installers were taught this tactic to help prevent their being mistaken as a prowler. At least one phone man who had previously failed to properly announce his presence and intent had received a pattern of buckshot in his behind as he walked away from the front door of a house filled with drunken car thieves. Darrell often said that both his wife and his girlfriend were much too partial to his behind for anything like this to happen to it.

Several minutes passed before anyone finally answered the door. Not being an especially patient person, the longer he stood there the more agitated he became. Darrell was about to walk away when he heard the locks turning inside the front door of that apartment. What he saw when the door finally did open made him most glad that he decided to wait.

“Hi, come on in,” the sleepy female voice said as the door cracked open. Darrell stepped inside and was treated to one of the greatest surprises of his phone man life. Standing in front of him was a tall, blonde, blue-eyed, well-proportioned, and completely stark naked, female flight attendant. “I’ve been flying all night, and was so sound asleep I almost didn’t hear the door,” she said, yawning and stretching her beautiful “arms” out wide. “Make yourself at home, I’m just gonna’ go jump in the shower,” she continued – as Darrell struggled to catch his breath and reply, “no problemo, ma'am.”

He sat down on the edge of the living room couch and offered a brief, silent prayer of thanks for being allowed to work in such a great job. “She’s GOT to have a boyfriend,” he thought, as he looked around for a phone jack. “And, I bet he’s hiding around the corner in the bedroom with a loaded shotgun,” he whispered. After all, someone HAD spoken to the security guard earlier and granted Darrell entrance to the complex. “If she was asleep, then who did the guard talk to?”, he wondered.

No matter, Darrell the phone man (not Darrell the pimp) had a job to do. Find the jack, connect the wires, write up the work order, and get out of there before, like his fellow phone man, his butt became the target of an angry roommate’s shotgun.

As he looked around the apartment for a phone jack, Darrell heard the shower being turned off. Before he could raise his voice to ask this beauty where she wanted the phone installed, she appeared again - fresh out of the shower, dripping wet, drying her hair, and still totally unclothed from her eyelids to her toenails. She was smiling like a Cheshire cat, and talking as matter-of-factly to Darrell as if he was her husband.

“What’s YOUR name?...How long have YOU been a phone man?...Where do YOU live?...What color phone am I going to get?...What kind of service are YOU going to give me?” She was throwing questions at Darrell like darts at a dartboard. As he tried to calmly answer each one, his unbelieving eyes couldn’t help but follow that lone bath towel as it crossed every inch of her tanned, perfectly sculptured body. She made absolutely no effort whatsoever to cover any part of herself. And, Darrell made absolutely no pretense whatsoever of even trying to look away. “Come in here,” she said – beckoning Darrell toward the bedroom, “I’ll show you where I want MY phone.”

When he reached the bedroom door, this bold and beautiful flight attendant had perched herself on the corner of her water bed. Crossing each leg alternately, she was drying her feet, and in between each of her lovely toes with the towel. At that moment Darrell remembered the co-worker's question about reincarnation, and decided that he really would like to come back as that towel.

She motioned toward her bedside table and said that she would like Darrell to put her new phone there. “No problemo,” he assured her.

“While you are getting that done, I am going to get dressed and run down to Dunkin' Donuts for some breakfast,” she said, “do you want me to bring you back something?” Darrell’s mind, heart, and lower extremities were still racing, beating, and well, enjoying themselves immensely. He replied, “Nothing for me, thanks.” What he meant to say was, “Why don’t you stay here on the bed, just like you are,…I will run out and get the coffee and doughnuts…Then I will come back, crumble them all over your beautiful body, and then eat breakfast, lunch, and supper all in one meal…I can always come back tomorrow and hook up your stupid phone.”

The flight attendant got dressed. The faded cut-offs and t-shirt she chose to wear showed off her gorgeous body almost as much as the towel had. She left within a few minutes. “By the way,” she said, winking at Darrell as she left, “my name is Chantal, and I just L-O-V-E men who work with their hands.” Again, Darrell said a prayer of thanks for his wisdom in choosing this incredible profession.

Darrell eventually completed his work in and around the apartment and, in accordance with proper phone company procedure, sat in his truck to finish the paperwork. He waited much longer than normal for Chantal to return from breakfast. Sadly, she never did.

The dispatcher rang Darrell up as he sat in his phone truck. Dispatch needed him to work a “trouble” at an address several miles away from the apartments. Dang it!!!! He left a copy of the work order on the bed where Chantal had “posed” for him with the towel in her hand. He also left his business card with a personal note on the back saying: “Let me know if you need anything.”

What he really meant was, “I can be back here in a matter of minutes if you need help drying off after your next shower.” It has now been well over twenty years since that unforgettable day, and Chantal the naked flight attendant has never called. Dang it!!!!

Phone men don’t always get to “service” beautiful women. Sometimes they get caught with their pants down in other, less desirable, ways.

During part of Darrell’s tenure as a phone man he was transferred to a “long lines” sector of the Atlanta telephone market. The service center for this job was located about 50 miles due east of Atlanta, out in the middle of the boonies. Darrell was assigned to a bucket truck group which specialized in installing and maintaining long distance lines. Theirs was a remotely rural area consisting of nothing but horse farms, wooded hunting land, and an occasional mobile home or two. Darrell, however, couldn’t help but wonder if there were any flight attendants living in the area.

It was summertime and hot as blue blazes in rural northeast Georgia. Darrell and his group were working lots of overtime. The Bell System was upgrading its long lines cable to accommodate fiber-optic services planned for the future. Six, twelve hour work days each week were providing some rather handsome time-and-a-half take-home pay for Darrell and Mrs. Darrell.

This crew of phone men was working so far out in the country, brown-bagging lunch every day was the only way they could have anything substantial to eat. One day, however, the lead tech on the crew, a Georgia Tech graduate named Dewey Oglesby, said he was tired of eating cold sandwiches for lunch every day. The rest of his men agreed wholeheartedly. They took up a collection and sent the grunt of the crew to the closest nearby town to for any sort of hot fast food he could find.

Rutledge, Georgia, was over ten miles away and didn’t have a lot of fast-food options available. Still, the grunt was told not to bring back anything unless it was hot. No sub sandwiches or cold convenience store fried chicken would do. It absolutely, positively had to be H-O-T.

One must understand the discriminating palate of the garden variety phone man. He won’t eat just anything. But, he will eat at Waffle House. In fact, every phone man alive hires in with the understanding that for him to advance in his career as a phone man, he MUST eat at Waffle House – at least five times per week.

One of the reasons phone men favor Waffle House are the waitresses. Waffle House waitresses aren’t Miss America candidates. This is not to suggest that all Waffle House waitresses are unattractive. Some are downright ugly. But, some are quiet, petite women who need the tips they make in order to support their single family homes. And, some are divorcees who work at Waffle House just so they can pour cold coffee and serve greasy food to men who remind them of their ex-husbands. The following joke has long circulated regarding these hard-working women: What has six breasts and three teeth? Answer: Third shift at Waffle House.

Phone men are attracted to Waffle House waitresses because they are “real.” They don’t smile at you while taking your order and then curse you to the cooks and restaurant management once they are back in the kitchen. The kitchen is the dining room at Waffle House.

Waffle House waitresses don’t try to dazzle their clientele with how well they’ve memorized the menu, the soup of the day, or the orders they take. They carry their order pads in their aprons, their pencils behind their ears, and they shout orders to the cook at the top of their lungs as soon as they’re taken. It is the cook’s responsibility to remember the order.

Phone men are also drawn to Waffle House waitresses because they don’t try to sell you dessert after you have had a plate full of, “Scattered and Smothered.” They know full well that if a customer had wanted dessert, they would have said so when the order was taken. Waffle House waitresses don’t dish out crap to their patrons, nor do they take any crap from anybody. If you order it, you are gonna’ get it. If you don’t want it or like it, they will rake it in the trash can, wash the plate, and go on to the customer sitting in the next booth. Phone men understand this work ethic completely, and appreciate it wholeheartedly.

The other reason phone men flock to Waffle House is the food. Barney Fife once observed regarding the food at the Mayberry Diner, “they ‘gar-an-tee’ their food to STAY hot, hours after you’ve eaten it.” The food at Waffle House is the same way. It has kept many a cardiologist in practice, and a whole legion of phone men fed to the gills for many years. Their menu is simple - “Scattered, Smothered and Covered.” Their coffee is strong, hot, and served 24/7. And their waffles are thick, heavy, super sweet, and loaded with MSG and cholesterol.

Phone men know when they come to Waffle House, if they leave hungry or thirsty, it is their own fault.

Alas, there was no Waffle House out in the country where Darrell and his fellow phone men were working. There was only a long, winding, two-lane country road to a town that was ten miles away. Where was that boy with the food, anyway?

It was over an hour when the phone company grunt finally returned with lunch. He was grinning from ear to ear. “Well, boss,” he said, “I found something hot!” This young food ferret opened the five plastic restaurant bags he held, each filled to the brim with assorted entrees from, you guessed it, TACO BELL!

Inside those five bags were assorted burritos, enchiladas, tacos, chalupas, chimichangas, refried beans, guacamole, and salsa. In other words, if it was Mexican, and it was hot, it was in one of those Taco Bell bags.

“Good boy!,” chimed a couple of the crew members. Those five sweaty, dirty, deeply tanned phone men sat down in the shade of a thicket of pin oak trees, bowed heir heads and gave thanks, and proceeded to devour their hot, greasy feast from south of the border.

The food disappeared quickly. Before going back to their trucks and the hot, afternoon Georgia sun, some of the phone men crawled off in the shade to take a short siesta. “Better watch out for snakes,” Dewey warned. Their group had already killed a handful of copperheads and chicken snakes during that summer in the sticks. Snakes hunt shade in the hot summer sun just like humans do. Dewey Oglesby didn’t want to have to try and find a hospital for a snake bit phone company lineman this far out in the country.

The crew eventually went back to work – dragging along like all blue collar crews do after a big lunch.

About two hours after lunch the infamous affliction known as, “Taco Bell Revenge,” began to take its toll. One by one the phone crew scrambled for any private, secluded spot they could find to purge their digestive tracts of the Taco Bell residue churning inside. Most carried a spare roll of toilet paper in their trucks. There was no time to look for proper facilities and amenities in the country – these phone men faced much the same predicament as does a pregnant woman whose water has broken. When it is time to “go”, phone men go – regardless of their surroundings.

When Darrell’s “time” finally came, he was parked next to a telephone pole, in the middle of an open pasture, strapped securely in his phone truck bucket, suspended at least thirty feet in the air, with his hands full of heavy telephone cable. Still, he knew, it WAS time! Darrell scrambled down out of the bucket and began to frantically search his truck for his personal roll of White Cloud. No luck! He looked under the seat, in the glove box, in the tool box, and even in his lunch box. No White Cloud! His nearest co-worker was about five hundred yards away, perched high his in his own bucket, with his own hands full of heavy telephone cable. It was clear – Darrell was on his own. And, with a hot, spicy Hispanic-influenced intestinal storm raging inside, he knew he had to act quickly.

Reaching under the passenger seat of his phone truck, Darrell found some old soiled paper towels. “They’re gonna’ get ruined anyway,” he reasoned. Time was running out – these greasy, oily paper towels would have to do!

Darrell began to look around for a “place.” He was, again, in the middle of wide open pasture land. There were no trees, no brush cover, and no mounds or hills to hide behind. And, while there wasn’t a human in sight, Darrell reasoned, “As sure as I do it here, a funeral or brass band parade will appear out of nowhere.”

Suddenly, Darrell saw the answer to his dilemma. An old tractor was sitting in the adjacent pasture, looking as if it had not been cranked, let alone used, in a long, long time. If he could just get to that tractor, he could then squat between its back wheels and take care of business.

Darrell took off running.

The closer he got to the tractor the more it became apparent to him that the barbed wire fence separating him from his haven of blessed relief was almost impenetrable. The barbed wire was strung tightly close together, with the bottom and top strands closely resembling the dangerously sharp-edged razor wire seen around jails and prisons. It was obvious that the landowner was trying to keep deer from crawling over the top and smaller varmints from crawling under the bottom.

This razor-wire booby trap did not dissuade Darrell, however. He kept in his tool belt a pair of fence cutters for just such emergencies. And, if what was about to happen to him was not an emergency, there had never been one.

Darrell yanked out the fence cutters, nipped the top two strands of wire, climbed hurriedly over the remaining fence, flung off his tool belt, dropped his pants, crammed his paper towels underneath the tractor seat, knelt between the two tractor tires, and let nature have its way. “Aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh,” he sighed, “made it just in time.”

When he felt as if he had accomplished his mission, Darrell reached for his wad of paper towels. For hygienic reasons Darrell dared not turn around nor move excessively. He was attempting to “feel” his way along the hydraulic lines and hitching mechanism of the tractor. As his hand was nearing the place under the tractor seat where he was sure he had secured the paper towels, Darrell Copeland heard a sound he swore later that he would never, ever forget.

“Rack-Rack,” echoed the unmistakable sound of a pump shotgun being cocked and readied for firing. “You looking for these?”, a gruff old voice asked. Darrell, trembling in fear, turned to see the shiny barrel of a Remington twelve gauge shotgun being pointed at his head. On the other end of that shotgun was an old farmer (who looked to be in his late 60’s), dressed in overhauls and a long sleeved shirt, with a three day growth of white stubble on his face, a floppy hat on his head, and Darrell’s wad of paper towels in his left hand. “Yes sir,” Darrell said sheepishly, “and I sure would appreciate it if you would let me have them.”

Here Darrell Copeland was, standing in the middle of an open pasture, his pants down around his ankles, in broad-open daylight, with a dirty behind, and a shotgun barrel stuck in his face. At that moment, his entire phone man career flashed before his eyes. How he wished he could be back once again in that apartment bedroom with Chantal.

“All right,” said the old farmer – after holding Darrell frozen in that position for several minutes, “you can have the towels back, but you are NOT leaving that pile in MY pasture…Smells like somebody’s been eatin’ Mexican.” Darrell complimented the farmer on his discerning nasal ability, while hurriedly cleaning himself with the paper towels.

That old farmer kept his shotgun trained on Darrell until he could pull his pants back up, put his tool belt back on, climb back over the fence, stuff the paper towels into the “phone man garbage bag” that he kept on the back of his bucket truck, and climb back across the fence with a small spade shovel to retrieve from the pasture the remnants of his Taco Bell lunch.

With poop in hand Darrell was crossing back over the fence a final time when he heard the farmer say, “wait just a minute, son – who’s gonna’ fix my fence?” Phone men carried lots of extra emergency-type things on their phone trucks, but barbed wire was not one of them. “How should I know,” Darrell sarcastically said, “surely you don’t expect me to do it.”

The old farmer indignantly hopped over the gap in his fence, and stuck the shotgun nearly inside one of Darrell’s nostrils. “Boy, you got a smart mouth for somebody in your situation…You’re either gonna’ fix my fence, pay for my fence to BE fixed, or else git a backside full of buckshot,” the angry old farmer shouted. "Your choice!"

At that point, the image of the aforementioned phone man who was shot in the derriere by the drunken car thieves flashed through Darrell’s mind. He certainly didn’t want to go down in Bell System history as the only phone man ever shot over taking a bathroom break.

Darrell grudgingly paid the old man for his fence, secured the garbage bag full of feces, got in his bucket truck, and drove over to join his co-workers. He explained what had just happened to him, and asked for the rest of the afternoon off. Without question he got it.

On the way back to the service center to park his bucket truck for the night, Darrell vowed that if he ever got the chance to go to work doing something other than being a phone man, he would jump at the opportunity. After all, he reasoned, Chantal’s airline could always use another pilot or baggage handler, and Waffle House always seemed to be looking for hard-working cooks and waitresses. Either way, Darrell Copeland decided that day that if he was ever again stuck out in the middle of a wide open pasture, he would sooner go hungry than touch one solitary bite of a greasy Taco Bell chimichanga.


- David Decker