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Just ask the operator for 'Muskrat No. 1'

It does seem as if the higher we're wafted by the wonders of technocracy, the dizzier we get. It might be fun to chat today with Dr. Bell and tell him all the things he never knew about his telephone. Last evening, that young lady in Pierre, S.D., called to ask if I needed chemicals for my septic system. It then came to mind that it has been a long time since I placed a self-dialed phone call and had a good chat in the old-time manner. I get either a tinned reply from an answering machine saying my call will be returned "as soon as possible," or I am instructed to press 6 if I want mustard with my fried clams.

Not too many years ago, we had a telephone company here in Maine called The Franklin County Farmers' Cooperative Telephone Company. It was based in Farmington, otherwise famous for the ear muff. It wasn't unlike the National Geographic Society: If you subscribed, you were a member. It was pleasantly pixilated and, in that area, amazingly efficient.

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In the winter of 1890-odd, the story persisted, an ice storm took down all the poles and the blizzard blew drifts over the downed lines. Les Goodson, the lineman, didn't even try to find the wires or set new poles. He just hooked together all the barbed-wire pasture fences up through the towns of Industry, New Vineyard, Starks, and Tuttle-Brown Plantation, and made an emergency network that served until spring.

The Franklin Farmers' had a way to tie in with the New England Bell System, but when you made a call "outside" it cost money. There were no toll charges within the Co-op. If you were in Vienna (pronounced vy-YEN-nee) and wanted to speak to somebody in Madrid (pronounced MADD-dr'd), you cranked the thing and asked to be put through to MADD-dr'd. When MADD-dr'd responded, the Central was Gertrude and the switchboard was in her sunroom. It might take a minute because Gertrude was doing dishes and she'd have to wipe her hands. When she came, you'd say, "Mornin' Gert, wanna ring me Ron Wilkes?"

Gert would say, "Hi, Tom [or Bart, or Hank, or whatever your name is]. How's everythin' down to the junction?" After some happy, informative chatter, she'd say, "Ron ain't to home. He goes to Stratton on Tuesdays to the bank directors' meetin'. Why-n't you try again 'bout supper time?"

Now this is a true story and calls for dignified respect. Two gentlemen who lived in Farmington and I knew well were Phil Polger and Bauer Small. Bauer was volunteer fire chief, and Phil was company clerk and made the chowders for monthly practice meetings. They talked frequently on the phone, and in keeping with the whimsy that prevailed, Phil had his own exchange and number. Phil was Muskrat No.1, and Bauer was Wildcat No. 1. If Bauer called Phil, he would tell Central, "Wanna ring me Muskrat No. 1?"

One night Phil was in Kansas City on business, while Bauer was home in Farmington. And in anticipation of a pleasant jest, Phil had found the hotel switchboard and "set things up" with the operator. So now, Phil was talking with a citizen of Kansas City at table, and Phil adroitly brought the conversation around to telephone service. The gentleman was quick to tell the faults of the telephone company.

Phil, showing much surprise, protested that nothing like that ever happened in Maine, where phone service was rendered politely and faithfully, and nobody ever complained. "One reason," said Phil, "is that everybody has his own exchange and calls never go astray. My exchange is Muskrat. If you ever need to call me from anywhere, just ask for Muskrat No. 1."

One thing led to another, and the man from Kansas City didn't believe this. With utter reluctance, Phil said he was strictly opposed to imponing on a sure thing, but would make an exception. Phil told him, "Just pick up the phone and ask for Wildcat No. 1, that's my friend back in Farmington, Maine."

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PREVIOUSLY alerted, the hotel operator may well have been awaiting this. The gentleman from Kansas City, shaking his head as wise men often do, yielded to this absurdity, and lifting the phone he said, "May I have Wildcat No. 1, please?"

The operator said, "Certainly, sir," as if this went on day after day. There was a br-r-r-r-r on the line, and then the voice of Bauer Small in Farmington, Maine, was heard in Kansas City.

"Good evening," said Bauer, "Wildcat No. 1 here. May I be of service?"

Over the years, until Mother Bell gobbled the quaint Farmers' Co-op and rendered it into conformity, Bauer and Phil kept this pleasantry going. When one was away, the other would wait at home for the phone to ring. It was seldom that somebody in a distant place refused to find out for himself, and the routine usually came to fulfillment about 7 p.m., Franklin County time. It was timed to be just before the Co-op closed its switchboards for the night.

Let me not leave you with the notion this was mere frivolous play. It is true that Farmington people loved to hear that a new victim in Omaha, Phoenix, El Paso, and such way stations had been bilked and had called Wildcat or Muskrat, whichever was home. But Down East merriment is rightly rounded with purpose and utility. These calls assured Farmington, always at the expense of a distant victim, that Bauer, or Phil, had safely arrived wherever it was, and all was well. Thanks to the Farmers' Co-op.

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