Friday, May 9, 2008

Telephones

The staff of the Free Church circa 1970.
Rev. Dick York is the man with the wild hair under the 1st "H" of "Church".
I am 3rd from left, back row, also with wild hair.

The Sunday Scribblings prompt today is telephone. I have never liked telephone conversations. I would much rather see the person I am talking to, their facial expressions and gestures which are such a vital part of communication.

Therefore it may be a surprise to learn that for several years of my life, in the late 60s and early 70s I was the head of a “switchboard” to the largely hippy community in Berkeley. Yes, that involved being at the telephone myself for at least several hours of every day.

This is how it came about: Otto and I, with son Stan, arrived home to Berkeley in August of 1969 after a year of sabbatical leave (Otto’s) in Australia. We had missed the “summer of love” in San Francisco, but the word of it had spread nation-wide, and Berkeley, just across the bay from S.F. , was crowded with a motley congregation of young people - the genuinely idealistic who felt that they knew a better way of life than their capitalistic uptight parents, runaways from abusive homes, drug users, pacifists protesting the ongoing war in Vietnam, and others just here because it seemed like a fun thing to do. All of them needed beds at night and food to eat. Some of them needed the services of doctors, dentists, lawyers, drug counselors. And some of them just needed a hug now and then from a concerned adult. The majority of them took up street residence on or near Telegraph Avenue in the immediate vicinity of the University of California.

In response to this needy group, all of the south campus churches and a number of Telegraph Avenue merchants had banded together to hire Dick York, a young Episcopal priest, as a street minister. He was lent a vacant house owned by the Presbyterian church. It was to be called “the South Campus Community Ministry”. It was soon dubbed by the street people “the Free Church.”

As a middle-aged volunteer, I was astonished at how I was immediately accepted by the predominately young crowd who dropped in to ask for help or just to sit down for a few minutes to visit with one another or with me. Glee Bishop (who later married my son) had already assembled a directory of service providers, but I had to constantly use the telephone to find out who was available or to scout out new sources of help. In the course of time I became Switchboard manager and had the responsibility of several telephones and other volunteers who manned them. The switchboard room was also the drop-in room, which meant that I was also the person in charge of seeing that Free Church rules were obeyed. The rules were “No Dropping, No Holding, No Dealing, No Smoking Grass,” and, soon after I started working there, “No Knives” was added after an incident involving one. The staff had decided that we would be of most use to people we were serving if we adopted a policy of complete confidentiality. No police were to be admitted to the building without a search warrant.

But this Sunday Scribblings prompt was “telephone” not Telegraph avenue culture. Suffice to say that there were hundreds of calls to be made daily, especially since we tried to find a bed somewhere for everyone who needed one. Many people, from university professors to a janitor in a junior high school, had offered to open their homes and provide “crash pads”. But every nightly placement required a phone call.

The scariest phone call I ever took part in was as I was training, Bob, a new volunteer, with him on one phone and me on the other. It was near midnight and we were the only people still in the building. I planned to go home soon and leave Bob on the relatively light overnight shift. I had been there since 9:00 am and was tired.

The phone rang. We picked up our receivers and heard a wild party going on in the background, loud music, much shouting, then a frightened male voice:
Voice: Help! Help! He’s trying to kill me!
Bob: Do want the number of the police department?
Voice: I can’t call the police!
Me: Where are you? We’ll get help to you.
Voice: I can’t give you the address.
Me: We can’t get help to you without an address.
Voice: But I don’t know where I am! Help me! Help me!
(I write a note to Bob to call the police department and ask them to trace the call).
Me: Do you know what street you’re on?
Voice: Oh my God! Oh my God! He’s got a knife!
Me: Call someone else to the phone. We’ll get the address from...

and then there is a despairing scream and the caller’s phone goes dead.

And there is a subsequent article buried in the back pages of the local newspaper about the body of an unidentified stabbing victim found on the sidewalk in the 2200 block of Oregon street. It was discovered by an early morning jogger on the morning following that phone call. Ironically, that was within two blocks of our Free Church.

No, I don’t like telephones. But many telephone calls can bring relief to someone, though some cannot. And I could tell maybe a thousand stories based on the six years that I worked many unpaid hours a day at the Free Church switchboard.

43 comments:

Lucy said...

You've seen AND heard it all Granny! If Only, he would have given his location. sigh.
On a happier note... Hope you have a very happy Mothers Day!

murat11 said...

I love the stories, Granny Smith. Your bright shining love was no doubt "shelter from the storm" for many of your motley crew. Your story reminded me of my two years with a peer counseling center in Cambridge. Those were definitely phone days, though I share your dislike of phones: neo-Luddite that I am, I still have no cell phone.

Best to you. Always fun to visit.

arboleda said...

very interesting Granny Smith!

Laini Taylor said...

What a horrifying phone call. That must have haunted you. But overall, what an interesting interlude, being there at the center of all that in its heydey, helping out. I never really thought of all the helping out that must have been needed. Thank goodness for kind people!

Robin said...

You have lived the most amazing life. I'm so privileged to have gotten these glimpses into it.

Someday you really should write a book...

linda may said...

G'Day Granny,
What wonderful memories you have. I enjoy reading your Sunday Scribblings. May I recommend to you my friend Merle's blog here in Australia. http://merle-3rdtimelucky.com/ She is one of your peers a great lady in blogland.
Love Linda.

anthonynorth said...

Calls like that are enough to freak you out. It takes a strong person to cope with it.

Leonard Blumfeld said...

Thank you, Granny, for this wonderful excursion to 1970's Berkeley!

Medhini said...

The incident you described left me shaky. It feels awful when you can't help even if you want to. God bless.

Geraldine said...

Wow, what a post/story Granny. And I agree with Lucy, you have seen so much and led such an interesting life. Thanks for sharing so many of your experiences with all of us. I've added you to my blogroll so I don't miss any!

LOVE your apple header, PERFECT!

www.mypoeticpath.wordpress.com

Just Jen said...

wow...you have an ironclad memory. I can't get over the details of things that you remember. Congrats on your son marrying Glee :D
I just love your stories and I love the wisdom you share through them. That switchboard job shows what a gentle and strong soul you have!

Robin Westphal said...

I felt like I was right there with you as you told that story Granny. That must have been such a difficult experience for you. I bet you brought much peace to many people in need.

Suzie said...

Thanks for the comment!

You're never too old for your first mobile phone! My grandmother had a "brick" for years - was only in late 2006 that we finally got her to replace it. She bought a Nokia 3310! Still, it's nice that she can receive text messages now...!

Kristin said...

Ah, in tears again. You always touch my heart. How do you do that?

I only "got" your green background when I saw the apples! You are an artist in every way.

anno said...

Count me among those who want to see the book you are going to write -- I enjoyed this latest installment in your amazing series of adventures, observations, pictures, and poems. Thanks so much!

MissGuided said...

I, too, prefer conversations to be face to face. However, this becomes a tad difficult as all my family and friends live overseas.
I'm on the phone all day at work so when I get home I hate that blasted thing.
Shaz

danni said...

you are such an eclectic, and a born story teller - how i'd love to sit on a porch with you somewhere and talk --- i believe you were definitely ahead of your time!!!

danni said...

thank you so much!

Whitesnake said...

Nicely done....
Thanks for stopping by my Rainbow blog.......

Whitesnake said...

Oh ........
And I thought Garnny Smith was an apple...... I'll be blowed!

GreenishLady said...

What amazing experiences you've had. Your story of the scary phone-call chilled my blood. I wrote my post without even mentioning working on helplines, but I've been there for something almost as scary - but without the same ending, luckily. You've given so much in your lifetime, I'm really glad to get the chance to read about some of your memories.

AscenderRisesAbove said...

I very much enjoyed this story!! Living in the area and loving the history!

ascenderrisesabove.com/wordpress

Jennifer Hicks said...

Oh my. What an experience to have been through.

Devil Mood said...

My God, the stories you have to tell us! I'm so glad you have a blog to tell us about your life so far :)

giggles said...

Helpless predicament, haunting phone call! My heart is still a pounding! Sad situation. Sounds like those six years would make an awesome book, not for the faint of heart though!

Happy Mothers Day dear Granny!

Hugs Sherrie

Beautiful Witch said...

I am sure you tell some incredible stories, Granny Smith! How amazing to be right in there with the hippie movement. A touching post about how powerful the phone is, and how powerless it can be.

Goddess Diana said...

Dear Goddess Granny,

Thank you for visiting my blog.

I too think a book is in order. I would definitely like to hear more about all the countries and places you visited and all the souls whose hearts you touched.

Thank you for sharing your story.

Wishing you,
Peace & Love, Just Because,
Goddess Diana

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

What a FANTASTIC story, Granny. No, not the last one with the knife and the party. The piece as a whole, including your talk about the culture of Telegraph Ave. I could read about it for days.

And thanks for visiting me today! Melody Maker as a musician -- I'm laughing because there actually HAD been a magazine -- a fairly influential one -- called Melody Maker. I guess it had been in my subconscious when I created her; it's now defunct. But in music circles, it was famous.

Anyway, MY Melody Maker goes on to become an adult film star. With a name like hers, are you surprised?

OneMoreBeliever said...

wow... excellent story of the 60s.. i do not think that that sorta call would i ever forget... how does one connect across the wires... thank you for yr comments over at my place.. fibs are fun!!

texasblu said...

Oh my goodness - that is horrific! It's so facinating to learn about other's lives - mine has been so tame...


BTW - Happy Be-lated Mother's Day! :)

Suma said...

that was sad...if only he had said where he was...:(

i love coming here...always interesting!!!

SmallWorld Reads said...

Fantastic slice of life. Absolutely riveting!

Lilibeth said...

Yikes. What a terrible feeling not to be able to do anything about it. I think I would have mourned.

Linda - Nickers and Ink said...

What a nice nostalgic post!

Thanks for visiting and commenting at NICKERS AND INK.

You are a blessing to me.

Linda

SIMPLY SNICKERS – weekly poetry prompts

Grandma Glee said...

We have the memories, don't we??? So many adventures from our Free Church days. Do you ever wonder how many of our "congregation" are now CEO's of off shore corporations, investment bankers and others wrecking havoc? I'd spend a lot of time comtemplating this if i didn't think the stress would mess up my golf game - tee hee. We are leaving very early tomorrow morning for a summer and fall on the boat...hoping to make it up to New York...love, Glee

daria said...

Wow! That was an amazing story! It left me in tears! I want to hear more!

On a different note...how cool that I am leaving a comment after my very own mom!

I hope you had a lovely Mother's Day, Gigi!!

xoxoxo

daria said...

p.s. be sure to stop by the blog because there are tons of photos of the kids from our recent trip to D.C.!
xo

solsamba said...

I loved reading this story. How lucky that you got to live in Berkeley during that time. I worked on a suicide prevention hotline in Rio. Sometimes the most that you can do is be the voice on the other end of the phone.

Thank you for your nice comment!

Maggie May said...

How terrible! bet you remembered that forever.
you must write some of the other experiences that you encountered while you were working on the free phone.

Just Jen said...

I got an award for you on my blog!

Daily Panic said...

Wow! I can remember when one of my relatives worked for the phone company as a switchboard operator. It was the telephone company that brought my dad from Oregon to Alabama, installing telephone wire. We even had a party line in our home. Now no one remembers that part of history, it's all wireless and how we get connected is invisible.
Thanks for sharing that part of your life. What an interesting part of your life.

rebecca said...

Wow! Thank you for sharing that with us....70s Berkeley is certainly one of those eras that one always wants to know more of. How sad that the story ended this way. You kept me riveted throughout...what an interesting life you've led...

sarala said...

After that last call, I'd never pick up a phone again! It does remind me of a call. . . but this should be saved for a future blog post.