November 22, 1963–Tulsa, Oklahoma
Anyone alive today and with the capacity to think, reason, and remember knows where they were and what they were doing on that date. I had been with Southwestern Bell a little over a year and had finally landed a transfer to an inside job, out of manholes, out of the weather, and on the ground, not 30 feet up on some skinny telephone pole with tiny pieces of steel on my boots dug into the wood as far as they could possibly go.
I worked in what was then known as the Luther Central Office. In those days, we had letters in the phone numbers: LU for Luther or RI for Riverside or TE for Temple. I can still remember my girlfriends (now wife) number, TE-81662.
The Luther office was located in downtown Tulsa, the others scattered all over the city. My job had the title of Frameman. The frame was a monstrous hunk of wood and wires, about 15 feet high and half a block long. Let’s say a new customer wants a phone. There were no such things as computers where you simply press a few keys and Shazaam, you have service. For a new phone to work back then, not only did an installer have to come to the house and bring you a phone, but the framemen had to connect a pair of wires between Point A (the wire that went outside and eventually to the customer) to Point B where the other end of the wire connected to the central office for dial tone and the ability to make and receive calls.
The frame had two sides, one was called the vertical and while you would think the other side would be the horizontal, I never heard it called that. A typical hookup would go something like this:
“Hello Vertical.” (this was always shouted to make yourself heard over the din of motors and switches)
“Hello!” (also shouted.)
“Thirty-five cable, two-twenty one, four off the top.” Every working phone had a specific wire attached to it. The guy on the vertical side would dash along the frame until he found a riser with the number 36 at the top, he would them jump on a rolling ladder, climb until he found the fourth horizontal shelf where he would find a hairy arm sticking through from the other side clutching a pair of wires. He grabs the wire and pulls it to where he finds a hole in the wood with more numbers, one of which refers to two-twenty one. He then skins the insulation off the wires, wraps it around a couple metal posts and solders the wires down. Long before he completes this task, he hears,
“Hello Vertical. Twenty-three cable, 445, belly button high.”
“Shut up, I’m not ready.”
This was the life of a frameman, all day, every day. To say it was boring would have been doing the job a great service.
The frame occupied only a small part of the Luther office. Most of it was filled with metal boxes filled with what were known as step-by-step switches. When a call was made with a rotary phone, every click of the dial was detected by the switches which were magically passed to other switches eventually finding the called number where a ring-a-ding followed. Telephone engineers had figured out that they needed switches for only about 10% of the customers, the average number of conversations at any given moment. Then came November 22, 1963.
From my position on the frame, I could hear the normal switch activity ramping up. It got louder and louder until nearly every step-by-step switch in the building was stepping like crazy. Emergency generators kicked in adding to the racket. Supervisors huddled around meters and gauges showing how much current was being used. Soon, all were in the red zone. I heard one of the supervisors say, “We’re about to lose the office.”
As a peon, I had no clue as to what was going on. Remember, this was the days of black and white TV, a tweet was something a bird did on a nice day. Then a guy by the name of Dave stuck his head in the door and said, “They got him. They got Kennedy.” And for some odd reason, Dave was grinning. To this day, that silly grin has stuck in my head. My God, it wasn’t like the Navy Seals had knocked off Osama Bin Laden, this was the President of the United States, our President. Maybe poor dumb Dave couldn’t grasp the enormity of what had just happened, not right away. And granted, it took time for it to sink in for a lot of folks. But that grin…
The Luther office did not have a meltdown as feared. That evening, my wife and I huddled around the TV at home, saddened, shocked, barely able to believe what we were seeing.
Now, as the fiftieth anniversary of that awful day draws near, the networks have chosen to replay the Zapruder film time after time, uncut, unedited, the blood and gore flying everywhere. Jaqueline crawling over the trunk in some primal reaction to retrieve a piece of her husband’s skull. Have we no respect? Every time I see President John F. Kennedy’s head explode, I have this urge in my gut to look up old dumb Dave and pay him a visit, just so I can punch him in the nose.