For me, few surprises surpass the realization of how devious, or some might say clever, people can be.
Rich and I were sent on an assignment, by our boss Skipper, to the northern Virginia town of Winchester. Our mission was to film the last remaining AT&T facility that used operators to route area phone calls.
By 1966, just about all switching was done mechanically and the job of telephone operator, mostly by women, was fast becoming a dead civilization. Thus our mandate to capture this disappearing breed of female professionals.
Our contact from AT&T met us in front of the little one room building that housed the switchboard facility situated on the outskirts of the small town. There was not much else around, except a car repair garage directly across the two lane road that was the Main street. The sign on the auto repair shop read Yaul Brothers - their motto: “We’d fix-’em for nothing but our wives won’t let us.”
Norman Tuttle, the phone company representative, was in his late fifties, and looked as rumpled as the baggy suit he was wearing. He was more affable than informative. He shook Rich’s and my hand, slobbering spit on the explosive vowels, ”How you boys doing?” He insisted on carrying in a small case when we began unloading the car packed with our lighting and camera gear. “Let me give you boys a hand.” It was clear, Norman was a feckless boob and he scampered out of the office once he deposited the case in the middle of the floor right in everybody’s way.
The ladies at the switching consoles were excited to be filmed and the two operators made alternate trips to the communal mirror on the back wall to check “last looks”. Rich and I set lights and positioned the camera for the perfunctory wide shot of the switchboard.
I overheard one operators tell a caller: “Dorothy, Dr. Muller is not in his office right now. I just saw him drive by in the direction of Hatty May’s house. She’s been down with a virus you know? I expect he’ll be back in his office in an hour or two. You might want to call back then.”
The beauty of non-mechanized phone answering.
Norman didn’t stay in the facility long, he’d done his fair share of work for the day, but Rich and I knew our job without him or the benefit of a script . The obligatory “establishing shot”, close-ups of the operators talking to callers or dialing the rotary phones for long distant connections. The black and white footage (there was no sound) was to be used for an corporate film with liberal use of “canned music” and wall to wall voice-over narration. We filmed hands plugging the patch cords in the appropriate portals and the operators scribbling notes on their logs by the console.
Early during the filming, we were setup next to a window; I saw Norman walking up a hill on a wooded path next to the garage.
Norman was preceded by one of the Yaul’s and the second brother followed watchfully close behind . I wondered where they were going but was too busy filming at the time to give it much thought.
Rich and I finished all of the interior shots of the facility – wide, close-ups, even a cut-a-way of the clock over the switchboard that showed it was lunch time.
We found Millie’s, the best (only) diner in town, after all we were on an expense account; nothing was too good for us. A typical “blue plate special” of meatloaf & mashed potatoes fortified us for the balance of the day.
While we were eating, a group of truckers at the next table bragged about what good time they were making hauling their overweight rigs. They related how they out-foxed the weighing stations by taking back roads and by-ways. That is except for one chap who didn’t have much to say. As they were leaving, through the screen door of the cafe, a jet fighter from a nearby naval base, flying low, broke the sound barrier. The sonic boom caused the wooden building structure to shake to the foundation; rattling the silverware and dishes on the shelves and tables. The quiet trucker , framed in the doorway, looked back at his fellow drivers and cooly said:
” Every time I stop for coffee that son of a bitch passes me.”
Returning to the AT&T facility after lunch, we checked around for Norman but he was nowhere to be found. His car was still parked where he left it in the morning, and the Yaul’s garage was, shuttered, stone cold closed. No sign of the brothers or Norman. None of the switchboard operators had seen our corporate putz since his cameo in the morning. So, we went out and continued shooting the local flavor of the Berg.
We spent a good deal of time waiting for the 2:36 C&O
train to pass through the center of town at Main St. and the railroad crossing. The long procession of railcars held up local traffic – both of them- for a good 15 minutes. That was the longest, slowest train ever; it was hauling coal from West Virginia to Baltimore for shipping by sea to some unknown offshore destination. Once the street was throughly blocked the train halted and one of the engineers jumped off and went into Millie’s and reemerged shortly after with coffees and donuts for the crew; a regular routine, no doubt. Our time was not wasted, that shot pretty much defined life in the town. A few more set ups: post office, town hall and the Baptist church, for Christ’s sake, and by 4:30 we were finished. We showed all there was to show of Winchester, Va.
Checking back at the AT&T building, nothing had changed – no sign of Norman. We waited around a while but it was clear he was not going to show. Concerned, Rich and I found a motel a few miles away, checked in for the night, and called Skipper. He said he’d get in touch with his contact at the phone company and get back to us. Later that evening we got a message that a new AT&T representative would meet us in the morning. No one knew what had happened to Norman.
Next morning our new contact man met us in town. He was a young pup, polished and professional. No word on Norman, but the new “suit” didn’t seem overly concerned. We headed up to a new facility that was built to accommodate the anticipated burgeoning homebuilding going on in the area. People from Washington DC wanted to live out of the District proper and Winchester was fast becoming a suburb of the Capitol. More homes meant more phones – so a large switching facility had been built on the hill behind the Yaul’s garage.
We were filming the exterior of the new building from a vantage point in a field next to the facility. The new rep went over to a fence close to where we were setup and started talking to a woman who was watching us work.
“Your family, the Yaul’s, sold this property to AT&T, right?”
“Yep.” The woman responded.
“You made out pretty good considering the land values around here.” The astute suit commented.
“Yep. We did okay.” Came the reply.
“Tell me,” the young exec queried, “how did you manage to get $75,000 from the phone company for half an acre of land to build this facility; most of the land around here is selling for $800 a full parcel?”
“Well you might say they was Yaul-ised.” She snickered.
After documenting the interior of the new facility, which consisted mostly of monolithic banks of electronic switching, we started loading up the company car for the trip home.
Just as we were finishing a 1949 black Cadillac pulled up with the Yaul brothers in the front seat.
The brother driving got out and opened the backdoor; there sprawled on the seat was Norman. The two hapless mechanics got Norman out and up on his wobbly legs. He was “pie-eyed” drunk, crying and had pissed himself.
“They took all my money.” Sniveled Norman.
“Just a friendly game of poker.” Piped up one of the brothers .
“What did you do to him?” Demanded the young exec.
The jovial reply came in unison from the grease monkeys.
“Well, you might say he was Yaul-ised.”