before the internet, in Malakoff,
"Alexa" was Miss Edna.
Of course, no one referred to her generically as a voice-controlled
personal assistant. What folks in East
Texas called her was "operator."
Back when someone had to crank a wooden wall phone to contact "central"
to tell an operator who you wanted to call (no one had telephone
numbers), Edna Broyles ran the telephone exchange in the small Henderson
These days, Alexa does what she's asked, though she occasionally
will interrupt a conversation when she thinks she's heard her name.
Miss Edna also tried to be helpful, though she sometimes had her
own ideas about what constituted help.
For instance, she believed that on Sundays everyone should attend
church, come home for dinner (as lunch used to be called in old
Texas) and then take it easy. Therefore, she closed the exchange
from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. No exceptions.
One day, a young recently married woman rang central and asked Miss
Edna to connect her with her mother.
"Dorothy, your mother isn't at home," Miss Edna reported. "Mrs.
Gentry called her a few minutes ago and they have gone to Sam Moon's
to get a coke."
On another occasion, Dorothy's mother was giving her daughter a
recipe over the phone. When she said she would need to add one cup
of sugar, Miss Edna broke in. "No, Mary Julia, you use two cups..."
Not that the operator was listening in or anything.
Alexa, uh, Miss Edna, also gave the time and handled wake up calls.
One night when a bunch of folks had a rollicking party, a humor-
minded guest rang Miss Edna shortly after he left his host's house
and asked her to give the man a 4 a.m. call since he had to be up
The tired party thrower was barely sleep when his telephone rang.
"It's 4 o'clock," the operator said.
"What did you say?" the groggy man shouted.
"It's 4 o'clock," Miss Edna said.
"What in the hell do you think I care what time it is!" he yelled,
obviously a tad annoyed.
"Someone left word to call at 4 o'clock," Miss Edna explained.
"Well," he said, "If they left any other call for me later, please
Alexa and similar modern devices, Miss Edna not only could hear,
she could see.
One night, her switchboard silent as a cemetery, Miss Edna stood
to stretch her legs. Looking out her window toward the town grocery
store, she was comforted to see the night watchman strolling toward
the closed business.
But as she watched, rather than checking to make sure the door was
locked, he opened it, walked inside, flipped on the lights and started
browsing around the store. At the cookie jar, he took the lid off,
extracted a couple, and brazenly ate them. Next, as the telephone
operator watched in shock, he walked to the meat counter. Then he
selected a large ham and placed it in a paper bag.
Miss Edna could not believe the town's trusted night watchman would
be shoplifting--surely he planned to return the next day and pay
for the goods--but she decided that on a dead night she could at
least have some fun.
Returning to her switchboard, she plugged the line in for the store
and set it for an automatic ring. As it happened, the fellow was
standing near the phone when it began jangling. At that, he dropped
the ham, hoofed it to the door, killed the lights and ran down the
street at full speed.
Another early day telephone operator had a more perverse sense of
humor. On quiet nights, she enjoyed criss-crossing the lines of
two tempermental guys she knew.
When their respective phones rang, each picked up the line and asked
what the other wanted. "I didn't call you, you called me," one said.
"No, I didn't call you. You called me."
The operator then pulled the plugs to both parties, waited awhile,
and did the same thing again. She thought it pretty funny until
one of the men shouted, "If you call again, I'll meet you and we'll
fight it out." That ended that practical joke.
the decades passed, telephone technology continued to improve and
soon, telephone operators only got involved if someone dialed "O"
to ask for a number or summon help. Phone companies had even begun
installing glass telephone booths, and two went up on either side
of the Henderson
County courthouse in Athens.
One stood across the street from a barbershop whose proprietor possessed
a sense of humor. Sensing the prank potential, he had early noted
the telephone number for the pay phone.
Seeing a stranger enter the booth, the barber dialed the number
before the man could place his call.
"This is the telephone company," he said. "We have just installed
an electronic eye in this new phone booth and I see that you appear
to be having trouble finding a number. May I assist you?
The man said he had the number he needed and thanked the "operator."
After the man made his call, but before he could leave, the barber
dialed the phone booth a second time.
"This is the telephone company again," he said when the man answered.
"Were you able to complete your call?"
Yes, the man said, no problem.
"Well," the "operator" concluded, "this isn't a service of the telephone
company, but I thought you ought to know your fly is unzipped."
At that, the man dropped the phone like a hot baked potato to urgently
check his pants while frantically looking around to see if anyone
was looking. He didn't notice all the men in the barbershop shaking
"Texas Tales" February
2 , 2018 column
An award-winning author of more than 30 non-fiction
Cox is an elected member of the
Texas Institute of Letters. A long-time freelance writer and public
speaker, he lives near Wimberley in the Hill Country. To read about
more his work, visit his website at mikecoxauthor.com. He can be
contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.