What Ma Bell Taught Me

 

In 1957, I started work as a telephone installer in Watts.  I lived in the neighboring town of Compton.  Here I am looking Bell Telephone spiffy, decked out in my work belt and pocket protector, in front of my ladder-equipped truck.

I was looking to make some money and perhaps begin a career. But within a year, my plans changed.  The reason for that change of plans is what this post is about.

My dad, mom, sister and me were rural Okies who had migrated to California in 1944 (I was six) because that’s where the jobs were, in particular in the oil field of Signal Hill in Southern California.  At that time, working in the oil fields was a low-paying job, and roughnecking, my dad’s job, was at the bottom of the wage scale.

Below is a recent photo of the backyard of our first house in LA., a rental at 1711 W. 60th Place. An alley ran past it on this side of that fence.  It looks worse in this photo than it did when we lived there.  For one thing, we had no mangy dog and no bars on the windows. It was a small house (848 sq. ft.) off the street, (behind our landlord’s house) with concrete slabs instead of grass for the front and back yards.  Not a bush, flower, or blade of grass to be seen. (On Christmas day in, oh, about 1946, my dad and granddad got into a fight on that small porch to the left and tore down the banister as they fought their way down the stairs. I see no one has ever replaced the banister.)

As a kid, I was only vaguely aware that I belonged to any particular class. Fish will never know they’re living in water until they leave the fishbowl.  When I was hired by Bell Telephone to be a telephone installer, my job forced me to raise up my head up and look around.

The first thing Ma Bell did was to send me to a pole-climbing school.  The forest of telephone poles we practiced on was located across the street from USC. I spent a lot of time held up by a pair of spikes as I gawked at the USC campus.

I had never seen anything quite like the upscale look of its manicured, professionally landscaped grounds, the huge Memorial Coliseum looming in the background. Even more remarkable, in the eyes of this kid from Compton, were the nattily dressed young men, most in ties and sport coats (this was 1957), the coeds in pleated skirts below the knees, who strolled by on their way to classes.

It was clear to me, as I watched these students stroll by, that I would have felt awkward and out of place in the homes, classrooms, and fraternities that made up their world.  They dressed better than I did, I’m pretty sure they lived in nicer homes, and they even seemed to be better looking than me and my Compton buds were.

I didn’t belong there.  Perched on my pole looking down, I was learning about the social class system in America.

Before employment at Ma Bell, I was equally as naive about the class below mine as I was the class above.  But I lost my naïveté when I began installing phones in Watts   At that time, a  telephone installer climbed poles to wire up homes, crawled under houses to string wire, and went into the customers’ homes to install phones.  (I remember that we installers were supposed to push colored phones.)  So I quickly became familiar with the lives of the people who lived in Watts.

The poverty in Watts — and all the chaos, dirt, and trash that accompanied that poverty — was bad enough, but worse were the conditions in the Watts subsidized housing projects, the home of numerous gangs.  (I’ve forgotten the name of the projects when I installed phones there, but there were blocks and blocks of them, all dirty, all ill-kept, all dangerous.)

So it was good ol’ Ma Bell that gave me a pretty fair idea of my place in the scheme of things.  I learned that I existed somewhere in the large space between USC and Watts, with plenty of wiggle room in that space to move around.  Ma Bell awakened in me possibilities.

I sensed there might be better things for me ahead which didn’t involve Bell Telephone.

Postscript:

For reasons that I can’t explain, a ridiculous number of famous and accomplished people resided for a time in the city of Compton or attended Compton Community College (called Compton Junior College when I went there).

Athletics:: Pete Rozelle (commissioner of NFL for 30 years), Hugh McElhenny (NFL Hall of Fame), Charles Dumas (first man to jump over seven feet), Duke Snyder (eight-time All-Star, Baseball Hall of Fame), Serena and Venus Williams (tennis titles too many to list).

Celebrities: Kevin Costner, James Coburn, Mort Sahl (satirist/comedian), Paul Rodriguez (comedian), Leslie Sykes (news anchor)

Rappers:  Snoop Dog, Coolio, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Suge Knight, and the rap group NWA. (Straight Outta Compton), and many many others.

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  1. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    I feel like there is a second chapter on the way. I hope so, @kentforrester

    • #1
  2. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    One of our nicknames for USC in Newport Beach (CA) in the mid-1970s was University of Spoiled Children. Yes, we had plenty of spoiled children in Newport Beach at the time, but that was before the real run-up in costs, so most of my classmates were offspring of white collar “professionals” (engineers, accountants, lawyers, etc.). 

     

    KentForrester: At that time, a  telephone installer climbed poles to wire up homes, crawled under houses to string wire, and went into the customers’ homes to install phones.  (I remember that we installers were supposed to push colored phones.)

    At the time, customers leased the telephone equipment from the telephone company, and the rental rate was higher for a colored phone than it was for a basic black phone. I think TouchTone (push button dialing) was introduced later, but that was a big upcharge as compared to basic dial, so the installers really pushed hard on TouchTone.  

    • #2
  3. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    As a kid I often felt out of place in social class. My paternal grandfather had been a federal judge, so my paternal grandparents were clearly of relatively high social standing. My maternal grandfather had been a senior bureaucrat in the federal government. But, he had worked his way up to that position from mailroom clerk without benefit of a college degree. So my maternal grandparents were of clear middling social status. My only uncle (on my mother’s side) had become a lawyer for a large corporation and moved solidly into the high social standing stratum. My father was a consulting engineer (I later found out, a highly paid one at that) with his own business, taught university classes as a sideline, and then became a full time university professor. But, he and my mother didn’t like hanging out with the high social standing people an intellectual like my father would be expected to. So, until we moved to Newport Beach (when I was in junior high), we lived among the lower middling class – truck drivers, warehouse workers, mechanics, bank tellers, etc. But my parents made it clear that I was not to follow their career paths. So I didn’t learn as much about my neighbors as I might have. And the possibility of a life of working with my hands was never in my field of vision (though as it turns out, I am lousy at working with my hands). 

    • #3
  4. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    JoelB (View Comment):

    I feel like there is a second chapter on the way. I hope so, @ kentforrester

    Thanks, Joel.  My story becomes rather boring from that point on — Army, school, etc.  I became solidly middle class, like 44% of the population.   So I probably won’t continue it.

    • #4
  5. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    KentForrester: At that time, a telephone installer climbed poles to wire up homes, crawled under houses to string wire, and went into the customers’ homes to install phones. (I remember that we installers were supposed to push colored phones.)

    At the time, customers leased the telephone equipment from the telephone company, and the rental rate was higher for a colored phone than it was for a basic black phone. I think TouchTone (push button dialing) was introduced later, but that was a big upcharge as compared to basic dial, so the installers really pushed hard on TouchTone.

    Tabby, I was never very good at selling those darned colored phones to Watts housewives.  If I remember, they were ten bucks a pop.  Ma Bell was raking in the money by adding an ounce or so of coloring to the plastic. 

    • #5
  6. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    KentForrester: Rappers:  Snoop Dog, Coolio, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Suge Knight, and the rap group NWA. (Straight Outta Compton), and many many others

    So when are you going to start your rap career? The Bobs?

    P.S. Great story. And it is where you make a place for yourself.

    • #6
  7. JustmeinAZ Member
    JustmeinAZ
    @JustmeinAZ

    Maybe men are more attuned to class structure (expected to be breadwinners and all) or maybe I just went through life oblivious. I was shy but with plenty of self esteem. Up until my mid teens (1960’s) my Dad supported six kids on a Navy enlisted man’s salary. There were times I had to remind my mother that I needed some underwear. I was going to show a picture of our house in San Diego but it’s Navy housing and apparently top secret – 3 Bed, 1 Bath for 8 people. (By the way, that’s a pretty crummy house in LA – I’m surprised it’s still standing.) Even after I left home and was supporting myself while going to school I never felt my condition was permanent. My idea then of being comfortably well off was if someday I could go to the grocery store and buy any flavor of soda I wanted and more than one. I guess I didn’t set my sights very high. But I had no conception of class. I was comfortable at school and also with my  friends’ families. I just knew that someday I would have nicer clothes and a nicer house.

    Kent, you had to work real hard to get to a comfortable life. Me, not so much. 

     

    • #7
  8. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    JoelB (View Comment):

    I feel like there is a second chapter on the way. I hope so, @ kentforrester

    Thanks, Joel. My story becomes rather boring from that point on — Army, school, etc. I became solidly middle class, like 44% of the population. So I probably won’t continue it.

    I gave this a “like”, but I disagree: I doubt your story is boring at all, and you tell it so well. 

    I moved to L.A. in 1977, when it had changed greatly from the days that Kent is writing about. I’ve read a lot of old newspaper clippings (mostly on line) about this earlier Los Angeles. 1957 appears to be an interesting in-between; not the days of Hedda Hopper and Raymond Chandler anymore, but eight years before the Watts riots. We had our own Wrigley Field, a minor league ballpark in what became a rough neighborhood. Before Watts in 1965, there was some racial tension but nothing like what it’s been ever since. Felix Chevrolet was more or less in south central, and their TV ads drew bargain hunters from all over the county. After 1965, that dried up. 

    • #8
  9. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    JoelB (View Comment):

    I feel like there is a second chapter on the way. I hope so, @ kentforrester

    Thanks, Joel. My story becomes rather boring from that point on — Army, school, etc. I became solidly middle class, like 44% of the population. So I probably won’t continue it.

    Aw, C’mon man.

    • #9
  10. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    KentForrester: (I remember that we installers were supposed to push colored phones.)

    It was Watts, Kent.

    • #10
  11. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    Basil Fawlty (View Comment):

    KentForrester: (I remember that we installers were supposed to push colored phones.)

    It was Watts, Kent.

    I wondered about that too.  But POC originally did mean phones of color.

    • #11
  12. navyjag Lincoln
    navyjag
    @navyjag

    Also on Okie roughneck (summer job in college) lucky enough to get sent to SF by the Navy in 1973.  Just bought a lot in Norman. Can’t wait to move back.  As bad as San Francisco is, it is not Watts. Or the Watts  of the 1950’s. 

    • #12
  13. kylez Member
    kylez
    @kylez

    I live about 15 minutes from Signal Hill, where my uncle runs an oil well repair business. 

    • #13
  14. The Cloaked Gaijin Member
    The Cloaked Gaijin
    @TheCloakedGaijin

    KentForrester:

    For reasons that I can’t explain, a ridiculous number of famous and accomplished people resided for a time in the city of Compton…

    President George H. W. Bush and his family are probably the most famous people to live in Compton.  His daughter Robin who died of leukemia was born in Compton in 1949.  The Bush family also lived in Ventura and Bakersfield, also in California.

    “Then an oil field equipment salesman for Dresser Industries, George H. W. Bush lived in various places around the United States…  In 1949, they moved to Compton, California; by then, Barbara was pregnant with the couple’s second child.  On September 23, 1949, Pauline Robinson Pierce, Barbara’s mother, was killed in a car accident, which also injured her father, Marvin.  Since she was very late into the pregnancy, Marvin advised Barbara not to make the journey to New York, so as not to hurt the baby.  On December 20, 1949, Barbara delivered a baby girl, whom she named Pauline Robinson Bush, after her late mother…”

     

    • #14
  15. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    JoelB (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    JoelB (View Comment):

    I feel like there is a second chapter on the way. I hope so, @ kentforrester

    Thanks, Joel. My story becomes rather boring from that point on — Army, school, etc. I became solidly middle class, like 44% of the population. So I probably won’t continue it.

    Aw, C’mon man.

    Yeah, we want more. Maybe Bob the dawg can talk it over with him, and give him the sad eye treatment.

    • #15
  16. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    I heard Bob the Dog was going to be on one of the podcasts. 

    • #16
  17. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    TBA (View Comment):

    I heard Bob the Dog was going to be on one of the podcasts.

    He is.  He has very strong opinions.  Woof, woof, woof!

    • #17