Kathy Baerney left a trade that she loved in order to keep her family together. Now she dreams of visiting Venice and worries about saving the whales.
I started working for the phone company in nineteen sixty-five as an operator. I was still in high school. My mother used to work for the phone company and my father is in management with the company. As for me working there, it’s not that I chose it. It’s just that it was there.
I was an operator for a year and a half, a thankless job, not a fun job. Back then you didn’t vary from speech patterns. If somebody said something that was not on a card that had already been written down somewhere, the response did not come, because there was no response. I mean, you had these statements that you could make and you could not vary. You know, not one word. Your best friend could be making a long-distance call and you could not say, “Hi.”
From there I went to the plant service center, where they make sure orders are run though smoothly. I was on the order desk and when the installers finished a job, they’d check in with me. It was a fun job ’cause you got to talk to the guys all day long. I stayed there for three years. It was during that time I started thinking about non-traditional work. There was a couple installers, I don’t know whether they know this was coming or not, but they let me ride with them on Saturdays. Not ride in the truck, ’cause that’s a no-no, but follow them from house to house, because I wanted to install bad. I’d go in with them and hook up the wiring inside, adjust the set, do all the stuff. And that kind of got me into the idea where—if something hadn’t happened, I probably would have said, “Hey, why not? I don’t understand this.” Because I never did understand—I never felt held back until it occurred to me and by the time it occurred to me, I wasn’t.
It wasn’t because the phone company had been hit by the federal government [but to prevent it]. The government wanted the company to achieve parity, which is where you have equal amounts of minorities. And then in order to reach parity, you have to employ—parity was a lousy word for a long time. They did not do it right as far as I’m concerned. They didn’t just open up the gates and say, you know, “This job is now ready for women; if you’re qualified, go for it.” What they did was, they held back some men that should have been promoted, should have been rewarded for services done, before these people, no matter whether they were man, woman, or child. These people should have had the jobs first. But they said, “No, it’s gotta be a white woman or it’s gotta be a black woman or it’s gotta be a black man who’s in this position.” So it was not nice.
To get a jump on the government, the company went around and asked all the females if they wanted to do other things. And I said I wanted to install. I wanted to go outside. They said I was too short. I could not get the ladder down from on top of the truck. But I fooled them. You can climb on the bumper and get the ladder down. But climbing on the bumper, however, was against company practice. So they pushed me, persuaded me, they did everything they could to get me to go down to the central office. They really needed a woman in the central office to reach parity. The woman level there was too low, so they pushed me into it. I really wanted to go outside.
At the central office you have relays that will make or break a dial tone, place a call, bill you correctly, and let you receive calls—according to what type of an impulse is received. So I went down there as a frameman. I worked on the main distributing frame, a long structure where they have all the cable that is run out so the surrounding areas come up into the terminals. There are two terminal lugs per cable, and that makes a loop back to the central office and you get your dial tone. So what I did at first was run jumpers from your office equipment and laid down cable inside to make sure your dial tone was going right. Then I’d hook it up and you’ve got your phone service.
I was pretty young when I worked as a frameman. I’m a good worker and I busted my buns. They were all telling me not to bust my buns, but I did. And that, I think, made the difference. I really worked hard down there. Not as far as thinking, because you know, you gotta think, but it’s not that taxing. But as far as physical labor goes, I was really good.
In the morning I’d get there early and sort out all the orders of the day, and then the next two hours are spent in frantic activity running in all the jumpers, scuffing up your little hands, scuffing them up a lot. A lot of scars from stripping wire and soldering. The rest of the day, depending on the work load for the next day, was either advancing them in, straightening out problems from the people who assign the office equipment—I’m talking of things that you know nothing about. I mean, it’s hard to explain to someone exactly what it is, because it’s your own language and it doesn’t mean anything. What it comes down to is running up and down the wires. They have three hundred pairs that are vertical and you run up and down the ladders. You were fit and had to like heights on that job.
My supervisor there was very supportive, very condescending, very “Gosh, I hope she makes it ’cause I like her,” very nice, very easy to work with. Men, for women, are easier to work for—this is not coming out right. Okay, women have a tendency to know men well enough to know how to play them. This sounds really cold and calculating, but you could really do whatever you wanted to, as long as—this is not coming out well at all. This particular man was used to being a boss of men and didn’t quite know how to deal with a woman because he had daughters of the same age, and yet he couldn’t treat her like a daughter because she was an employee. And he was very easy to manipulate.
For example, at the telephone company when you’re working around equipment, it’s required that you wear safety glasses. These safety glasses have been given no change of style since the early-safety-glasses period. I mean, you can still drop a lead ball on them from eight feet and they will not break. I mean these are terribly uncomfortable, unattractive, un-everything glasses. I did not want to wear these glasses and I told him that. And he said that he didn’t think we could get around it. And I just told him that I was gonna get some frames that had the same safety glass in there, but the frames, although they were made similar, were not the exact frame. I got a note from the doctor saying these frames were as good or better than the ones given by the phone company. And I said, you know, “Wouldn’t that work? Come on.”—Is that whining?—Just, “Come on,” you know, until he finally gave in. Whereas a guy can’t do that. A guy can’t whine. You know, there’s troubles for guys that whine down there.
After two to three years as a frameman, I became a switchman. Switchmen take care of the equipment. They man the offices on the weekends. If we have a snow or John Wayne dies, you know—I mean, the coiling of relays go crazy. People can dump the central office by everybody picking up the phone at once. You have huge generators, you have a turbine—I mean, this is big stuff and they can go and die. That is scary; that is the part I did not like. On Mother’s Day, here I am, a mother, stuck in a central office in Renton that has three floors, and people are calling in saying, “I’m gonna jump, I’ve had it.” Usually the fire department will call and say, “She says she’s gonna jump, we can’t find her.” And I’m going, “Ohhh!”—and naturally the phone company won’t let you work in an office with which you’re familiar. They will send you from Auburn to Renton to man the operation. So there you are, not really knowing the place, and the responsibility on the weekends is large. I do not feel I was trained well enough to handle that.
My first race was a man who’d called up, who’d had a heart attack. And they’d put on a speakerphone and you could hear him gasping for breath and I was going, “Oh, God! Hold on!” To try and find his location, I used something we called a channel. It’s like a large-headed pin, sometimes not even as big as that, and they are made in a row of six. You try to find the ones that are closed, rather than open. Now these are teeny, tiny things we’re talking about. And from there that will send you to another row of switches and relays that will have the same thing, but you’ve got to find all of this. You have to follow these through and find out which one is made and which one is closed. And it will eventually bring you to a line location, which you can use to go back to the main distributing frame and that connects directly to his cable and pair, so that is where his is. Then you can call the police and pull the line card and give the police the address. Then they’re off. Sometimes you can do it in four minutes, sometimes in fifteen minutes. It just depends on where they are. You know, when somebody’s gasping for breath it’s not fun, not fun. It’s harrowing because you know you’ve got somebody who’s, like, who’s not gonna make it, if you don’t hurry; you know, that’s real. . . .
It’s terrible! and the worst part was, towards the end of my stint in the central office, I would think, why do they have to call somebody and tell them this? Why don’t they just do it? And that was the worst part, because I’m thinking, these people out there need help and I don’t want to go through the hassle, so I’m saying, “Do it, but don’t call anybody and tell them.” I felt really guilty about it for a long time.
I liked working with the guys in the central office. Men can be just as picky as women can, but it’s more of a broad-type, let-’em-be thing. I find that in an office, it’s more of a gang-up-and-get-’em thing. In an office dominated by females, it’s more of a revenge thing, where working with all guys it’s more of a laugh and joke, it-doesn’t-really-matter-type thing. They were just as picky and just as gossipy, they’re just people. But I’ve seen women take revenge and be nasty and vicious. I mean vicious. Whereas in the central office with the guys, they were wonderful. To me, they were not hateful and hurting.
When I first went to work there, the men saw me as really innocent. I wasn’t as innocent as all that. In all honesty, I did a lot of role-playing there, you bet. Men like to be so big and wonderful and protective and I let them. I was more or less what they wanted me to be. More or less what they wanted. I didn’t even know, then, what I wanted. So I was more or less what they wanted. First of all they wanted somebody who was gonna be some kind of token down there. And then they found out I could do the work and I could do it better than most of them. Not because of mental things, but because of determination and because, being a woman, I was easily adapted to doing mundane chores and doing them well. I do think there is a certain amount of conditioning there. I think women have more of an ability to do that. I hate saying that, but I think it’s true. But they started to accept me then, and when I got married we started joking about things that I never joked about before.
The first day back from my honeymoon, in the central office—when you’re working with twenty guys it’s not a fun day for the light of stomach. I mean, there were all these comments like, “How’s your walking?” You know, right out there. It’s funny to see the change over the period of time I worked there. When I first came down there, a gal that was large of bust was walking down the street and I was standing there soldering some terminal lugs. And the guys were looking out the window and they said, “Will ya look at those?”—and they knew I was there—and they said, “Big little eyes.” You know, the gal had on dark glasses. You couldn’t see her eyes. But that was the way they treated me. And after awhile, I don’t know whether it was because of things that I had said or what, but it got to be more of a familiar, less-careful-of-standard-conversation-type stuff to each other. We could joke about things that I would think were funny, too. Shoot, then I got married and I knew it all. Maybe it was my getting married, but afterwards we were all really close.
We joked about things that I never joked about before and talked about sex a lot. We had it all figured out down there. And the things they did to me, oh my God! They would make these foam rubber articles—male genitals—yes, a complete set—and hang them out over a piece of equipment. Then they’d ask me if I’d check it. What can I tell ya?
When I was pregnant I was terribly embarrassed to be pregnant, especially down there. I’ve never been very good at things like that anyway. It was my first time and I was really embarrassed. Not because of everybody knowing what I’d done—that was no biggie; we’d already talked it out beforehand—but because I was gonna get fat. I didn’t wanna get fat, and it was a whole new thing. Things back up on you when you’re pregnant, and you’re not quite right all the time if this is the first time you’ve done this. And evidently I’ve got more hormones than most people or something, but it took me very badly. I was totally embarrassed but they were so good about it. They gave me a cake. They gave me a shower. They put smelt in my tool pouch. I threw up. I showed them! I didn’t clean it up either. They had a good time laughing that morning. I came in bright and sunny, and I’d been putting my tool pouch on a little lower, and I could feel something, rather than see ’em. And I was trying to put this tool in my pouch, poking away, and I looked down, and there were scales and guts and crud all over. Scales! Do you know how hard it is to get scales out of your . . . ? And I looked at that and there was this eye laying on my foot and I just got sick, real bad. I loved it.
I don’t think mothers and fathers have the same feelings. I don’t think biologically it’s possible. I think a man may love his kids, but with a woman it is more physical. I mean, I didn’t want to get pregnant the first time. When I got pregnant I was in total shock. I’m one of those people that never took any precautions and I get married and I’m surprised. I’m what? I did not want to be pregnant or fat. I did not want to have a baby. I was devoid of all those feelings. And consequently when we lost the first baby, I went through a lot of guilt and a lot of bad things. I wanted a puppy after we lost the baby. It was a real physical need for something to love, to hold, to mother. So I got pregnant again about four months later, and from then on with me you love your kids, you need ’em.
When I was down at the central office, we had a wonderful union president. I love him. I mean, I love him. He’s a wonderful person. I was the first case in the valley where a woman was pregnant and was paid while I was off. Before, you had to hide your condition, which is hard in a tool belt. You know, people know. You had to hide until they said quit and then you didn’t get paid or anything. But thanks to the union, I was one of the first cases of a woman being able to go home in my eighth month and do my nesting thing and have the baby and get paid for six more weeks. It was good.
The telephone company did something really wonderful for me, though, and for which I’ll be forever grateful. When I had Matt, my first baby, I told them I didn’t know whether I wanted to come back or not. This was all bluff on my part because Russ, my husband, was at that time out of work again. They told me that because I was such a good worker (and I had a feeling it had something to do with parity) that they would bring me back at four hours a day. This was at top pay, vacation, and benefits. And it was wonderful. I asked them for it after my second child, Maggie, was born and I could have had it for six months, but then I would have had to go back to working days. I should have taken it. I regret that, but I wanted to stay in Auburn and work evenings.
My husband worked days and I worked evenings after Maggie was born. I would be home during the day with Matt and Maggie and it was really nice. I don’t regret the time at all. I worked four to midnight and we had a girl come and stay for forty-five minutes in the transition period when I had to leave for work and Russ was coming home. Then Russ had the kids at night. I should have realized, but I didn’t—maybe it’s ’cause I didn’t want to, maybe I wasn’t as caring as I should have been—but he felt trapped. And then on the weekends—he’s got this great love for fishing. I mean, he loves it. The man is a born fisherman. He should be guiding a boat somewhere. On the weekends he would want to escape and I would resent it because I had been home all during the week. I had cleaned and I felt on the weekends we should do things with the family or something should be different, rather than him going off fishing. I didn’t realize that he felt trapped. He worked during the day, had to be there, came home at night, and could not go out with his friends, could not go watch the fights at somebody’s house without taking two little kids along. You can’t enjoy a fight with a two-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy. It was hard for him, and we didn’t talk about it. He ended up resenting the kids. I ended up resenting him. It just didn’t work well.
I think if you stand back and look at a situation objectively, you’ve got to decide your priorities. That’s why I went back to a clerk’s job. I decided I felt better giving my time and energy to my kids and my husband, instead of a career which I really would have liked to pursue. I’ve made my decisions. Now why can’t I cook? I feel a loss though. I really do. I feel bad that I’m not working with my hands ’cause I enjoyed that and was good at it. I made some of the prettiest solders you ever saw. That’s what impressed them a good deal when I went down there, that I wasn’t clumsy with soldering. I miss the physical part of it. The job I have now is more stressful in terms of being stuck in one place and having thirty-seven people wanting an answer. But I miss that physical part of it, the working with tools.