Jim Heffernan column: Tales of telephone travails

I am not good on the telephone, smart or otherwise.

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Jim Heffernan (News Tribune)

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I finally got a smart phone not long ago. I realized very quickly that it’s smarter than I am, which would come as no surprise to my former teachers, were any still around.

My phone has dozens of “apps” that I never use and don’t understand. I do call up “smart news” to see what’s going on in the world at any given moment. Here’s the latest: Looks like we’re all doomed. But then when weren’t we?

As an aside, the other night on an obscure television cable channel I saw a government film from the 1950s intended to teach school children to “duck and cover” when — not if— an atomic bomb is dropped on their community. Looked like we were all doomed then, too, but here we are.

Back to smart phones. Having one has made me ruminate about my long history with phones. When I was a child in the 1940s learning to handle our telephone, Duluth still had telephone operators, women known as “central,” who, when you picked up the phone to make a call, would say, “number please.” You would give the four-digit number you were calling, and she’d manually ring that phone.


There have been several iterations of phone service since then. At one time, the city was divided into telephone districts with various names like “Randolph,” “Market” and “Calumet.” That was when dial phones arrived around 1950. Early dialing involved the first two letters of your district — like RA 2-4504 if you were in the Randolph district.

I am not good on the telephone, smart or otherwise. I usually get whatever business needs to be conducted over with quickly and get off the phone. Some people like to chat at length on the phone with relatives or friends. Not me.

Early in my career, when I was a reporter for this newspaper, the telephone was key to getting much of our work done. You couldn’t go everywhere where there was news, so you’d call someone involved and get the lowdown.

If there was a fatal car crash you knew had occurred, you’d call the coroner to find out what happened and get the names of any victims. One coroner years ago would vividly describe the injuries such as broken necks, limbs, spleens, blood all over — details you’d never include in the story. Coroners were usually medical doctors elected in countywide elections.

One time that coroner, quite elderly, was called to a wooded rural area to investigate the death of a hunter deep in the woods. An ambulance team was waiting on a nearby road with a stretcher with which to carry the victim out, and they used it to carry the coroner in. I don’t know how the coroner got back out of the woods.

A colleague witnessed a coroner call to examine a man’s dead body discovered alongside a street near downtown Duluth. The coroner looked down at the corpse, declared it “natural causes” and left. When they began to remove the body, it was noticed he had a knife sticking out of his back.

We also used the telephone to cover local fires, actually to find out if a reported fire was severe enough to send a reporter and photographer to the scene. Here’s how it worked: The police radio in the newsroom would bark a fire alarm and give an address. We’d grab the city directory, containing the names and addresses of most Duluthians, and figure out the telephone number of a dwelling nearby the reported scene of the fire, call this neighbor and ask if they could see any flames coming from the burning building.

Here’s a typical example of one of those nighttime calls.


REPORTER: Hello, this is the Duluth News Tribune calling.

NEIGHBOR: What? Who?

R: The newspaper. A house fire has been reported on your block. We were wondering if you could take a look to see if there are flames.

N: A fire? Where?

R: On your street. Does it look bad?

N: (to someone in the room) It’s the newspaper. They say there’s a fire on our block. Where’s the fire?

R: On your block. Do you hear fire engines or see smoke and flames?

N: We were just watching Perry Como. We didn’t hear any sirens or anything.


R: Would you mind going outside and taking a look?

The neighbor would usually comply, with the result often being they didn’t see any fire at all, and the photographers could continue their poker game.

Now, as a so-called senior citizen, I get calls from what sounds like young men who me address me as “grandpa” and report that they are in jail somewhere, have no money, and need money from me to post bail. I do have several male grandchildren, still too young for jail, so these callers don’t fool me.

One time I led one of the self-proclaimed grandchildren on, saying something like “is this Jason?” “Yeah, it’s Jason,” responded the caller, figuring he had me hooked. I went on to tell him how disgusted I was with any human being who would try to rip people off that way, but before I got my rebuke out, the line was dead without a click. They just fade away.

Time for me to do so now, too.

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at and can be reached by e-mail at

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at and can be reached by email at
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