Saturday, July 18, 2009

City Views, Country Dreams

Good evening from New York.

Summer heat, along with its humidity buddy, has reached New York. This is not my favorite season in this city. With my Virginia roots, I could write about weather for hours. I will spare you.

Our news has been focused on a number of obituaries recently. Yesterday, we learned of the loss of the magnificent journalist Walter Cronkite. Reading about the big stories that he reported transported me to my earliest days in New York, when I was still in my very earliest 20's.

Much went on then, good and bad, and helped to shape my adult self. A huge component of that time was political, with the Vietnam War and the struggle for various types of civil rights in sharp focus. Popular music, with emphasis on rock, expressed much of what we were thinking. (Have I told you before that I went to Woodstock?)

So, having given you all a snap course in what was in the atmosphere well before anyone was seen on the moon, I will tell you that when I got home from work tonight, and finally opened the New York Times that had been left at my door after I left for work this morning, I began to thumb through it. I read of Mr. Cronkite, I read of Mr. Obama, I read about Iran and Indonesia. And then I turned the page to the obituaries, and was taken back to those early days.

Anyone who missed the glory days of records, real records and the brilliant graphic designs that formed the covers of those big album covers will not know of Tom Wilkes. If you look him up, you will learn that he has died from Lou Gehrig's disease. You will learn that he designed many iconic album covers and posters.

I would like to tell you my own little Tom Wilkes story.

My first New York job was as a computer programmer for the then very massive corporation AT&T. That corporation also employed lots of folks in much more poorly paid jobs who belonged to a union. When that union went on strike, young programmers like myself, considered management, were called upon to cross the picket lines. I knew nothing about what this meant, being rather naive.

And so I did cross those picket lines and found myself learning how to work an overseas switchboard, alongside of regular switchboard operators who could not afford to go out on strike. I had never before met a union worker. I had never before worked alongside someone who was not white. I had never, never tried to place overseas calls.

In those days, if someone wished to call London from New York, it was necessary to ring up AT&T and make an appointment. The switchboard operator called the UK number, connected with the intended callee, and then called the caller back ... and presto, connected them.

Are you with me so far?

We were never, never supposed to listen in to any of these calls, once we had made that connection.

Confession. I got a call from Tom Wilkes (whose name was very familiar to me from his album cover work) and he was placing a call to a company called Apple. Readers, I listened in. He was designing the famous green apple and the call was to discuss that design. The context meant nothing to me at the time.

A week or so later, John Lennon and Paul you know who announced the formation of Apple Records.
I never, never ever walked across another picket line. I still treasure that early opportunity to find out what it was like to work alongside some people who had not had my advantages. In a way the days that I spent at that switchboard taught me much about life.
Seeing Tom Wilkes' obituary has brought back so many memories of when I was younger, so much younger than today.
Was I wrong to listen in on that call?
Best wishes.


  1. The well-brought up Virginia belle probably felt very bad about listening in on that conversation. I think she'd have tuned out if it had been a personal call - I'm somehow positive of that. So many years later, it's like you own a teeny bit of history. Thanks for sharing it with us!

  2. I can imagine that it went against all you held dear to listen to another person's phone call....but what a wonderful bit of history to be part of! That's a memory to be stored.

  3. How very interesting! I would have not been able to resist listening in I am sure. Strangely enough I recently attended a bookbinding demonstration by a lovely Irish man called Gene Mahon, he was a typographer/art director turned bookbinder/conservator. I believe he also worked with the Apple label in those formative years.

    It is strange to think just how much technology has changed our lives in such a short space of time isn't it?

  4. What an amazing story, and as Elizabeth say what a great bit of history to be part of.

    Listening in? A bit naughty but I'm sure you were the very soul of discretion.

  5. What a wonderful story, Frances. Wow!
    I am almost reeling! Yes, sad when the great and the good pass on.

    I was rung up the other day (most inappropriately in view of our traditional impecuniosity) by a Wall street broker asking me to invest (what, I responded?). I started asking him about the weather and the summer heat and Central Park. Somehow you have made New York a real everyday place for me as if it were just around the corner.

  6. Yes, I read that obituary with interest and great nostalgia.
    Those iconic images are burned into our brains from those years.
    They come with a whiff of patchouli (horrors!)
    We were very young and romantic once
    and the sixties were very cool indeed.....

    What history you eves-dropped on.
    I hope I would have had the guts to too.........
    Hope to see you very soon.
    Buster sends love.

  7. Ah, I might have guessed that a lady so gracious as yourself hailed from Virgina. Like you, I could write volumes on the weather, it is a particular British obsession, so I wonder if you are descended from British settlers?

    Apple Records! What a blast from the past. I have many, original Apple 45's in my collection, seldom played today, but that crisp green apple comes sharply to my mind.

    So Walter Cronkite has passed from this earthly realm? I remember him from my very first time in America, some thirty years ago now.

    Delightful post, as always.

  8. Oh Frances, how fascinating! It would have been so hard not to be tempted to listen, and as Pondside rightly points out, it wasn't a personal call. I well remember that Apple logo - how amazing to have been part of that history. And a Woodstock girl, too - looking forward to hearing more tales or your rock 'n' roll past.

  9. I had no idea you are such a naughty girl Franicis. But I guess anyone who experienced Woodstock is likely to have a tiny bit of a wild side. I'm so glad you listened in when you did, and shared the story with us too, of course.

  10. Dear Frances

    Another fabulous blog; this time an insight into your political development. You were definitely not wrong to listen to that call - a little mischievous, maybe. Being British we are also well qualified to rattle on about the weather, which at the moment is changeable, to put it mildly.



  11. What a priceless tale. Listening in on a little bit of history.

  12. what an iconic image that apple is - my parents had orig Beatles vinyl, and the memory of Abbey Road with the green apple spinning round. You may have been a bit naughty, but then you'd have no story to share! Cx

  13. What a fantastic memory to have stowed away Frances. Such iconic images on those albums weren't they? x

  14. I think you were meant to listen to that call so that, years later, you could tell us all about it on a blog! What a lovely memory to have stored away. It's all part of what makes us as people isn't it.

  15. what a very long way it is from my little backwater world here in the Shropshire Marches to the life of a sophisticated New Yorker! I was once a Londoner, heart and soul - with years of working and living there. I will have to visit you to recapture a vicarious taste of a life that is not limited to Jeans and wellies.

    Thank you so much for your visit; I visited you once before and left a comment, before the purplecoo got hold of me.

  16. What an incredible story Frances, I do know that you would have not listened in on that call if it was of a personal nature.

    I do remember those Apple Records, think I still have some tucked away in storage here.

    Thank you for sharing that piece of history with us Frances.

  17. Loved this for listening in...well the thirty year rule probably applies and is is well and truly past its date isn't it? You never said it to anyone else, so go forward young woman with a clear conscience!!!

    Loved Walter Cronkite, he was the soul of education in my humble opinion.

  18. I enjoyed your post a lot. I guess when one gets older there are many things that come back to mind, many interesting people one remembers. Walter Cronkite was the first reporter I watched on television when I came to the USA. I liked him a lot. I don’t enjoy any of the current reporters as much. I watch Jon Stewart and at least get some news and much laugh.

  19. So sorry I missed this earlier, Frances, but a wonderful read when I did find it. If it's any consolation on the 'crossing the picket line' front, I too, as a naive graduate in a new job was co-erced by my managers into doing that and, like you, I never repeated the action.

    For me part of the thrill of buying music in the form of an LP was the joy of the album cover. I've kept most of my vinyl and every sleeve tells its own story and brings back memories of what I was doing then. You don't get that from an Itune! I'm glad you did listen in so you could bring us that story.

  20. I still have many of my records and my record player with the 'Go Navy' sticker I put on back in the day. So fun! Mom gave me all her collection of RCA Victor records-which are in much better condition than mine. Some are clear ~ blue or red even! Thank you Frances , your post brought back many great memories and inspired me to dig those records out.oh and I agree with Pondie too : )
    Have a wonderful day and take in some extra scenery for me of the Park. Xx

  21. Golly Frances! But it did no harm, and what a memory!

  22. Oh wow! An Iconic phone call that's sooo cool!
    Such an interesting post Frances - what memories.

  23. Thank all of you for your comments on my 99th blog!

    This evening, I have taken the "Followers" bit off my page. It seems as if Google changed its concept of what it is to follow a particular site. I've tried to figure out their philosophy and directions, and failed.


    If I get more free time, I will try to get updated on how to let you all share your blogs with each other via this site. Free time is very rare for me right now.

    Next post will be number 100. Amazing notion.


  24. Wow Frances, what a story, what a moment. It's thrilling to read about it x

  25. Hello Frances,
    I'm afraid I've tagged you to describe yourself in seven words (but you are excused if it's too personal). Best, ChrisX

  26. Isn't it interesting what can trigger memories of times past and though not forgotten, tucked away back then. Be it smells, sounds, photographs, names, places, whatever, it can be very enjoyable re-living those times in our minds. Only you shared them here and now they are out there and we can all appreciate a bit of nostalgia and that sometimes we too have some guilty secrets. But no-one was harmed - c'est la vie!

  27. Yet again, you are full of surprises! Thank you for sharing your naughty secret (big grin). Looking forward to #100.x

  28. Wow, that is one heck of a story!

    Thank you for your kind words too. I will stay positive and learn from these "special" encounters at work...

    thank you!

  29. Hello, Frances - I've just found you through some of the UK countryside-based blogs that I read with great pleasure as I plan to move out of a city. I'll come back for an in-depth trawl through your blog soon.

    Yes, it was a bit wrong to listen in to that call, but it was hardly wicked! And all part of an amazing learning experience for you.

  30. You were meant to be there and listen. Kismet! ;-)

    I remember that in the eighties, when Ma Bell was still around, we had to call the operator if we wanted to speak with European friends. We lived in an apartment building on Virginia Ave NW and did our grocery shopping at the Watergate Safeway. Riding up the escalator there, I once flew literally over the shopping bags and got comforted with a pastry from the Watergate Pastry shop. ;-) Memories! :-)