TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Re: Disaster Recovery in 1871

Re: Disaster Recovery in 1871

Norm (
Thu, 06 Oct 2005 15:11:19 -0400

Nice item, thanks! I've looked for something you posted a dozen years
ago, that happened during the initial A- bomb testing, where they
couldn't make phone calls and someone drove out and traced the
telephone lines to the "central" office in a house and woke the
operator. Is that still around somewhere?



[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: The story goes like this ... in the
early to middle 1960's I was employed as a telephone operator at the
University of Chicago. I lived in an apartment hotel on East 56th
Street, 56th and Hyde Park Blvd. to be precise. Another resident of
the hotel was Mrs. Laura Fermi, widow of the late Enrico Fermi, of
atomic bomb fame. Mrs. Fermi was a typical, 'well-to-do' widow. She,
on various occassions 'invited' me, a Young Man to join her for dinner
and cocktails at 'The Anchorage', the hotel's dining room and cocktail
lounge. I almost always accepted her invitation. In those days, forty
years ago, the Windermere Hotel (phone FAIrfax 4-6000) was not only a
very good place for a Young Man to live, but the bar and restaurant
was very 'cozy' also. Of course dinner and drinks were on her on-going
always-open tab at the restaurant/bar/hotel. I understand now that
maybe 20-25 years ago, UC bought the property and converted it into
faculty housing. I understand the bar, restaurant, front lobby, etc
have, like much of Hyde Park these days lost their luster, if in fact
The Anchorage is even still open, which I sort of doubt. Anyway, this
would have been in 1962-63 or thereabouts. Mrs. Fermi told me a very
interesting story which I will relate to you. After I first related
this here in the Digest, middle to late 1980's there were some readers
who discredited it to varying degrees. The discredits ranged from
polite attempts to set the record straight, to more crude replies
about older ladies spending forty dollars (in 1960's money) to
entertain and amuse a Young Man with food and drink for whatever
reason, once or twice weekly. Most readers did not discredit the
account, nor me, nor Mrs. Fermi however. Certainly, as a telephone
operator at a prestigious university, and a salary to match the
cheap standards of UC (i.e. 'you should be glad to be allowed to
work here, do not bother us asking for still more money') I certainly
could not afford to eat/drink at The Anchorage, although I did live in
the building. The Hyde Park Coffee Shop up the street was more my
speed. Anyway, Mrs. Fermi was good friends with Doctor and Mrs. Beadle,
(in those days _he_ was president of UC) so it just seemed 'prudent'
IMO, for this Young Man to do what was expected of him.

With this preamble in mind, Mrs. Fermi told me this acccount of the
closing days of World War II:

"Enrico and several fellow employees in his lab were asked to go out
to Alamagordo, NM, to monitor one of the test explosions. It was all
very hush-hush, secrecy was still in effect and quite widely
enforced. He took me along, and was to report to a certain place about
forty miles out in the desert about 3 AM that day. We checked into a
motel outside Alamagordo, then drove out to the place where Encrico
was to set up his observation equipment. As luck would have it, it
started raining, a very hard drenching rain. We sat in the car and
waited until the rain stopped, then he sat up his testing gear. The
test explosion was to happen at 4 AM, but 4 AM came and went; no bomb

"Finally Enrico got to thinking it out and he said that maybe because
of the heavy rain the test had been called off. He would need to check
with the other scientists and see what was going on. He packed up all
his equipment and we drove back toward Alamagordo. The only place that
was open at that time of night was the motel we were staying in, so he
drove the car up and stopped next to the public phone in the parking
lot. He put a nickel in the phone and waited and waited and waited
for an answer from the operator; which never happened. He finally
slammed the phone down in disgust and said 'I am going to find out
what is going on here.' We got back in the car, and starting from that
payphone booth, he began driving slowly down the street, all the while
stickihg his head out of the car window studying the overhead wires.
We went down one street, then the wires turned another way and we
started going down that street. I know why he put the nickle in the
phone; all the scientists on this mission had agreed that if anything
went wrong they would talk in code to each oher; him in Alamadordo,
the other guys elsewhere. Anyway, driving down the street he suddenly
saw what he was looking for; there was this one house and out of the
sky from various directions came bunches of telephone wires; all the
wires went in through a hole on the side of this lady's house. A bunch
of wires as thick as your wrist; all came out of the sky from various
directions and went into this house.

"It just looked like any regular house; but the front porch light was
turned on, the front door was open but the screen door was latched. In
the house itself sat a telephone switchboard, with bunches of lights
blinking off and on. A radio was playing soft music in the background
and there was a sofa nearby; stretched out on the sofa was a woman who
was sound asleep.

"Enrico banged and pounded on the door for a couple minutes, then the
lady must have woke up; she sat up sort of startled, looked over at
Enrico by the door, then turned and looked at the switchboard all
glowing with people waiting for service. She looked back at Enrico and
literally jerked to her feet, stood up, walked over to the switchboard,
sat down and began taking the calls as fast as she could. Enrico said
to me as he got back in the car, let's go back to my observation
point. And we drove out there right away; Enrico set up his test gear
once again, and about eight or ten minutes after we got there, the
test explosion went off.

"We found out later that all those guys had been trying to get in
touch with one another since a few minutes after 4 AM, but the
central swithboard for that area was going unanswered while this woman
had her nap. I cannot blame her, really, yes, she should have been
awake and alert, but given that she worked nights and had to sleep in
the daytime, it was a 'mere' 115 degrees the day before, too hot to
sleep during the day when she should have been, and then that night it
rained, blessed cool air and she fell asleep. I doubt if on a typical
night there were ever more than one or two calls through the board all
night (there was a 'night bell' and a 'flashing light' which should
have woken her up in those cases) but somehow they did not do so.

"I seriously doubt to this day that the lady knows the reason the
atomic test explosion was delayed for an hour and fifteen minutes was
because _she_ was asleep. Enrico said to me 'I am not going to tell on
her and get her in trouble.' She looked to me like just a teenage girl


Now that was the story as told by Laura Fermi, eighteen years after it
happened, and twenty-five years (my first relaying of it) after I
heard it and now forty years (my second relaying of it.) Is it a true
story or not? Or was Mrs. Fermi a wee bit forgetful that night? Or
did I have too many shots of brandy or some other after-dinner liquor
in me? PAT]

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