A LIFE FOR A LIFE
On An October evening in 1929, when the telephone was not yet operated automatically, in the small town of Vineland in the New Jersey, USA, Nick Pennino, a truck driver, felt the cold as he was reading his newspaper. He called to his wife, “Hadn’t I better build a fire in the heater?” His wife agreed. She was putting their two-year-old brown-haired daughter, Marjorie, to bed.The coal fire in the heater quickly warmed the house. After a while Nick damped the fire down for the night and he and his wife went to bed.
In another part of the town, Dr Frank A. Detrick was starting to go to bed after a hard day’s work, hoping no one would call him before morning.
By one o’clock all the lights in the town were already out except those in the all- night bars, the police station, and the telephone building where Mrs. Shirley Hanson, the night operator, was sitting at the switchboard.
Towards down a light flashed on her switchboard, “Number, please,” she said almost casually, as this was a routine job for her. But no one answered.
And open line in the daytime may simply mean that some house-wife, while cleaning the table, has by accident knocked off the receiver but late at night it can mean something serious. Mrs. Hanson listened carefully. She was sure that she could hear the sound of heavy breathing. Again she said, now louder, “Number, please!”
“Operator…….” It was a man’s voice. He gave a number, but Mrs. Hanson could not hear it clearly, because the voice was very weak. She waited excitedly, but no more sound was heard.
The operator happened to know that the call must have come from the telephone of Nick Pennino. She also knew that the number the man had so weakly asked for-a number frequently called late at night and always by worried voices – was the telephone number of Dr. Detrick.
She rang the physician at once. There is something wrong at the Pennino house in Elmer Street, Doctor,” she said. Then she called the police station and repeated her message.
Dr. Detrick hurried to Nick’s house, expecting to find that little Marjourie Pennino had suddenly fallen ill. When he reached the house, he was puzzled as he saw no lights in it. He rang the door-bell, but no one came. He rang again, but he only felt a deathly silence. He put his shoulder against the door and tried to break it. At that moment two policemen arrived, and the three men managed to break in.
The first breath of air from inside the house told Dr, Detrick what the trouble was. “Coal gas!” he said, “get the windows open!”
The physician ran upstairs, hoping that he was not too late. A man can hold out for a while against the gas from leaking coal stove; then he becomes un conscious and soon dies. The doctor turned on the light in bedroom. On the floor lay Nick Pennino. Beside him the receiver of his phone was hanging. His wife looked asleep.
The doctor’s first concern was for the child who lay motionless in her little bed. He examined her; Marjorie was still alive.
The doctor said to the policemen, “Carry this child down to the porch quickly!” Then he turned to the parents. They were still breathing. They too were carried down to the porch. Their lives were saved; help had come just to time.
One of the policemen went back to the bedroom to make the last check. He noticed the telephone receiver, which was still hanging. He picked it up and spoke to Mrs. Hanson, the operator. “It was the coal gas leaking,” he said. “They ‘re all right now, Thanks to you!”
An incident like this is not uncommon story in telephone offices, because all operators are trained to react quickly in every emergency, particularly when an open line brings only the sound of someone in trouble.
After a few years the story was forgotten except by the family concerned. They never forgot the accident, especially little Marjorie, whose parents told her, when she grew up, how the quick action by a telephone operator had saved their lives and hers.
In March 1949 Mrs. Mary Ferguson, a 62-year-old woman of the same town, Vineland, was sick in bed in her home in South Main Road. It was very cold outside, and the hot air heater in her home had been going all day.
Many calls were coming in at the telephone office that afternoon and the operators were busy. When one of them answered a call on her switch- board, no one replied. She repeated, “Number please!” There were still no answer but she could hear the sound of heavy breathing. Then a woman’s voice said weakly, “Operator… get Mr. Ferguson, my husband. I’m dying!”
As the operator was very busy answering several calls at once, she handed the switch over to her assistant, a pretty girl or twenty two years of age. The assistant quickly found the address of the Ferguson house and called the police. “There is an emergency at the home of some people named Ferguson in South Main Road, she said, “Hurry!”
She then tried to find Mr. Ferguson. Not knowing where he might be, she called back Mrs. Ferguson, whose weakening voice could only whisper, “Works… Howard Street…” The Assistant immediately started calling every firm in the street. Finally she found the husband.
A few moments later a policemen called from the Ferguson home. He told the assistant operator that they had found the elderly woman almost dead. The cause was gas from a leak in heating system. She had been saved just in time and was on her way to hospital in an ambulance. The Policeman congratulated the assistant on her quick action.
When Mrs. Ferguson recovered, she visited the assistant operator at her office and thanked her. She didn’t have to say much about how she felt, for the pretty assistant was Marjorie Peninno, whose own life, twenty years before, had been saved in exactly the same way…..