Oysterback, Maryland. -- Now it's all done by computer from a box in the town office in Wallopsville, but for years, Mrs. Eunice Dreedle ran the telephone company from the back of the funeral parlor.
The D.W. Dreedle Memorial Telephone Company is one of those tiny independent companies Bell used to allow to exist so the government couldn't call them a monopoly, which it was anyway. These days, everyone and her brother has got their own phone company, but for a long time, Dreedle was one of a handful.
We didn't get telephones out here till after Pearl Harbor. 'N Roosevelt got the power up out here on the WPA, but it was old Doc Dreedle, the undertaker, who set up D.W. Dreedle Memorial Telephone Company in memory of his son.
When their son was shot down by a Japanese sniper on some atoll in the Pacific so small it didn't even Oysterback Tales
have a name, Doc decided he had to do something so Eunice would be able to occupy herself. D.W. was their only child, you see.
Eunice was blind. Had been since she was little. Lost her sight in a firecracker accident one Fourth of July. But it came to Doc to start up the telephone company in their house, which was also the funeral home, and make Eunice the switchboard operator. He had the funeral parlor in the front rooms, and she ran the phone company out of the butler's pantry in the back.
Eunice might not have been able to see, but that woman could hear. They say she could hear a bird singing in the marsh grass 10 miles away. Musical? That girl could pick up any instrument and play a tune, just like that. But it was her own voice that was her best instrument, a coloratura as smooth as buttercream. She knew all the operas, could sing all those fancy arias. When she launched into "O Patria Mia," the toughest old watermen would get teary-eyed. Miss Eunice could have had a career as an opera singer, if she hadn't married Doc and settled down in the West Hundred.
But she didn't, she married Doc instead. So she sat in the butler's pantry, plugging in those blacksnake lines by touch and feel, saying "Number, please" in that musical voice, and ringing down the party lines, connecting us to the outside world with a strand of sound.
It was Miss Eunice who got on the line and warned the West Hundred that Hurricane Wanda was heading our way. She could hear the wind changing direction and roaring up the Bay just by the way the phone lines over the marsh clicked and whined, a hollow, echoing sound. People who could see couldn't hear it coming, not the way Miss Eunice could.
The sun was shining and the birds were singing, but that night, Wanda plowed up the Devanau with a 10-foot chop and winds so strong they lifted boats out of the water and houses off their foundations, tossing them around like toys. Floods floated the coffins up from their graves, and set the Leerys' chicken house down on the roof of Faraday Hicks' tractor shed. That was Hurricane Wanda that Miss Eunice heard coming.
Being as how D.W. Dreedle Memorial Telephone was about half jury-rigged, all held together with electric tape and baling twine, and was down about as often as it was up, people never knew what would happen when they used the telephone. You could ask for Omar Hinton's store, and Miss Eunice would plug you in, but you might end up talking to someone you'd never even heard of all the way up to Tolchester Beach.
The party line might give out your ring, two long, one short, and you'd pick it up and find out it was for Little Miss Buck, the church organist down the road. Ferrus T. Buckett would never tell anyone what happened to him, but he ripped the thing out of the wall in 1963 and refused to have another one in his house.
But even he didn't blame Miss Eunice. Like the rest of us, she did the best she could with what she had to work with, and with Bosley Grinch and Wilbur Rivers only checking the lines out there during trapping season, what could you expect?
When they found the lump in the back of Doc's neck and sent him up to Hopkins, he wouldn't let Miss Eunice go up with him. Was afraid she'd do herself a hurting, blind as she was, in a strange city with no one to help her. The surgery was touch-and-go there for a while, and Doc was in the hospital for a good long time after that. The doctors -- the real doctors -- weren't sure he would make it at first. Doc was in bad shape.
But every night, Eunice would call him up in his hospital room, and sing to him over the phone. You could pick up the headset about 9 o'clock at night, when it was real still and quiet, and hear her voice, that beautiful bel canto soprano, singing all his favorite opera songs to him over the party line, like a concert.
If you happened to be walking around town at that hour of the night, you could hear her all over town as people picked up their phones just to listen to that beautiful voice singing "Un Bel Di" and a lot of other songs no one knows the name of, but everyone knows the tune to.
Old men who couldn't carry a tune in a croaker sack and wouldn't know Puccini from Punch Point would listen in. Little kids would be lulled to sleep on that voice. Tired housewives, sprawled in their chairs of an evening, could feel the weariness rising from them when they heard Miss Eunice sing. Nobody understood the words, but they understood the beauty of that voice.
And as Miss Eunice's voice traveled across the marsh on those lonesome lines, flying through the air all the way up to Baltimore, it must have picked up everyone's good wishes for Doc's speedy recovery and carried them along up to that frightened old man alone and ailing in a strange bed in a city of strangers. Don't you know Doc came home on the ferry the next week?
Well, those fancy doctors up to Hopkins could have called it a miracle if they liked, but what healed old Doc Dreedle was the sound of his wife's clear soprano voice, carried over those old phone black lines across the marsh and up to Baltimore. All they had was each other, you see, and the sounds of love that bound them together.
Helen Chappell is the amanuensis of Oysterback.