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"The Arcadia Dating Game," #2 Swapping Stories
Harold Talbert, Arcadia, Louisiana


Then, we had a central office here. That was so nice. Much better than anything they have now. All this progress that you young folks think you have, you're really going backwards on most of it. We had a central office here. Miss Sarah ran it.

Renée Harvison: What's a central office?

Harold Talbert: The central office was where they had a big old panel, with stick-in cords that they connected you. You didn't have to know a number. We didn't have any numbers. You just called up. You'd call and say, "Sarah, I want to talk to Dr. Bridges."

And she'd say, "Well, Harold, Dr. Bridges isn't in this morning. Mrs. So and So is having a baby, and he's gone. Dr. Wiley is in town over at his office if you want to talk to him." Or, "Doc Bridges will be back this afternoon at such and such time."

Or you could say, "I want to talk to Mrs. Smith," and Sarah would hook you up. So we didn't have to remember numbers, and we didn't have to have a book. Then, finally, and it had the most wonderful dating service in the world. We'd go somewhere and we'd see a girl. Like to the ball game in Homer. This is an instance that actually happened. We saw this girl up there. She was a cheerleader, and oh, she was so pretty. Had long, black hair. We didn't know who the girl was, but we played [the Homer team] in football.

So we decided the next morning. And as long as I live, I never called a girl from my house. My mother or daddy certainly wouldn't have objected, but it was an unwritten law. We didn't ever talk on the phone at home to a girl. We'd always go to the central office. Sarah--the operator--had a booth there. She had a little rail fence up right here [gestures]. Then all this equipment that she stuck things in, the connecting equipment, was here [gestures]. And the booth was over here [gestures].

And what was so nice about it, like, we didn't know this girl. So we go up to Sarah's the next morning. All the boys. We go up there. We spent Friday afternoons there. We had some chairs out on the porch. We'd wait out there while she was trying to get our call through to some girl in Ruston or Homer or somewhere. [Laughs.] And she'd take care of all this and call us to this phone in there. So we went in that day. We told Sarah, said, "Sarah, we were up to Homer to the game last night. And there was a girl there, a cheerleader or majorette or something."

We'd tell her what [the girl] looked like, describe her--what she had on and everything. And said, "We want to talk to her." So Sarah would get on the phone and call the central office in Homer. And, of course, she knew the lady up there. And she said, "Now, last night at that game, I got some boys down here who want to talk to this girl. They saw her up there last night. She's a cheerleader. Got long black hair."

Maybe the lady on the other end would say, "What was she wearing? What did she look like?" And such and such thing. Then she'd ask us and we'd get it all straightened out. And she'd say, "Oh yeah, I know. That's Dr. So-and-so's daughter." Or Mr. So-and-so. "Oh yeah, I know her."

She said, "Well, I got a boy here that wants to talk to her, and he's a nice boy." She'd tell her something about us. So she then would call the girl. The central office would get the girl on the line in Homer. [Laughs.] We'd get a date, see. It'd all be arranged. It was kind of like an introduction by people that knew you and knew them. It was a nice thing! [Laughs.] We'd come back. If we could get an accurate description of the girl, and what clothes she had on the night before, that's all we had to do for the central office in the other towns to know who she was. Then we'd call and Sarah would fix us up for the dates. Then she'd check back with us to see how everything went. It was nice.

Then later on we got a phone book. Got a number first. I believe before we got the phone book, it got to where you had to know the number. And got a book. And that wasn't too bad because it was printed in big, and it was just Arcadia's book. But then, now, the print keeps getting smaller and smaller and smaller. And now we've got Ruston, Grambling, Simsboro, Bernice. Everybody in the world in the phone book. You can't even find your town. You have to look for the town much less the number. If you're getting older, you got to get you some glasses or a magnifying glass. When you put your glasses down to dial your number, before you can get it all dialed you've forgotten it. Can't go back in and redial it again.

But here a few years ago, the phone service just got so horrible till--I don't remember what I was--but I called over at Ruston, and I said, "I tell you, this phone service is awful." And I said, "I don't mean this wrong, young lady. I'm sure you're a sweet lady and everything. But I want to gripe and I want to complain and I want to tell people what I think about it. And I don't want you to get offended because I know you just work for the phone company, but I am sick and tired of this damn telephone. I want to tell somebody about it!" So I says, "I want to talk to the supervisor."

She says, "Well, I'm going to give her to you." So she gets me the supervisor, and I start off and I'm just raising Cain and complaining. So finally, the lady says, "Who is this?"

I says, "This is Harold Talbert in Arcadia."

She says, "Harold, you know who you talking to?"

I says, "No I don't know who I'm talking to."

She says, "This is Sarah."

I says, "Oh my God, Sarah!" I says, "Oh my God!" [Laughs.] I says, "I didn't know what had happened to you. I didn't know you were over in Ruston now!"

She says, "Yeah."

We had a nice visit and reminisced about our old days at the central office. I was so much better now.

She says, "How are things at home? How are things in Arcadia?"

I says, "Sarah, to tell you the truth, they've been going downhill ever since we got rid of central office!" [Laughs.]


Notes to the Teacher: Harold Talbert's tales walk the thin line between the personal experience story and the tall tale. These reminiscences richly and lovingly illustrate the small-town backdrop for so many of the subsequent stories in this collection. Having sampled the 1930s as presented in Talbert's words, one can more easily imagine the world depicted by tall tale tellers Lonnie Gray, Bill Cox, and Jimmie Davis. A master at depicting the daily concerns of small town Louisiana, Talbert is also expert at pushing his accounts to the regions where fact and fantasy overlap. In the midst of delivering a vivid account of the role of the movie theater in his boyhood life, Talbert inserts the story of a boy so impressed by the lifelike quality of the cinematic experience that he shot the movie screen. A tale that begins in a sleepy town ends in frenzied flights from a man in a wild gorilla suit; a baptism nearly becomes a drowning. Because Harold Talbert's oral art makes his own life a tall tale, he draws on far fewer internationally distributed tale types than any of the other British-American narrators. Only two of his tales possess clear analogues in international oral tradition.


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