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Cold feet and new beginnings

Many of us begin the month of January by celebrating the start of a new year. We celebrate, visit and make resolutions to change our lifestyles for the better. (Well, as I said, "many." I will admit that I haven't ever made a New Year's resolution.)

We think of January as a month of new beginnings, of fresh chances and starts. The Earth herself must feel this, too: on Jan. 1, New Year's Day, we are 10 days past the longest night of the year. Every day there are more hours of daylight. By the end of January, we can really see and feel it.

When I am out in January weather, I appreciate my boots. Although they are old enough to be in the second or third grade they are in pretty good shape, with solid treads. They keep my feet warm most of the time. When my feet get cold I still feel lucky to have them and, as so often happens, a story comes to my mind. Distracted, I forget about the cold.

The story: It was during a cold January not long after I turned 18 that I walked the cold, wet sidewalks of downtown Duluth looking for a job. I had recently left school at the University of Minnesota Duluth, after an unsuccessful (a euphemism for mostly failed) quarter of college. My left boot had sprung a leak and my spirit was damp and cold as my feet.

As the sky darkened I made one last stop at the storefront personnel office of Northwestern Bell on Fourth Avenue West. The woman behind the desk didn't seem to notice that I was shivering, my nose was red and my fingers were stiff as I held the pencil to fill out the application and the aptitude test.

"This looks good," she said, eyeballing the test, "and we'll call you if we would like you to come in for an interview." The bedraggled wings of my spirit lifted ever so tentatively.

I rode the bus home with a neighbor lady, who asked me how college was going. I had to tell her. She said, so sympathetically, "O-hhh, so here you were downtown all day looking for work with a cold foot." We half-laughed. "You'll find a nice job," she said.

Miraculously, it seemed, she was right. Northwestern Bell called me for an interview and in that January of new beginnings, I was hired for my first real job, a toll (long-distance) operator. As Operator 36, I learned how to set up calls on the cord board, connecting mothers to their sons on Army bases, elderly shut-ins to the Busy Bee Market for grocery orders, shore calls to Great Lakes ships and frightened people with emergencies to the police and fire departments. (This was in the days before 911.)

I learned to work in very close physical proximity to the operators on each side of me, to cooperatively crisscross our cords over each other's work, to trade shifts and days off, to get to the switchboard five minutes early out of consideration for the operator I would replace. I learned to take pride in my work and I developed a work ethic (at times rather reluctantly, but I learned) as well as a respect for the honor of all work and workers.

When I was hired at Bell in 1969, the supervisor told me that I was learning a skill that would serve me well, that I would be able to find a job all the rest of my life. Ten years after that fresh start, that second chance, changing technologies closed switchboards down and operators were no longer needed. However, I found that what I had learned about work at Bell did, indeed, serve me well, in the diverse jobs I have had in the years after that. I am still Operator 36.

Monthly columnist Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, an award-winning writer and a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. Email her at lgrover@d.umn.edu.

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