By Steven Shepard, Contributing Columnist
I sat on a plane the other day with Walter Axe, 99 years old and a happily-retired former telephone company engineer, on the way to see his newest great-granddaughter. During the three-hour flight, Walter regaled me with stories of his life in the Bell System.
He joined the company in 1931, fresh out of the Army. He dug ditches, put up poles (often using teams of horses), ran wire, worked in the switch room, and ultimately ended up in Illinois, where he found himself in, as he describes it, “the best job in the world.” Intrigued, I asked what the job was.
“I was a destruction engineer,” he smiled, with the most diabolical twinkle in his eyes. He did everything but rub his hands together, like Dr. Evil. “What,” I asked, puzzled, “is a destruction engineer?” he slapped his legs with his hands, laughed, and began to explain.
“My job was to break stuff,” he began. The Bell System was all about service, and our service quality depended on our plant. If we didn’t have ruggedized equipment, it couldn’t stand up to the harsh environments we put it in, and it would fail. So my job was to push it to its physical limits to make it better.”
So, I asked him what that entailed. “All of my colleagues who did normal jobs had their tools – pliers and screwdrivers and hammers and wrenches and electrical equipment and testing apparatus. Well, I had mine too. My tools were crossbows, shotguns, hunting rifles, bales of hay, drums of kerosene, a fleet of vehicles with different bumpers, giant saws, a couple of hoists that would lift equipment up to six feet and drop it on steel plates or concrete, buckets of caustic bird poop, a giant freezer that would create Arctic conditions, a machine made in Spain (how appropriate) that would stretch cable and wire to its breaking point like a Medieval torture machine, a gas-powered battering ram, and a big press that would simulate dead weight up to 10,000 pounds. And I had a staff of six people and five acres.”
I had to hear more about this, obviously. So I asked him what a typical day was like. “Well, they were always different. Our job was to test the survivability of field equipment and the enclosures that protected it. You know those big green or silver boxes that you see in fields on street corners that belong to the phone company? Well, those boxes protect the electronics inside and our job was to make sure they really did.”
He continued, “So we might get a new box into inventory, and before it got deployed in the field we had to make sure it would survive a certain amount of heat for so many hours without damage. So we’d put it out in our field, bury it in hay bales, soak ‘em in kerosene, and set the whole thing on fire. We’d let it burn for hours with sensors inside the box.”
The Telco Demolition Derby
He chuckled, remembering a career of science experiments. “We had all kinds of fun. We’d string cable between poles and put a splice box in the middle, then spend the afternoon shooting it with guns and crossbows to see how much abuse it could take before we’d lose the signal going through the wire. Or we’d freeze electronics to see how cold they could get before they’d fail. Or we’d cook ‘em in ovens. But my favorite was when we had to test the big boxes that would be installed on street corners. We’d line up six or seven of them and then take turns ramming them with our fleet of vehicles to see how many times we could hit them before the bolts would break and they’d come off the concrete platform. It was great fun.”
“And you got paid for this?” I asked him, a look of wonder on my face. “Absolutely,” he chuckled. “Best job in the world.”
I guess. Alexander Graham Bell meets Dennis the Menace.