I wonder what he heard…

5e5ec6400e1dffc3bd7c224685e17ef1.jpgIt’s an innocuous wooden box. Approximately 3 1/2 feet by 3 1/2 feet and about 7 feet tall. The glass folding door in the front are hinged in the middle with small cast iron black hinges. The glass is old, with tiny bubbles in a few of the corners that tell its age. The old Bell Atlantic telephone that once hung on the pressed tin lined interior of the little box, was long ago returned to the company.

Once, in the 1920’s thru the early 50’s it was one of many that lined the south wall of the hotel lobby. This was the telecommunications hub of the hotel, and for the most part, the town as well. In the early part of the 20th century, telephones were not as common place as they are today, not every home had them. And those around Harpers Ferry that didn’t knew they could always place that phone call to whoever, from the hotel. Local legend has it that Alexander Graham Bell himself tested the Hotel’s phone system when it was

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photo of the Hilltop’s old phone booth, found in storage by the author

installed. (This is widely held as true in Harpers Ferry, although it can in no way be substantiated) Hundreds upon thousands of voices have spoken through the old plastic and metal devices that linked a nation. Thousand of fingers have spun the old rotary dial and listened to the “click click click” of the machinery sending a magic current down the line. Good news and ill warning alike were passed down the lines to whoever was waiting on the other end.

How many tidings of cheer were passed? How many words of comfort were shared? The old phone booth has, quite literally, heard it all. When the telephone was finally disabled, unplugged and taken out of service, the management decided to keep the old telephone installed. It was nonfunctional and totally decorative. People would still, however, go in the phone booth to use their cell phones and take a call in relative peace and quiet. The phone booth was comforting, in its way. a tiny oasis of calm and quiet in the busy lobby of the hotel.

Guests of the hotel have often had odd things happen to them when using the phone booth. It stayed in operation until the late 1990’s when cell phone technology became common place. Almost all would put it down to “old wiring” or something they couldn’t explain. Often I would hear people who had used the phone booth say things like, “it was so strange, I could hear someone whispering the whole time.” or “I don’t know who that was on the line but I think the wires got crossed somewhere.” In the everyday life of the hotel, that sort of thing wasn’t uncommon. The wiring WAS indeed old. Sometimes, lines DID get crossed. Yet, every so often, things would happen that just seemed…frightening.

One evening while working the graveyard shift at the hotel, a guest came down in quite a hurry at about 3:45 in the morning. He had a panicked look about him, clothes disheveled and hastily thrown on, his chin bore the stubble of one who had been awaken rudely.

“Sir?” I asked when his foot hit the lobby floor. “Is everything ok?”

He whirled on his heels and stared, wide-eyed, at me as if trying to register the new information of my presence. “Yes, fine, yes…I….I need to check out.” He said and slid a shaking hand across the table. The maroon diamond-shaped room tag bore the number “53”. I nodded, there really wasn’t any need for any explanation. I knew his room well. (a story that will be told)

“Yes, sir.” I grabbed his bill and gave him the pen to sign the tab.

He did so and scooped up his suitcase, which was almost comically stuffed with clothes. The poor man was trying desperately to schlep on his coat with one arm while holding his suitcase with his free hand. He turned to the phone booth, sighed, went in and closed the door. With a shrug I went back to my duties and wasn’t long before I heard him talking in the phone booth. I assumed the frightened man was using his cellphone to call a cab or make some other late night arrangements, which, when I looked I discovered I was right.

Then the old phone rang.

The antique bell inside the old pay phone’s body rang to life with a volume that startled me and made me jump a little, and the poor man jumped so hard the phone booth teetered in threat of falling over. The sound reverberated through the still lobby and seemed to get impossibly louder with each consecutive ring.

He picked it up with a shaking hand as I rounded the corner. “hello?” he half whispered into the receiver. I couldn’t hear what was said to him, but I did see his reaction. The color drained from his face in an instant and his eyes, flared open with unmistakable disbelief. He held the antique phone to his ear and gazed for long moments into the

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The Hilltop’s phone booth, found in storage by the author 2017

nothing between himself and the glass door.

 

Then he looked at me as if seeing me for the very first time. It took a long few seconds for him to realize I was there. Either that, or it took him those long few seconds to bring himself back to this world from whatever hell he was briefly transported to.  Without another word, glance or glimmer of human emotion the man stood and opened the phone booth door, picked up his bag and walked out of the lobby.

He waited on the front porch of the hotel for an hour or more before his cab finally arrived. No matter what I said, offered him or asked he simply stood there staring off into the distance waiting for his cab to arrive. When it did, he opened the door, threw his bag in and got in. The cab drove off into the breaking dawn.

I walked back into the lobby and made for the phone booth.

I didn’t need to inspect it, I knew it had been decommissioned years ago. But to this day I wonder what that poor, frightened man heard on the other end of that line. Whatever it was shook him to his core. And to be completely honest, it shook me to my foundations as well.

I often wonder what he heard…and wondered what I would have heard should it have rung for me.

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