Tech Horror

Switchman Craig (Tech Horror #1)

This happened outside of Chicago back in 1983. The area surrounding Chicago was kind of a special place back then, to Bell. The first production ESS deployment happened not too far from Chicago, and Bell Labs had a big presence in Naperville-Lisle. There was a big telephone culture everywhere in that area. Eggheads from the Labs drank at Harvey's in Naperville, and the technicians from around my area drank at The Bucket. I met Craig at The Bucket one night, and it turned out that not only was he a telephone guy like me, but also that he was being assigned to my switching office, starting the following Monday.

Craig jumped right in to switch maintenance. Our office had a crossbar switch -- ESS wouldn't permeate to the smaller towns for a long time. Craig had spent years not only on crossbar, but also the stuff that came before it. He was pretty close to retirement age and had seen a lot. He'd worked for the phone company in one way or another since he was out of high school, and he'd often say that he 'grew up with Bell'. Craig loved the phone system and its intricacies, and was one of the sharpest techs I've ever met.

I don't know if you've ever been around a crossbar switch. They look like just about any switch, with rows of equipment racks spanning the length of the switching room. They have a very unique sound. There's disorderly clicking that changes in tempo and intensity depending on the amount of circuit traffic. At 3AM on a Monday you'd hear a few clicks once in awhile, almost like a mouse or something were loose in the equipment. On Christmas morning the sound was deafening and it was hard for anyone to be in the switching room at that time. There were a few different pitches of click, depending on what equipment was switching. The chaotic clicking is like the audio equivalent of video static. If you turn an old TV to a dead channel you get an essentially random jumble of black and white. If you stare at that long enough you start to see patterns. Same for the crossbar switching noise -- if you sat with your eyes closed and listened, you'd start to hear words or even music. All the switch techs then had experienced that. There's a few videos on Youtube with crossbar noise if you're interested in hearing what the switch sounded like.

Craig and I worked night shift together, just the two of us. We weren't great friends, but we were cordial. We'd hang out at The Bucket together on Saturday nights. He was at our shop for about a year before he started getting a little bit strange. First let me set the scene a little bit. This was well before the Internet and cell phones. When we weren't working on a ticket we'd read books, or talk and joke around. We had a little TV in the switching room but nobody could hear it over the clicking and the rack coolers. Craig liked to sleep on shift. I didn't mind it. He was close to retirement and had put in his dues with Bell. If I needed him for something I'd wake him up, and he was always eager to help.

After about a year Craig stopped talking as much, and stopped sleeping on shift. Most of the time he'd spend all night sitting halfway down one of the rows, just staring at a rack, listening to the clicks. He'd do that for hours, nearly every night. This went on for months. Eventually he even stopped responding to me when I'd go get him for something. I'd have to grab him and shake him to get him to realize I was there. At that point I was doing most of the maintenance myself. I started to get frustrated with Craig, and I even considered reporting him. Maybe I should have.

On December third, 1983, I came to work early and Craig was already in front of the rack. Staring. Listening. Click, click, click, clunk. I came close to losing my temper that day. I took a deep breath and sat in front of the TV that I couldn't hear. The switch was real noisy that night because it was Saturday.

Click. Clunk. Click. Clunk.

Beep.

A switch alarm went off. I called out to Craig a couple of times to get him to help me troubleshoot whatever was going on. He couldn't hear me over the switch, but I screamed at him anyway, out of frustration.

Click. Clunk. Clunk. Click.

I slammed my Coke down on the table and walked back to the row where Craig always sat. I dropped to my knees at the end of the row. Craig was face first into the rack, and there was blood everywhere. I just kneeled there for a minute. Then I got up and walked over to him. When I got closer I saw that his face and head were sufficiently mangled to pretty much assure that he was dead. I ran out to the hallway and called the cops.

Craig was indeed dead. I obsessed over it for awhile, and kept working night shift (though the company urged me not to.) I started sitting in front of that rack myself. I started doing research. I don't know if you've ever had something like this happen to you, but it makes you a little obsessive. You want to figure out why. Even if there is no why.

It turns out for Craig, there was a why. I figured out that one of the line cards in the switch rack he'd died in serviced the line of his ex-wife. It turns out she'd messed him over pretty bad several months before, about when Craig first started sitting in front of the rack. All that time Craig sat there he was looking at his ex-wife's line card, letting the clicks get into his head. Letting his head get into the clicks.

...

Several years later we decommissioned the switch. I was watching the movers pack up the crossbar, getting ready to send it to some developing nation. When they wheeled away the rack Craig had died in, I followed them outside. They left it next to their truck and walked back into the office. I stood there looking at the rack for awhile. It wasn't connected to anything. There was no power to it. But I know I heard it.

Click. Click. Clunk. Click.