Perspective | What Happens When a Telephone Operator Receives a Bomb Threat? He Learns Insurance Is in His Blood
Make your own destiny, the Greeks used to say, but it doesn’t often work like that.
I wanted to be Sherlock Holmes; instead I am the Dr. Watson type. I wanted to be Robin Hood; instead I am Friar Tuck. Batman; the butler Alfred. I wanted, more than anything, to be James Tiberius Kirk, captain of the USS Enterprise; instead I am some doofus in engineering.
The one thing I didn’t want to be — then or now — is an adult. I became one irrevocably the day I answered the phone at the life insurance company where I worked.
I was new to the business world in a very junior role. Everyone called me “Woodgate,” which was my predecessor’s name. As part of my duties, I filled in on the switchboard when the regular operator had to go out. (Younger readers: Telephones once required cables, which were routed through a switchboard, which required a manual operator. “Here’s your Florida call, Mr. Whitmore,” that sort of thing.)
Mostly, I plugged in wires connecting incoming or outgoing calls to relevant parties when the receptionist was at lunch. It was undemanding work. I used to read while waiting to be needed.
One day, I answered an outside line. A voice said: “There’s a bomb in your building,” and hung up. It was possible: A number of financial institutions in the London financial district had recently been bombed.
I was just a kid. I’d been reading a cowboy story and suddenly lives depended on what I did next.
It’s odds-on that I was fighting a fierce hangover at the time. I should have panicked. Run screaming into the street and never worked in insurance again. Or reinsurance, just to be on the safe side.
Or, perhaps more logically, I might have thought: “Who would want to plant a bomb in an insurance company?” and gone back to the adventures of the outlaw Jesse James. Now that I’ve learned a little about insurance, I know many people who would like to blow up an insurance company, but I digress.
People’s worth can only be correctly calculated by their reaction under pressure. To my amazement, then as now, I retained my composure. I plugged in the wire that went to the managing director and told him who I was and that a bomb threat had been received.
Occasionally, they don’t put dimwits in charge, and luckily this was one of those times. “I’ll clear the top three floors,” he said, “you do the bottom three.”
Up I went to the third floor and calmly worked my way through the offices, chasing everyone out. I told two guys to pass through the second floor on their way out and inform everyone there. I then went to the first floor and emptied it out.
It was as if I knew what I was doing.
There was no bomb, and after the police gave us the OK, we all went back to work assuming other people’s risks. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I’d done by not fleeing the building at the first opportunity.
Insurance, it seems, runs deep in my adult blood. &