Extra Goodies

Below are goodies that could not be included in the book due to space constraints. Enjoy.

Extra Goodies — Joe Engressia at Millington Telephone

Chapter 9 of Exploding The Phone talks about Joe Engressia's arrest and conviction for toll fraud in June 1971 and how, just a week later, he had four job offers. Engressia ended up working for the Millington Telephone Company in Millington, Tennessee, about 20 miles northwest of Memphis.

As the President of Millington Telephone, W. S. "Babe" Howard, put it, "With a brain like his, he should be in a phone research lab where he can capitalize on his hearing, but some companies don't hire the blind. Of course, if I spent billions of dollars setting up a foolproof system, I probably wouldn't want some school kid telling me how easy it was to break. But I believe I'd want him on my side."

"Whatever he thinks he can do, I'll give him a chance to try it," said Howard. "It will be interesting to see how far a blind person can go in this business."

Off to Millington

Engressia moved to Millington that July. He started work in the company's supply room, reconditioning old phones that customers had turned in, but that was a temporary gig until they could get a proper workstation set up for him: a makeshift test board for troubleshooting network problems. Engressia's friend Bill Acker recalls, "The trouble with Millington was it wasn't a large enough company to have much of a network to test."

Indeed, Engressia's "test board" was little more than a desk with a few phones on it. And while it may have been better than cleaning phones, it was far from the paradise he had hoped for. Acker, who talked to Engressia most every day back then, recalls, "It was tough for him there. For whatever reason he was very unpopular with the rest of the workers. They did not want him walking around the office, they expected him to sit in one place all day. They were afraid he would hurt his blind self or hurt the equipment, I'm not sure which. That was kind of stressful for him."

Engressia lived in a duplex house that he didn't much care for — the walls were thin and his neighbors were loud and sometimes threatening. His mail was delivered to not to him, but rather, to the Millington Telephone Company, something which grated on him. And his telephone service was provided by Millington, which refused to allow his number to be published in the phone book, apparently fearing that other phone phreaks would constantly be calling him. Acker says they actually put toll restrictions on Engressia's test board, to prevent him from making long-distance calls.

"I wanted to live in Memphis, that was where my heart was," Engressia says. "Up in Millington I was really lonely and stuff. I had put some ads in the paper for people to talk to — 'call the talk line' — I'd get all these conversations. That sort of gave me strength."

Engressia went to the Millington post office in February 1973 and told them that he no longer wanted his mail delivered to Millington Telephone. Instead, he would come into the post office and pick it up himself. While there, he mentioned to the postal clerk that Millington Telephone Company had been opening his mail. The post office was "a little upset" by this, Engressia remembers — so much so, he says, that they called Babe Howard at Millington Telephone to complain.

That afternoon, Engressia says, Howard told him that he had gotten "too big for his britches" and fired him. "A little later he sort of relented and said, you've got 30 days to leave. I said well, yes sir. But he ... came back said, I'll tell you what, how about we just pay you for the 30 days and you just leave today?" Howard later commented to a newspaper reporter, "We parted on friendly terms. Joe has a wonderful brain on him. But he'll talk to anyone. I guess he thought I was too restrictive. Once a guy called up and wanted to know what he'd have to do to tie up a whole phone system. Joe told him. He just trusted everybody."

"I called up a friend and he was all sad for me," Engressia says. "I was just happy. I said, I'm gonna go and celebrate! 'Cause I had kind of wanted to get out of there, but I didn't have the nerve to quit, because I knew once I did I'd have to move and everything."

And Back to Memphis

Engressia returned to Memphis on February 12, 1973. "It was like my resurrection," he says. He landed a job selling courses for AdvancEd Education, a correspondence course company. Of his Memphis digs he says, "It was my first real home. I had an apartment with a pool," and, best of all, "two lines in rotary," — 452-2103 and 452-2103 — meaning that his friends could call him on either telephone number and, if it was busy, the call would automatically ring on the other line. "A lot of the phone phreaks were calling me again, we had a lot of good conversations. I didn't make actual free calls, but I was kind of still active in learning about phones." His honesty extended to his actually singing his telephone number to the billing operator when he made long distance calls. Acker recalls that Engressia had two little ditties he would croon to the operator, depending on which line he was calling from: "Operator, will you put me through, my number's 452-2102," and "Operator, place this call for me, my number's 452-2103."

While in Memphis Engressia made the acquaintance of Charlie Miller, a security agent for the local telephone company. "He made friends with me ... I would help him and give him tips. He said, 'It's up to you. You know, you do something illegal, you'll be in trouble. But if not, it's up to you how we'll treat you.' I said, well, that's fair to me, I'm in total agreement. I told him different things that I would find out and everything, not turning in individuals, but at least some holes in the Memphis system or something and he'd get it fixed. We became kind of good friends."

Engressia moved to Denver in 1975 in the hopes of finding a job with Mountain Bell. Soon afterwards, he says, he lost track of Miller. "I didn't keep up. I kinda wish I would have. I kind of left Memphis and left it behind and didn't keep up with people like I should. Long distance was the problem, I couldn't really afford many calls."

Sources and Notes

Background material and all present-tense quotations are from author interviews with Joybubbles in 2006 or Bill Acker in 2011. Babe Howard quotes: "With a brain like his": [db29]; "Whatever he thinks he can do": [db939]; "It will be interesting": [db941]; "We parted on friendly terms": [db944]

Interesting: W. S. "Babe" Howard's obituary, 2008.