In the 50s, it was customary to curtsy to the manager when you brought him mail. The most important tasks of a 15-year-old switchboard operator at the Vanaja vehicle factory were sharpening Colonel Tuompo’s pencils and making sure that the call to head office didn't break up, says 84-year-old Sirkka Grön.

Text: Otavemedia Photos: Sirkka Grön

In December 1951 my schoolmate heard that there would be a vacancy at the Vanaja vehicle factory. I went personally to apply for it and was interviewed by the office manager, Colonel Yrjö Tuompo. He was a colonel distinguished in the war and brother of General Viljo Tuompo, who was part of the Mannerheim Staff.

Sirkka Grön ja Ilmari Karttunen, Sata tarinaa Patriasta
During the festivities of the inauguration of the factory section completed in 1957, the Helsinki Police Department’s Band played lead by conductor Georg Malmsten. People in the photo Director Ilmari Karttunen and Miss Halme (now Grön).

“You know how to handle that kind of thing?” Tuompo asked me, pointing to a big telephone exchange cabinet in a glass booth. At the time, switchboards were similar to those in old black and white films, you had to connect calls by switching cables to different jacks. Of course, I had never seen one before, but I replied promptly that I’d learn. 

Of course, I had never seen one before, but I replied promptly that I’d learn. That's how, when I was 15, I became the switchboard operator of the factory

The workday at the factory began at 8:30 a.m., and every morning the first task was to sharpen the pencils and place them in order of length on the Colonel's pencil case. My work also included the delivery of internal mail, and when I took the mail to Colonel Tuompo, I always curtsied.

The switchboard operator’s job was to order calls from a government centre and connect calls to one of the plant’s 15 telephone lines. On the first day, a male voice called to the centre: “Order me the headquarters!” When I asked who I was speaking to, an impatient male voice replied: “Don’t you know me from the voice?” 

He was Ilmari Karttunen, Director of the plant, whom I had yet to meet. Our factory called the headquarters at Esplanade, Helsinki at least once a day. I had a list of those who had a right to call the head office and ordered calls in order of urgency and priority. It was important to make sure that the call didn’t break.

After three years, I got to become a typist, which I liked very much. I did well in that too, and I even participated in a speed typing competition. I very much liked that job, where I also learned how to do statistics and calculations.

Sirkka Grön ja Veikko Lehto, Sata tarinaa Patriasta
On the 25th anniversary of the Hämeenlinna factory, the decorations were awarded to those who had served 20 and 15 years in a banquet at Aulanko on 13 April 1968. People in the photo Veikko Lehto and Sirkka Grön.

Once, I had to leave as a substitute to pick up a month’s wages for all the factory staff, from the Bank of Finland Hämeenlinna branch office. I got the factory car and the driver, and I was told absolutely not to lose the cheque. This was a huge sum of money. When I got back to the factory, I had both the cheque and the money with me, and there was a bit too much money, too. Since the cashier at the Bank of Finland had not immediately taken the cheque, I grabbed it from the counter with me. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to do that because ordinary people didn’t use cheques back then. Someone then left to take the extra money and the cheque back to the Bank of Finland. The male cashier explained that he’d become flustered because a young, pretty girl came to pick up the money.

At any job, you learn new things by doing. I always happened to have senior employees as co-workers to learn from. I was involved in official assignments, for example handing out badges of honour, and when guests came to the factory, I took care of the service. In the early years, it meant I made the guests sandwiches, even if the Minister of Employment himself was visiting.

Once, I was taking care of the service for the board meeting, keeping company with the wives outside the meeting, and typing the memos as soon as the meeting was over. It was quite a job as the A4 paper was filled with with numbers, and the typewriter did not yet have a correction function at that time.

Over the years, I worked as a department secretary, secretary to various sales managers, and car sales secretary. The years went fast, the old coworkers retired, and the new engineers coming to the factory started to be my son's age too. I myself retired at 59. I am missing especially those early days as something nice always happened, and I was looking forward to every day at work.