It's one hell of a way to get ahold of somebody. But more than twenty years after US West assigned a devilish prefix to telephone users in the towns of Louisville and Lafayette, the communities are still getting their kicks dialing 666.
Over the years, the numerical sequence has inspired some devout local customers to demand new phone numbers from Ma Bell and has drawn double takes down at the chamber of commerce. After all, the Book of Revelation in the New Testament links 666 to Satan, and fears about its harmful spell have been expressed by everyone from Oklahoma librarians to former president Ronald Reagan.
Most telephone users in Louisville and Lafayette, however, have made peace with the prefix--including half a dozen local churches that can be reached only by dialing the number of the beast. And in recent years, the digits have even emerged as an unlikely badge of honor for some customers.
Just how long has US West used the exchange? "Ever since we all started worshiping Satan," says company spokesman Jeff Garrett, who immediately begs forgiveness for the quip. Actually, he explains, the prefix has been around at least since the 1960s, and it now serves about 6,500 US West customers.
To Garrett's knowledge, the prefix's infamous implications have never been an issue. "I think a number is a number is a number," he says. "I don't think they talk anywhere in the Bible, at least not the Bible I read, about 'Thou shalt not have 666 as a prefix.'"
As demand rises for new phone lines to serve fax machines, modems and Internet browsers, Garrett notes, US West is hesitant to brand any prefix off-limits. But should customers fear being led down the wrong path on the information highway, "we would try to find them another," he says.
According to Gary Robbins, pastor of the nondenominational Bible Chapel on Louisville's Main Avenue, a number of local residents have declined to let the Devil's fingers do the walking. "Some of the Christians in the area have refused to take that as their phone number," says Robbins. The pastor adds that he, too, was initially taken aback by the prefix. "I wasn't real comfortable with it, personally, when I first had to deal with it," he says. "But then I thought, 'That's just a phone number.'"
Robbins says he and his flock have come to accept that routing calls to the church via 666 isn't anything to worry about. The Bible does talk about not taking the mark of the beast, he notes, "but that wouldn't involve a telephone number--it's clear that would be on the back of the hand or on the forehead."
Gene Caranci, executive director of the Louisville Chamber of Commerce, says he's unaware of any 666 controversy. "No one has ever said anything," he insists. But Caranci's civic counterpart, Lafayette Chamber of Commerce boss Vicki Trumbo, reports receiving a few less-than-angelic responses when giving out the chamber's phone number.
"I didn't know this had any relationship to anything until I made a call one day at the chamber," Trumbo recalls. "I said, 'Let me give you my number,' and the person was just horrified. He said, 'That is just disgusting. You should have your phone number changed!'"
Other callers have since expressed similar sentiments, says Trumbo, who admits to having only a vague understanding of what all the fuss is about. "It's something about the Devil and Satan," she says.
Specifically, it's about Revelation 13:18, which, in describing a beast coming out of the earth, includes the passage, "Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six."
Biblical scholars have debated the significance of the passage, some taking it to mean that 666 is literally the essence of evil, others arguing that it simply means man's number is lower than God's, commonly thought of as seven.
But some people find little reason to doubt the number's sinister properties. In Oklahoma in 1994, supporters of a tax hike for libraries staged a public protest when penny-pinching legislators chose to label their proposal State Question 666. In London, authorities have stopped giving out license plates bearing 666 because the numbers caused traffic tieups. And after moving from the White House to a home at 666 St. Cloud Road in Bel Air, California, an outgoing President Reagan--reportedly at the insistence of his wife, Nancy--demanded that the street address of the palatial residence be changed to 668.
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Not everyone seems to mind being associated with the triple whammy. When authorities in Arizona changed the designation of old U.S. Highway 666 to Route 191 in 1992, merchants along the road reacted as if someone had burst their Beelzebubble. "We like our old Devil's Highway," one business owner told the Arizona Republic. "The fact they called it 666 didn't bother us one damn bit."
Back in Colorado, the availability of a prefix with such instant recognition has yet to draw opportunistic clients such as the Devil worshipers in one California city who reserved the number 666-EVIL for their use. But that doesn't mean it isn't appreciated. According to longtime Louisville bartender and current U.S. Senate candidate Paul Weissmann, the 666 prefix has actually come to enjoy a certain cachet.
Because of rapid growth in the northern suburbs, people with the now-longstanding 666 prefix are instantly identifiable as old-timers, notes Weissmann. "If you've got 666, you're not just one of these people that moved in," he says. "I don't know if I'd call it status, but that's essentially what it's become.