After graduating college, and pondering my next move, I took a job with Bell Telephone (as it was known in 1973) as a lineman. The company was leery (as well they should have been) of a recent college graduate entering the ranks of the line crew with a degree in hand since the majority of the guys went no further than high school. However, my mother’s 30 years with the company accounted for something and they reluctantly hired me. Their fear was not that I’d have more education than everyone (maybe a little of that) but that I’d leave early out of boredom.
They were right but, as it turns out, I took a very non-boring approach to my work.
Before departing Ma Bell for the wild west, a year and a half later, I garnered quite a reputation for flirting with danger. Not that you had to try hard to accomplish that when the job itself is considered one of the most dangerous out there. You climb dizzying heights with nothing but a couple of spikes strapped to your legs, you hang off a belt that’s the only thing between getting work done and doing a backward somersault from 35 feet, you swing like a chimp when you have to, you toy with massive pole tensions, you dare the power lines to turn you into a slice of burnt toast and, basically, run for the hills whenever something goes south.
I swear it wasn’t my fault but there were a couple of incidents that gave me the reputation of trouble incarnate. I’d had a few close calls with something that nearly all lineman go through, ‘cutting out’, the act of the climbing spike breaking away from a rotted wooden pole, dropping the climber like a rock from whatever height. In one episode I’d cut out at about 35 feet in the dead of winter, saw my life pass before my eyes and landed, to my shocked relief, like a cat in a 6 foot snow drift, completely unharmed. Another time I’d, only minutes before, climbed a pole, loosened the tension on a cable, climbed down, walked about 15 feet away only to watch the pole suddenly jerk and snap in half like toothpick.
So shit could definitely happen.
What got everyone’s attention though was an episode where we were doing something called ‘wrecking’. This is the simple but deceptively dangerous task of removing old equipment that was either damaged or obsolete and included mostly cable and the poles themselves. Moving in teams of two, we’d set the truck up next to the pole and one guy would operate the winch arm while the other guy would wrap the steel winch cable around the trunk of the pole (guessing as to where it would balance the weight when it was pulled out of the ground) and then the winch operator would shake the pole slightly while hydraulically pulling upwards and slowly remove the pole to where the ground guy could grab hold and steer it to the pole trailer for later disposal.
It was a tricky operation and took some skill to do well and I figured I was fairly good at it. Even so there were unknowns that could surprise you. One day, partnered with a fella nick-named ‘Sully’, we were out in the sticks wrecking some very large old cedar poles. These things had been in the ground for such a long time that they were not only difficult to remove but we had no idea, even with the traditional testing methods, of knowing what damage might lie just beneath the ground line.
One pole did not want to go quietly into retirement and Sully kept realigning the winch cable while I tried to shake it loose from the ground. All I could do was keep shaking the winch arm, hoping to edge it out inch by inch. At one point in the pulling process the pole suddenly broke away at ground level and went straight up into the air like one of those old Mercury-Redstone rockets in the 1960’s newsreels.
The only thing that prevented it from going into orbit was the winch line that held it at its apex, temporarily stopping it in midair, until the top of the pole, in slow motion, began to lean and fall. I’m trying to figure out where the pole would come down and ready to flee the scene of the crime but, looking at Sully, I realized that he had neglected to run like hell, still frozen right at the spot of the pole’s departure. Seeing it was going straight for him, I yelled “run you sonuvabitch, run!”, but he never made a move until right before the pole came down and then it wasn’t quite enough.
The pole barely glanced off the back of his helmet and he fell back, wobbly-kneed, into a ditch like one of the 3 Stooges had whacked him in the head with a pipe wrench. As I jumped off the truck and ran to him I quickly thought, ‘well that couldn’t have been too bad, it barely got him’ and I even thought his lying there in the ditch was a big joke and he’d jump up with a ‘got ya’ when I arrived…until I got close enough to see his eyes rolling back into his head like a casino slot machine. What my brain couldn’t comprehend from a distance was that this was tons of wood literally flying through the air and even a glancing blow would be incredibly powerful.
“Sully…Sully, are you OK?” (groggy, eyes still rolling, incomprehensible responses)
By now, another line crew had stopped to help and we had an ambulance on the way and I had to explain the circumstances of the accident to my line supervisor (this wasn’t the only time I had to do that). As we inspected the fallen pole we realized that this particular behemoth, nearly 5 feet around at the break point, was almost completely rotted at the base and what held it at all was a piece of wood no bigger than your fist.
In case you were wondering, Sully lived and we toasted his disability income at a local bar a few nights later but, for some reason, I was branded a crew killer and the day after the big accident, the guy that was assigned as my new partner expressed tremendous reservation as we began another day of wrecking the deadly cedar poles. He imbued me with the power to maim mankind with a telephone pole, a rather awkward instrument of annihilation if I were going to choose one, eh?
I reassured him that while accidents happen, lightning rarely strikes twice in the same spot so I thought my winch boom and I were safe to be used for good. On top of that, we weren’t wrecking those giant cedars but a much smaller garden variety, closer in size to a big fence post than the traditional utility pole.
Now I know what you’re thinking; “Hey crew killer, you wouldn’t still be typing if something untoward hadn’t happened once again.” Is that what you think? Because if it is…why I’d have to give you points for paying attention since no sooner had I given my new cannon fodder, er, partner some reassurance than one of those old poles snapped off its base and took off like a bullet into the air. The only difference this time was that a forewarned teammate never hesitated and ran like a crazy ballplayer sliding into home plate headfirst to avoid the tag.
He too, lived…although being a smaller and quicker hunk of wood, it barely missed him even with all the running.
Eventually, I was plucked off of the regular crews and reassigned a more genteel line position with my own truck and list of non-threatening jobs to do. They even tried promoting me, against my will, into management, supervising an entire crew laying underground PVC pipe along roadsides, a job so deadly boring that they didn’t even bother giving me instruction as to how to read the blueprints or what I was supposed to be supervising. Apparently, my college education was supposed to give me special prescience into a job I’d never even heard of.
After a day of doing nothing, I had my union rep get me out of the promotion and back with my slightly nervous peeps.
Until my eventual departure, I climbed ladders, did some soldering, got my work done early, wrote songs in the truck and bided my time, never again to wield the mighty power of the flying telephone pole.