Friday, August 26, 2011

Up Poles and Down Holes - as Hurricane Irene Approaches

This is a "hard hats off" tribute to the telephone and electrical linemen and construction workers who will pull hard duty over the next few days.  Most of us will never know how much easier our daily lives are, because they do their hard jobs so well.

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Until a couple of years ago I worked as an executive in a mid-sized company (about 1,200 employees in California and Kansas) that provided telecom services to its customers.  It was what is known as a bundled or multi-platform service of telephone, high-speed internet and cable TV.

Our workforce consisted of about 1/3 white collar workers and about 2/3 blue collar workers.  These latter employees were the true heroes of our workforce, at least as far as I was concerned.   They were the guys (and I use that gender because we rarely had a female lineman or outside construction worker) who "went up poles and down holes" for a living.

It was hard, dirty, dangerous work; they were a bunch of cowboys and we all knew it.  I liked them for their swagger, their bravado, and they needed it when they had worked sixteen hours straight through a storm, for seven days in a row.

As I watch the news on the approach of Hurricane Irene on the East Coast I just saw that the major power companies are already warning of power outages that may affect millions of customers and may last for several days.  Any time we hear this we all groan and think of the inconvenience to the customers, which is understandable.

What we rarely realize is that it also means thousands of tough guys are going to - literally - strap it on and head out into the worst of it as soon as it is at all safe to do so.  They will climb poles and ride cherry-pickers (the bucket trucks with the little baskets the repairmen sometimes works from) to the tops of trees, downed poles, partially downed poles with live wires still sparking; and they will only come back "to the barn" - the construction garage - long enough to reload the trucks with parts and equipment before heading out again.

Sometimes they have to go down ladders into CEVs (controlled environmental vaults) to work on the electrical panels that switch the calls for entire neighborhoods.  These can flood during bad storms and they have to go down into a combination of electricity and water - never a comfortable combination.  But they do it.

Sometimes crew members have worked together for so long they are like family to each other.  They are the coaches for each others' kids little league and soccer teams, they are scout masters for their scout troops, and they attend each others' children's weddings and sometimes their funerals, too.

I have watched big strapping linemen with twenty years on the job, with tears streaming down their faces when a co-worker fell to his death on a sunny day in a busy traffic intersection, with not a cloud in the sky.  We called in a grief counselor and these macho tough guys came into the office in droves looking for ways to cope with their loss - before they strapped it back on and headed out again.

Don't get me wrong, these guys are no one's martyrs.  They love what they do and often pass up promotions in order to stay in the field.  I worked with one supervisor who came to me and asked me to please help him unwind a promotion he had accepted to manager.

"Marsha", he said bleakly, "I hate these reports I have to generate, and I hate the ones I have to review even more.  And I really hate writing performance reviews for the rest of my team, guys I used to climb with.  My knees and back are still strong.  Please help me get back into the field where I can enjoy earning a living again."

We talked about potential downdraft to him from the superior who had recommended him for the managerial position, and we discussed that this could limit his promotional opportunities in the future.  He understood it all and still wanted to do it.

The day he was cleared to trade in his white dress shirt for a blue chambray work shirt and strap on his tool belt again was a fine day as far as he was concerned.  He stopped by my office to thank me more than once over the next few years.  He was still on the poles when I retired, and still happy to be there.

So this weekend as you read and watch the news, and hear about the power outages in the East, you might want to think a good thought or say a little prayer for the guys who go up poles and down holes for the rest of us.  We could not cook dinner, cool the house down, or even watch the news reports in some cases without them.

I so admire the work these folks do.  Until next time ...Marsha


  1. What a good blog and a tribute to those brave workers. They are indeed brave men doing that job. I imagine it must be hard to become a white collar worker after doing the field work.
    I hope Irene doesn't affect you too much.

  2. Great tribute to these hard working people! I am saying a prayer for them-

  3. Hey Marsha, I LOVED this post. These guys are special to me too. Yes, I was an installer/repairman and when Hurricane Fredrick hit Mobile in 1979, the place was a wreck.
    My boss asked for volunteers so after I talked it over with Jilda, I packed my bags and headed toward Mobile in a phone company caravan.
    I was there not quite a year. After several months, I came home, packed Jilda up, and loaded our German Shepard and went back.
    I spent days up poles. You're not supposed to do it, but I walked around in my climbers and ate lunch thirty feet above the ground.
    They guys there with me didn't whine, or complain, we just sucked it up and put that place back together line by line, house by house.
    The summer of 1980 was hotter than the devil in a mohair sweater, but we all survived.
    That last several months were making replacing the temporary lines we put up to get people back in service.
    So, I'll be thinking of those guys as the weekend approaches.
    Again, thanks.

  4. Hey Marsha, I gave you a little shout out on my blog tonight. I spring-boarded off your update for mine tonight....I hope that was OK.

  5. A very nice tribute to people who do a mostly thankless job. We only notice it when it's not there, but we need to think about it more often and be grateful.

  6. What an awesome post!! Thank you for reminding us of the 'real' people involved in this weather drama!

  7. A great insight and tribute to the linesmen.

  8. Thank you so much for reminding us of all the guys who keep us with electricity so we can do all the things we need and want to do....

    Prayers will be said for them during this storm.....