My Life With a Lineman's Ticket
"I don't remember if it was in the fall of '78 or the spring of '79. Well, I do, but I've always wanted to start off a story that way. I'm old enough to talk like this, but I DO remember! So, here goes...
These are memories of my 45 years working in the Electric Power Field. Mostly as an Electric Journeyman Lineman climbing and building power lines across America. Traveling Linemen were called "Tramps". Many of my expressions, terms, tool names and actions are used only in the Lineman Trade. I will try to explain them as I go and try not to interrupt the stories. (Which, by the way, are mostly true) If any are not understandable to you, please Email me with the Link at the bottom and I will try to explain what I'm talking about. Deal???
In the fall 1977 I took a job offer at a Junior College in northwest Iowa. I had been working in the Oklahoma Panhandle but life there was getting a little sideways so I was ready for a move. Actually my father had found this job posting and encouraged me to try teaching. With 17 years in the Lineman Trade, I thought it would be a piece of cake! But after about 10 minutes of giving my introduction to the class, I had ran out of stories. Time to hit the books again!
At that time the Junior Colleges Lineman Apprentice Program was in a turmoil. The original 2 Instructors that had built this Program was holding out for money and had quit. I was hired as well as another old Tramp originally from New Mexico. He had lots of stories and had kept photo albums which helped him a lot. Whenever a Student would call "bullshit" to one of his stories, he had photos to show of his story. He lasted about 4 months and I lasted about 6 months which got me through the harsh Iowa winter staying warm mostly inside a classroom.
But I did spring a few surprise tests on the students. I drew up 3 transformers and said to draw in how to wire these 3 to get secondary voltages of 120/240 volts and also 120/208 volts all at once. I left a space at the bottom labeled COMMENTS. I said "Take these tests home and turn them in tomorrow." I found out later that they grouped up, ate pizza, drank beer and tried to work out the answer.
The next day they handed them in and started asking for the answer(s). I said I would grade them and let them know. At the end of the day I told them that everyone failed the test except for one student. Boy, were they upset! I told them that the passing student had written the comment "There is no frikkin' way that this will ever work!"
They said "Why would you give us a test that we would fail on and get a failing grade?" I said the lesson here is that just because someone demands something does not mean that you have to do it. You will have your life in your hands and the lives of others to protect. I said that this test would not go on their grades and they were OK with that. But they had a great discussion going on about what I did to them. And they carefully watched all other tests I made up to give them after that.
The Teacher's pay was a lot lower than what I was used to and getting paid monthly (instead of weekly) really sucks big ones! In the spring of 1978 I found a job in Des Moines, Iowa working on underground (UG) electrical installations for new housing tracts. I've always hated UG work, but when you're hungry you grab what's available. 40 hours a week was enough while working in the muddy housing tracts. I would check with the Union Hall every week waiting for a "Big Job" to break open.
Well, a "Big Job" finally broke and I was very happy. A 345,000 volt steel tower electric transmission line (345 kV) line was going to be built from Winterset, IA to Omaha, NE. Man, was I happy! Usually lots of hours per week and overtime would be in abundance. I had my old Chevy pickup with a camper shell on the back with a bed built in and I was ready to "Tramp" so more. I was one of the 1st Tramps to clear out of the Hall for this job. It didn't take me long to "drag up" from the muddy housing tract job!
As Winterset was less than 1 hour from Des Moines, I went there to check out places to stay. Winterset is about 5,000 population so I figured I would sleep in my camper some nights while there and just commute when I was working less hours or we got rained out. It was easy to spot the equipment already moved there, the "Show Up" gas station and the "Rain Out" bar as there was only one bar in town of any size. It was raining there, so naturally I went to the bar. I ran into 3 Operators that were moving the equipment from Topeka, KS to the job location. We spent way too much time in there talking about the Tramps we knew and before long it was dark outside. So I decided to just sleep inside my pickup camper shell.
Sometime after midnight there was a knock on my camper's door. I opened it and there stood a Sheriff's Deputy. I asked him what was up and he asked "Is that your can of beer on the dashboard of this pickup? I said "That's an empty can I use for an ashtray." He said "Lock up your pickup and come with me."
So I did. The next morning when another Deputy woke me up, he said "We just wanted to keep you overnight to make sure you didn't try to drive anywhere. There's no charges against you or any fines to pay. You can put your boots on outside here in the office." When I went out the Sheriff was in the office. He looked like an old timey type. Very fat and bald. He sat there watching me lace up my high top 16" West Coast Lineman boots. He said "You know, this is very strange to me! I haven't seen boots like that in years! But you have a pair and a guy in here 2 nights ago had a pair just like those." I said "Well, you'd better get used to them as the Hi-Line is going to go through your town!
I made it to our show up in time for the morning's tailgate. The new GF (General Foreman) Walt Bow introduced himself, gave us "The Talk" and said "We are gonna build some line now!" then looked directly at me and said "If this is OK with the Iowa Hippie". Well, I still had my winter growth on my head and face, and I replied "Maybe you don't remember me but we worked together in Kansas on several jobs. When he heard my voice his lights went on and he came over and shook my hand.
Then Walt called his new Foremen over to one side. As he was giving them directions, I called a new Grunt (Helper) off to the side. I gave him a grease gun and told him that our GF Walt's pickup's radio was getting off frequency. I said there was a zerk grease fitting under the radio and to give it 3 squirts of grease. Well, Walt was pretty protective of his new company pickup that had been given to him to make his trips home to Kansas easier. He kept it parked to one side, away from the equipment traffic.
As the new Grunt started walking towards Walt's pickup, Walt started talking slower and kept his eyes on him. When he reached for the door handle Walt yelled "Hold on! What are you doing with that grease gun?" The Grunt told him what zi said to do and Walt roared out "Where's that Hippie?" Needless to say I had wandered off out of his sight.
The steel poles had been set and concreted into the ground and finished the year before. The Crew I was on went out to check on the ingress and egress of the pastures and fields. Making sure the gates were in good shape and easy to open. Lots of times the farmers and ranchers like to come by behind us and tighten everything up.
As the Company had taken all of the Grunts signed up for work at the Union Hall, we were given permission to hire local people looking for work. I had one of these new Grunts fresh off of a farm. He had a real liking for anyone that looked like he might be a criminal and I guess I still had that "look". Soon he said to me "I know this is very personal and don't answer if you don't want to, but do you have a criminal record?" I said "Yes I do" and man, he was in hog heaven! For days he would fetch me coffee, cigarettes and even found me a cold beer or two as we worked together.
One day when we had stopped for lunch, he said "Can I ask you what is your prison record?" I said "I have Johnny Cash singing "Folsom Prison Blues". Well, that immediately stopped the personal special treatment and that night he asked our GF Walt to transfer him to another Tramp Lineman. Walt asked me how the new Grunt was working out and why he wanted to move. I told him what happened and he told me that I needed to cut back on my practical jokes! I said that it would go against my grain but I would try hard to be just like him when I grew up. He just shook his head...
I will end Chapter 1 here. As I said, please Email me by Clicking on "Feedback to Editor" for any questions you have or any explanations that will help my future Chapters.