Powering Strong Communities

A Life on the Line

Editor’s note

The following is a fictional short story submitted by a retired public power line worker. The events and views presented in the story are the author’s own.

By C. Earl Botkin

The night air felt cool, which was unusual for mid-July in Kentucky as Samuel Arthur Carter wearily stepped out of his well-used Bracken City service truck. The short boom appeared ready but equally as tired from the extended workday. Sam quietly unlocked the front door to his house and gently walked up each creaking step until he reached the upstairs level where his family lay sleeping.

Hearing a rustling sound, he turned to see his five-year-old daughter, Mary Ann, sleepily reaching her arms out for him to hold her.  
She said, "Mommy told me not to, but I waited up for you anyway, Daddy."

Smiling tiredly, Sam hugged Mary Ann and carried her back to her room. He tucked her in and gave her a light kiss on the forehead.

Mary had inherited many of his physical features, but she had her mother's eyes and personality. Thank God for that, he thought. One chronically insecure person in the family was enough.

As tired as Sam was tonight, his mind just would not shut down. Just as his regular 10-hour shift had ended, a reckless 17-year-old slammed into an angle pole with his brand-new red pickup truck. He not only broke the pole, but he also succeeded in knocking out electrical service to over 400 homes — including a factory that had to cancel the entire evening work shift, probably without employee pay.  The fact that the teenager’s truck was new, while his was over 11 years old, made Sam feel inadequate.

“How the hell do other people do it?” he almost said out loud.

Working as a lineman for a municipal power system certainly had its rewards, but money was definitely not one of them.

Sam's wife Veronica stirred irritably as Sam, restless, tried to fall asleep. A quick glance at the nightstand clock showed that it was approaching three o'clock, and he was usually up by six.

With two hours’ sleep and a quick shower, Sam made his way downstairs to find his family al-ready having their morning breakfast. He selected a bowl from the open dishwasher, not knowing or caring whether the dishes were clean. Seeing his family going through their daily routines gave Sam a much-needed lift from his rotten mood — if only momentarily.

Fourteen-year-old Joshua was sullenly picking at his half-empty bowl of cereal while glancing irritably at his mother. Witnessing this, Sam gloomily said as he sat down in his usual spot, "All right Joshua, out with it — what's wrong?"  

Glancing up, Joshua said, almost crying, "Look Dad, school will be starting in a few weeks, and all I have done is babysit Mary all summer. Lukas and his family are going to Disney and Lukas has asked me to go with him. Mom says no.”

"We crossed this bridge last night, Joshua," interrupted Veronica firmly while sitting down next to Sam, "and the answer is still no. We went to my mother’s last month and spent four days camping at the lake, so we’ve already had our vacation.”

Joshua's glare told his parents what he thought about his mother’s remarks, and Sam knew that this subject was far from finished.

Changing the subject, Veronica said excitedly as she touched Sam’s arm, "Oh, by the way Sam, a trucker left me a $20 tip yesterday. I used it to top off the car’s gas tank before I came home.”  

Sam's grumpy mood suddenly deepened. Veronica had been working as a waitress at the Bracken Fuel Stop for six months after losing her customer service job at the farm store when it closed. Sam didn’t like her working there, but the three nearby factories had not hired or expanded for years, and jobs were just plain scarce in Bracken City.

Sam looked at his watch, kissed Mary Ann on the forehead for the second time that morning, and headed for his truck that was waiting patiently in the driveway. He surveyed the muddy truck interior and recalled the previous night's work.  His back muscles still ached, and his head hurt from lack of sleep.

"I'll need a shovel to clean this cab out," he mumbled to himself.

Sam then backed his truck out of the driveway, and unknowingly, began a day like no other he would ever experience.

At the same moment Sam was having breakfast with his family, his coworker, Michael Montgomery, was having breakfast with his. Sam and Mike were not only bucket buddies, but also the closest of friends. Although Mike was 67 years old to Sam's 38, they both had started their careers at Bracken City Power 18 years ago on the same day. Mike had previously worked for a large investor-owned power company and had accumulated a great deal of knowledge during his career. Sam, on the other hand, was a new apprentice. On their very first day, Mike took Sam under his wing and became his personal instructor and mentor.

This morning found Mike running slightly behind schedule. He had worked the same pole accident as Sam the night before, and, at 67, he knew that work wouldn't stop if he happened to be a little late.  

Sharon, his four-year-old granddaughter and youngest of six grandchildren, watched as Mike laced his boots and said, “Poppy, are you going to the movies with Grammy and me tonight?”

Feeling derelict he said, “I sure will pumpkin, unless some problem erupts at work again.  Grammy knows that happens sometimes.”

The plan last night was for the three of them to go out to eat and then take in the Disney movie Sharon wanted to see. Unfortunately, that plan was changed by a careless teenager with more truck than he could handle. Tomorrow afternoon, Sharon’s mom would drive down from Cincinnati and take Sharon home. This always saddened Mike, even though he saw Sharon often.

Peggy Montgomery said without smiling as she filled Mike’s travel mug with coffee, “Yes, I certainly know about cancelled plans.”

For as much as she loved Mike, she hated the job that he did. She hated the times he was out in pouring rain working storm damage. She hated the times he was out in sub-zero weather repairing breaks.  But most of all, she resented the many hours spent alone waiting for him to come home and wondering if an accident would keep him from ever coming home again. All these things Peggy hated but kept to herself — except for the past few weeks. Tension had entered the Montgomery household for the first time in their marriage. Peggy wanted for him to retire, but Mike just would not talk about it.

Mike playfully picked Sharon up and swung her around, making her squeal with laughter. As Mike was roughhousing with his granddaughter, Peggy again noticed just how tall and muscular her husband was even with his advancing years. He stood over six feet tall and had the build that well-suited his chosen profession. He had large, rough hands that had seen more than their share of hard work and expo-sure to the elements. This bear of a man was ever so kind and gentle, as his coworkers would all attest. Mike’s love for his family had never been questioned by Peggy — until recently.

Before he put her down, Mike gave Sharon a huge hug and promised her he would be home on time. Then he grudgingly pointed his car toward Bracken City to begin his day. This day would be like no other for Mike as well.

Traffic was exceptionally light that morning, and this allowed Mike to go through the door marked Employee Entrance right on time, despite his delay in leaving home that morning. Sam was al-ready struggling with a coil of triplex service cable when Mike came over to help him load it in their truck.

Mike and Sam were casually chatting with some of their coworkers when they heard their boss, Calvin Moss, yell to them, "Hey Carter, I need to see Mike and you!"

"I wonder what that idiot wants this morning," growled Sam as everyone laughed.

"He sounds like someone licked all the red off his candy again," quipped Mike.  

Calvin Moss was a curt and impatient individual who had no life outside of work. Everyone had heard the rumors that Moss had gotten his promotion through political connections and this, along with his personality, made tolerating him impossible at times. He strode over to where the two men were standing.

“Listen up. I need you two to be on call again tonight. The two that were scheduled to replace you called in sick this morning. The weather forecast is calling for severe storms this evening, so I'm putting everyone else on stand-by.”

Moss abruptly turned and walked away before either one had an opportunity to complain.

“Dammit, that's just great!” said Sam disgustedly. “I got all of two hours’ sleep last night and maybe none tonight.”

Mike didn't say anything, but he felt as if he had been punched in the stomach. It probably meant breaking his promise to Sharon again and making Peggy mad for the hundredth time this week. He knew that his wife had never accepted this part of his job for even one minute. Sam, Mike, and the others were extremely aware of their responsibility and did not take it lightly — their respective families, on the other hand, often held a different view.

The morning's work schedule was nothing out of the ordinary and was easily dispensed. They both ate lunch at the truck stop where Veronica worked the day shift. Sam often moaned to Mike about the family's constant financial woes and how he detested the way all the truckers leered at Veronica. Mike, still being the mentor, advised Sam to be sensible and more trusting of Veronica. Mike hoped that Sam was just exaggerating about his money problems, but he suspected that money was the reason Joshua couldn’t go with his friend. Before paying his check, Mike left an extra couple of dollars for Veronica on the table just in case. It wasn’t much, but it made Mike feel better.

About one hour before quitting time, the skies started to darken, and the two lineworkers' subconscious started tracking each nefarious thunderhead formation. Before long, the first sounds of rumbling could be heard, and the two got out of the truck to take a better look at the thunderstorm approaching from the southwest.

“Looks like it's going to be a bad one, doesn't it?” said Sam as he surveyed the skies.

Mike gave him an agreeing nod. “There's a lot of wind in this one, Sam. This baby is going to cause us some misery … just you wait and see.”

Sam drove their service truck back to the city’s warehouse to restock needed material in preparation for the approaching storm. “Hey Gus,” Sam said jokingly to the inventory clerk. “How about stocking our truck while Mike and me get a couple hours sleep? From the looks of things, we're going to need it.”

“Ah, you guys don't need any sleep. You take turns sleeping all day as it is,” returned Gus in his usual playful voice.

Sam and Mike’s premonition was on target. The storm unleashed at the start of rush hour. The swirling winds had the trees twisting as if they could be ripped from the ground. Sheets of blowing rain made driving near impossible. Vicious bolts of lightning darted to earth in one relentless attack. Inadequate storm sewers were quickly flooded, causing water to gather as deep ponds in low spots on the roads. Cars were starting to drown-out, and traffic was coming to a standstill throughout the city. The city’s emergency warning sirens were whaling their warnings of potential tornadoes — even though one tornado had already touched down. Most traffic signals were out, and policemen were being constantly summoned to work traffic accidents. For as long as the storm lasted, chaos ruled Bracken City.  

It seemed as if the lighting and the first outage calls came simultaneously. The Operation Center was suddenly overwhelmed with frantic, angry calls. To the dispatchers, it seemed that every power line in the city was down, and everyone with a phone was trying to tell them how to fix it.

Mike and Sam were already drenched. Although they had donned their rain suits before Moss had started divvying out work assignments, perspiration from exertion and humidity had soaked their clothes. Both men’s boots and socks were wet and had now started chafing their feet.  

“Bring me a sixty-amp fuse as you come back Mike,” yelled Sam as he tried to position his buck-et to reenergize a tap.

“Looks like you forgot your hot stick too,” echoed Mike with a hint of sarcasm.

With a slight flash, Sam slammed the cutout door shut and a few homes were back to cooking dinner once more. As he lowered the truck’s boom into its cradle, Sam playfully tapped Mike’s hardhat with the hot stick.

“I’m telling you Sam. This storm was sent by the Devil himself. I just heard dispatch say that we have over 6,000 customers out. That’s almost half of our system. My wife and Sharon are going to kill me…and should.” Mike said with a sadness that Sam had not heard before.

“Mine too. We need the extra money from the overtime, but she worries herself sick when I’m out working like this.”

“This is a young man’s game Sammy, and I’m getting too damn old.”

The lighting had finally abated, but the rain was unrelenting. Water was everywhere. The Weather Bureau was issuing flash flood warnings and telling people to seek higher ground. Wreckers that could maneuver through the high water were kept from the stalled vehicles they were dispatched to remove by the massive traffic snarl. To compound the traffic problem, multitudes of people were out viewing the storm damage. Only a few scattered traffic signals had been restored, so a few daring policemen were now trying to untangle the traffic mess, but were having little success.

It had been over four hours since the massive storm first struck, and crews were being dispatched everywhere. The call had gone out immediately to neighboring cities for help, but they too were all wrestling with their own power problems. A couple of contractor crews were on their way, but they would have to get through the massive traffic jams to be of any help.

Mike had worked hundreds of storm outages, both large and small. His clothes and shoes had been soaked more times than he could ever count. He had slept in the front seat of his truck and eaten soggy hamburgers while working in the pouring rain. Up until the last 24 hours, none of this had ever mattered. For some reason, Mike couldn’t get the face of his granddaughter out of his mind. Two promises made and two promises broken — what would she be thinking right now he wondered? He thought of Peggy and how embarrassed he would be when he finally returned home. What would he say? Would she still be understanding? Would Sharon understand — well, maybe someday?

Sam interrupted his thoughts.

 “I think Moss is trying to reach us on the two-way. With all this static, it’s hard to tell.”

 Between the voice traffic and static due to the occasional lighting flash, it was becoming increasingly hard for everyone to communicate with the Operations Center. Some of the communication was now being done via cellphones.

Mike keyed the radio transmitter and answered, “Go ahead Operations, this is Unit 202.”

“I need you two to check out the hospital circuit now that we can get into the area. Their backup generator is getting overworked, and the emergency room is filling up. I think you guys were there a few days ago, so you will be familiar with the repairs you made if that is what is causing the problem.”

Sam and Mike looked at one another in astonishment.

Mike shook his head and said angrily, “Our repair’s causing the problem? Hasn’t he heard about this teeny-tiny storm that hit this little town today?”

“Have you ever seen Moss wear a hard hat…doesn’t need one…his head’s too hard,” said Sam, while getting in a few playful jabs at Mike’s expense.

Hope Memorial Hospital sat on a hill just inside the city limits on the northside and with Bracken Community College to the west. Its isolated location allowed for easy local traffic access but slightly less for anyone needing medical help while traveling down the nearby interstate highway. Through a stroke of luck, the hospital was situated just over a mile from the substation from which its power originated. The overhead circuit traveled cross country through a wooded right-of-way for over 4,000 feet before dipping underground to feed two 1,500 KVA padmount transformers.

The driving rain and darkness had visibility down to near zero. Sam and Mike tried every back road and shortcut they knew in an attempt to avoid traffic and reach their destination. Sam had noticed some time ago that Mike was being uncharacteristically quiet. Traditionally, Sam did most of the driving while Mike usually did most of the talking. In fact, Mike could probably out talk anyone in Bracken City.

“Are you feeling all right Mike?” asked a concerned Sam.

“Sammy, I've been wrestling with this guilt trip all day. For the first time in my life, I feel that I’ve let my family down. I’ve broken far too many promises to my wife due to this damn job over the years. You’ve done the same think — you know it too.”

“You’re not letting fatigue get to you…are you?”

“Nah, it's this job and the way it controls my life…our life. I love the work but hate the hours. I want to spend a lot more time with my grandkids and with Peggy. At 67, I can't have that many good years left.”

Mike looked out the truck window at the pouring rain. He turned back and said, “Sammy, who works in this damn stuff but us crazy linemen? If God had wanted man to work in the rain, he would have given us snorkels instead of noses.”

“Good point,” laughed Sam. “But believe me, you and I are ugly enough already.”

Sam turned down the wide, two-lane street and parked adjacent to the substation. The two men immediately retrieved their climbing tools from inside the truck and started the arduous task of locating the reason for the power outage. There was no way that a bucket truck was going to get in the fields and narrow right of way. Soon, their rain-soaked boots were covered in mud which made their footing even more troublesome.  

They were about a half mile from their service truck when Mike first saw the problem. The high winds had caused two crossarm insulators to break. The conductors were wrapped together and resting on the wooden crossarm.

The two linemen turned their backs to the wind and rain to consider their options. Obviously, the insulators would have to be replaced, but luckily, these were spare items they kept on the truck just for such emergencies.

Above the roar of the wind, Mike said, “I'll climb up and remove the damaged insulators while you’re bringing back the material that we need.”

“Are you crazy, Mike?” said Sam in astonishment. “Don’t touch anything until I can get this line open and grounded. I’ll radio for some help once I get back to the truck. It shouldn’t take long for them to get here.”

While Sam didn't like the idea of leaving Mike alone, he agreed for Mike to finish walking the line just to make sure there was no more damage. Sam knew that this whole episode felt wrong, but still, he kept walking. He would ultimately regret that decision for the rest of his life.

When Sam reached the substation, he saw another coworker unlocking the substation’s gate. Sam recognized the affable Jesse Wegman right away and went over to see if he needed help with anything. Wegman was a tall, muscular, young man of 28 who had recently been hired from an electrical contracting company.  

“Hey Weg,” said Sam. “What are you doing out on such a fine night?”

“Moss has given authorization to re-energize the Brookview circuit. I have to do it manually because the SCADA is down,” said Wegman.  

“Sounds good. Hopefully this rain will let up soon,” replied Sam as he went to his truck to get the material he needed and ask dispatch for another crew to help them.

Sam had gotten only a few yards from the station, when he suddenly remembered that the hospital circuit breaker was adjacent to the one feeding Brookview and that the hospital circuit had not been isolated. He had just turned to caution Wegman to hold off when a tremendous explosion of light and sound came roaring from the area where Mike was working.  

Sam dropped everything he had in his arms and yelled something inaudible in Mike’s direction. Wegman immediately saw his mistake, but it was much too late for anyone working on that line.

Both men ran as hard as they could to Mike’s location. They finally found him lying face up on the ground just four spans past the pole with the damaged insulators. A broken pole top that had detached from the rest of the pole was dangling precariously with the conductors now less than six feet from the ground.

“Mike’s still breathing, but it looks like he has burns on the right side of his arm and leg,” cried Sam above the wind noise.

Luckily, Sam’s cellphone had just enough charge remaining to send the 911 call out for help. The two men both carried and dragged Michael Montgomery to the road just as the ambulance arrived. The EMTs flung open the rear doors and were gone again in seconds.

Upon reaching the hospital, Mike was quickly transferred to the emergency room where a doctor and two nurses were waiting. They pushed Mike’s gurney through the ominous double doors to an examination area where only hospital personnel were allowed to roam. The long and unnerving wait had now begun.

Sam quickly found a telephone to call Moss. Moss answered on the first ring.

“Calvin this is Sam. Did you notify Peggy?”

“Yes,” said Moss drearily. “She should be there shortly. You know, it was almost as if she expected my call. I got a really eerie feeling when I spoke with her…I mean really strange.”

Sam gave Moss a brief report of the incident, and Moss listened without interruption. When Sam had finished, Moss said almost casually, “I'll send another crew to pick up where you and Mike left off. The hospital's power problem hasn't changed.”

Then with a voice cracking very noticeably he said, “Sam, I'm getting ready to call your wife and have her come down to be with you. You and Wegman have been through hell today.”

Then he added, “I know you are going crazy, but there is absolutely nothing you can do to help Mike right now. I'll be there as soon as we get this damage under control, and I want you to keep me post-ed on any changes.”

Sam, with his voice now cracking and tears welling up could only say, “Thanks boss. I'll tell Wegman.”

Sam’s opinion of Calvin Moss changed for the better — at least for that moment.

Peggy arrived with Sharon in hand soon after Sam's conversation with Moss had ended. She showed little emotion and spoke to no one. Sharon sat quietly beside Peggy, both confused and scared by her grandmother's eerie mood. Sam tried to communicate with Peggy to no avail. She just sat perfectly still and stared straight ahead, ignoring everyone.

Veronica hurriedly pushed through the waiting room doors and immediately went over to Peggy. At first, Peggy said nothing, but slowly, she began to talk to Veronica in a low, hushed tone. After Peggy had finished speaking, Veronica took Sharon's hand and came over to where Sam and Wegman were sitting.

She lovingly put her hand upon his shoulder and said very softly, “I'm getting the three of you out of here. Mr. Moss is sending someone over to get your trucks. Sharon's mother will be arriving in the morn-ing, and Sharon will stay with us until then. Jesse's wife is going to meet him at our house. Peggy doesn't want anyone here right now, Sam…especially you. Maybe she'll change her mind tomorrow, but for now, that's the way she wants it.”

Sam nodded solemnly as he once again glanced at Mike’s wife. It was apparent that his presence was only aggravating the situation, and besides, Jesse was in no emotional state to stay either. For a day that had started so insignificantly, it turned out to be one that would haunt him to his grave.

The rain had finally stopped, and the night air was now very cool. As the four of them walked across the parking lot to Veronica's car, Sam pulled Wegman aside.

“Listen Jesse, this accident is on me…totally on me. The chaos kept me from thinking clearly. I didn’t follow procedure…pure and simple. I should have been more aware — followed up. You were much too new to have been sent out there all alone.”

“If you take all the blame and Mike dies,” said Wegman not the slightest relieved, “they will ruin you. At the very least, you will lose your job.  I just don't think Mr. Mike would want you to punish your-self like this. I turned the switch, not you.”

“It doesn't matter. Even if Mike survives, he will never be able to work again, and it just won't be the same around here without him. I let his family down, because I should have had his back. This is the way it’s going to be,” said Sam with an air of finality.

Just as Veronica’s car pulled away from its parking spot, a medical helicopter appeared out of nowhere and made its noisy landing in a grassy spot near the emergency room double doors. There was no doubt as to the patient being transferred.

Sam dejectedly looked over at his expressionless wife as she drove through the wet streets of Bracken City. He then gazed blankly through the rapidly fogging window while deep in thought. For the first time in many years, he was truly scared. His future was uncertain and his livelihood was now in jeop-ardy. Was his devotion to Mike too strong? Was his sense of duty too overpowering? Was new his plight any different than others? No, he told himself, but it was still terrifying just the same.

Sam suddenly straightened himself, looked in the back seat at Jesse and Sharon who were being hauntingly quiet, and again glanced over to his wife.

“I’ve faced all sorts of problems and strife my entire life, Veronica, but this one is going to be the granddaddy of them all.”  

Then, with a little smile on his lips, Sam said. “It looks to me like those twenty-dollar tips may come in handy, after all.”
Veronica warmly reached for Sam’s hand and gently kissed it. No further words were needed.

Author’s Note

I have always been fond of saying that a line worker is predestined to do this work at birth, and those that are not don’t stay around long. While the characters and town in this story are all fictitious, I wanted to spotlight the struggles of the ubiquitous small-town blue-collar line worker. These hardworking and underpaid souls have to do the same work as those of their richer investor-owned utility cousins, but often have to settle for older and sometimes handed-down equipment to accomplish those same tasks. Every line worker, whether they work for an IOU or public power, has to balance their family needs with the constant demand for their time in the field. It’s imperative to have a spouse that understands their sense of duty when that dreaded call comes through during their daughter’s birthday party or just as they are leaving for an anniversary dinner.

No matter the size or type of their electrical systems, these talented employees have a brotherhood no different than the ones of our dedicated policemen and firemen. Our hats are off to them!