A high-wire career

“So, what do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked my new beau. I figured it would be good to know if he’d given any thought to how he might make a living before we went much further.

“I’m going to be lineman,” he said.“A lineman?” I repeated. “What is that?”

He explained that those were the guys who climbed the poles (note, power, not telephone, poles) to keep your lights on.

It sounded like a fine career to me, and a couple of years later, we married, he became a powerline apprentice and then a journeyman and that’s been our life. I’ve been proud not only to be married to a lineman, but to be, by extension, part of a unique culture — equal parts danger, grit, and a certain grace.

In those early years I found that, like me, most people didn’t know what linemen did. Often, their first guess was something with football. But the lack of awareness has been changing and nothing illustrates that better than the fact that on April 18 we now celebrate National Lineman’s Appreciation Day. We can thank Bill Bosch, a lineman of 35 years, for helping to make that happen.

“I noticed one thing was common every place I’ve been, the public was unaware, uneducated on what linemen do,” Bosch said. “We were doing storm response and we responded to a location in Louisiana and this particular parish was completely wiped out by Katrina. Not one customer on their entire system had power. Probably for that first week or two the politicians were missing, the public was … wondering what was going on. I think the linemen took the rap for that. They put themselves in harm’s way for those people and they don’t even know who they are.”

So, after attending a lineman’s funeral, Bosch decided he needed to do something to win linemen the recognition they deserve. He took his request to Congress, selecting April 18 in memory of his father who served as a lineman in World War II, and in 2012 National Lineman’s Appreciation Day was celebrated for the first time.

It’s a long time coming.The title “linemen” was first coined in the 1840s to describe the workers who strung telegraph lines. Henry Fonda was just a kid when he, along with Pat O’Brien, immortalized linemen in the 1937 film “Slim” which we’ve — erroneously — always called Slim the Lineman. It was required viewing when I was a young apprentice’s wife, and we still fire up the DVD from time to time. Eighty odd years later, you’d be surprised how much hasn’t changed.

Fortunately, the lack of awareness has and, likewise, the sense of appreciation.

I recall one storm in Colorado, when an early snow paralyzed Denver. The trees were still heavy with leaves and the 20-odd inches that fell toppled a reported million trees — worse, some said, than if a hurricane had struck. The crews were into their third or fourth day of outages. Chan was a construction lineman at the time, working for a contractor. When he called into dispatch to pick up his next jobs, the dispatcher told him there was a problem. It seemed a customer had to called to say that he was on his porch with a rifle and planned to shoot the next utility truck that passed by. “Can you go talk to him?” she asked.

Chan pulled up to the customer’s house in a red subcontractor’s truck, and as promised, the customer was waiting on the porch with his rifle. Fortunately, because the contractor’s truck was a different color than the utility vehicles, the homeowner didn’t recognize it as belonging to a lineman, and Chan was able to calm him down. They got his power on a few hours later — though had it been up to me he’d still be in the dark.

As I write this, a spring storm is blowing. I’m here before the fire, safe, warm and dry. The line crews are out working in the rain and wind, working under circumstances in which one mistake could kill them. That’s just what linemen do, day in, day out. In the rain, wind and snow. In the dark of night, at first light and every hour in between.

So yes, National Lineman’s Appreciation Day on Wednesday, April 18, is fine time to recognize the men and women who keep our world hot and humming.

But a simple thanks will be appreciated by linemen and their families any day of the year.

Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.

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