This past week of painfully oppressive hot and humid days had me experiencing hazy flashbacks, not because of a heat stroke or dehydration, but the vivid memories of a summer spent as a teen working with the construction crew of the Shenandoah Telephone Company (now Shentel).
I was nineteen and had never constructed anything before in my life, being more of a natural destructor. My lack of work experience was overlooked (I’m sure) during the interview phase (which I never went through) because my Dad was midway through a 40-year career with this very company. There were three “summer interns”/gophers hired that summer. Myself and two of my best buddies.
Day One of work found us behind Stonewall Jackson High School, learning how to climb a telephone pole. Granted, it was a very short telephone pole, but hey, it was Day One.
If you’ve never climbed a pole or taken notice of someone who is climbing one, let me fill you in on something. It ain’t easy. It can be terrifying. It is both a physical and mental challenge. If you have a problem with heights in general, say like extreme sphincter constrictions while climbing a step-ladder in the kitchen to reach a can of beans on the top shelf of the pantry, then pole climbing is not for you.
A pole is climbed utilizing two spikes (gaffs) which are strapped to the ankles and a body belt that wraps around the pole. The spikes are only an inch and a half long;only a small portion of the spike actually penetrating the wood. The belt allows the climber to lean back from the pole (against common sense), focusing body weight in keeping those two little spikes secured in the wood of the pole. The leaning back away from the pole is the exact opposite of what your brain is instinctively processing. The natural urge is to hug the pole like it was your first love.
The average exposed height of a telephone pole in the United States is between 35 or 40 feet tall. Most are made of wood, made rough and splintery from previous climbs, and are treated with toxic chemicals such as pentachlorophenol and creosote. When your nightmares come true and a spike cuts-out (or kicks-out) from the wood, the body belt keeps you closely secured to the splintery pole, which makes for a long painful slide towards the ground.
Back at the training pole. We three trainees were all young, athletically gifted, and fearlessly stupid. So, we were naturals at doing something so unnatural. Just one day of practice and we were off to work.
I worked that entire summer with the same three gentlemen. Two were seasoned, knowledgeable veterans and a third who thought that he was. Sam, Gary, and Dennis. We went to the work sites each day in a 6-wheeled tank-of-a-truck, loaded with tool thingies and ample space for the large spools of telephone cable.
Richard M. Nixon had established OSHA back in 1970, but the fear of violating the safety laws hadn’t found its way to the Valley at this point. As ‘summer help’, there were several activities in a typical workday that I was not allowed to be involved with. Our supervisor had made that quite clear. So, it took me the entire three months of summer vacation to accomplish my share of the violations.
Climbing into that old green work truck was not the first time that I had seen Sam in person. He was father to three sons, the eldest being a longtime friend of mine. Sam was a mountain of a man, both in presence and personality. The body, the skin, and the hands showed the wear and tear of years on the job, his evenings and weekends spent working his farm. But from that weathered face came a constant smile and a John Wayne Man’s Man type of charm. Tough as nails, soft at heart.
There were organized softball games played on the field below the local Little League Park at W.O. Reilly Park in Woodstock. The neighborhood boys (and adults as well) would become giddy with excitement while holding their collective breath as Sam stepped up to the plate to bat. The whiff of a missed swing would create an audible gust of air. A pitch battered by his left-handed swing would send a towering homerun clanging off the tin roof of the picnic shelter in deep, deep right field.
So, why would anyone in their right mind climb a perfectly good (inanimate, harmless, not bothering anyone) telephone pole? My number one reason was money. Other popular reasons brought to my attention were installing new, repairing old, and upgrading the telephone cables that hung from the poles throughout Shenandoah County.
There is a steel aerial cable that’s attached near the top from pole to pole. The actual telephone cable is secured to the aerial cable with a thin strand of stainless steel lashing wire. The lashing wire is spun around the two larger cables by a little machine called a cable lasher, or as I remember it, the spinner. Cable lashers weigh around forty pounds or so and are shaped like a little pig. Running the length of its belly is a grove, large enough to sit on the two cables. Ground crew pull the lasher with a long rope from pole to pole.
So, I’m at the top of a forty-five-foot pole, swaying back and forth in a strong summer wind, with a bird’s-eye view of the speeding cars below me on Route 55 leaving Strasburg. It’s no easy feat lifting the forty-pound lasher from an awkward right shoulder-high height, up-over/past the pole, and then aligning that belly groove on the cables at an awkward left shoulder-high height. It was like lifting a tire-less automobile off a wreck victim except that you had too much time to think about it first.
While I was preparing like an Olympic weight-lifter, hyperventilating and psyching myself up, Sam’s calling up to me from the ground.
“When I was your age, I used to do that with one arm!”
(Yea, well, get on up here and show me)
Which is what I would’ve been thinking if I hadn’t been concentrating so intensely. That concentration so focused on that phone line that I made a mistake below the belt. The spike on my right ankle kicked-out from the pole and gravity instantly took over. Instantly, instinctively I bear-hugged that telephone pole so hard that tree sap, or maybe it was toxic chemical preservatives, shot out the top of the pole.
After my heart beat stopped shaking the pole, I refocused and finished the transfer.
It was in downtown Strasburg that I first witnessed a dynamite explosion, up close and personal, breaking up rock in a hole dug to set a new pole. As per Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines, a heavy wire-rope blasting mat was placed over the hole before detonation for sound suppression and to keep rock from breaking nearby house windows. This blast created a muffled explosion and a puff of dirt dust.
But OSHA didn’t come along with us one day on a similar job and this hole was being dug at the edge of a newly planted crop field, deep in the isolated countryside. No neighbors to bother. No windows to break. Only thing to break were a few safety laws.
After the decision was made to blast the stubborn rock layer at the bottom of the hole, Sam asked me a silly question. Would I, a nineteen-year-old male, without the safety of the metal blasting mat, like to touch a little wire to a battery, thus sending an electrically current to the blasting cap, which would then detonate a half-stick of nitroglycerin mixed with absorbents and stabilizers, causing an ear-splitting explosion that would send thousands of pieces of rock hurling one-hundred feet in the air above us. I said yes. I even agreed to wear a safety hard hat like everyone else.
These were seasoned veterans of the construction trade with whom I was working. I tried my best to watch, listen, and learn from these professionals so as not to slow them down. I was an ultra-competitive jock in high school, so if one of the guys asked for a shovel, I’d run to the truck to get one.
I was so go-go-go, that it took me a few weeks to notice something interesting about our daily work routine. If we finished a job at the first work site at 10:30-11:00 AM and the next work site was a twenty-minute drive, we always seemed to find a need to stop-off somewhere for some reason. Forgot something back at the shop, stop at Gary’s house to check on his sick dog, check at Vehrencamp’s in Mt. Jackson to see if Sam’s refrigerator had been repaired. Whatever the urgent reason, it always made continuing to the next job site impossible to reach before noon. And noon just happened to be lunchtime.
Lunch was never eaten in an office cubicle. There was a memorized map of nice, quiet places where we would stop and have our hour-long impromptu picnics. The truck would always find its way down a graveled road, parked in grassy field, sheltered from the sun by a group of oak and locust and maple trees. I don’t know if Igloo coolers had been invented yet, but I do know that I didn’t have one. I packed a brown-bag lunch every day. In a brown paper bag. Food poisoning hadn’t been invented yet either. Lunch usually consisted of a bologna or leftover meatloaf sandwich slathered in mayonnaise, left unrefrigerated for five-hours or so. Some potato chips and a piece of fruit, like an apple or a tomato. Yep, sitting in a grass field, leaning back against a truck tire, eating a whole tomato fresh from the family garden. That’s a fine ambience.
The last twenty-minutes of lunch were usually spent in silence taking a quick nap. Complete silence except for Paul Harvey telling tales on the truck’s radio. And with Harvey’s signature closing “And now you know the rest of the story, we then knew that it was time to head-off to the next work site. The second work site, from two-hours ago.
As the summer months sweated by, the guys became increasingly trusting of me, and gave me a little more responsibility. Which led to big No-No number two. It began innocently enough.
“Hey, you want to drive the truck to the other side of the field?”
At age nineteen, I had driven a riding lawnmower, a ’64 Valiant, a ’72 pee-yellow Pinto, and a 4-speed 1970 Fiat 850 Spider. But I didn’t have the foresight to have obtained a CDL license.
As the weeks passed by, I found myself driving that big truck back to the shop every afternoon at the end of the workday. Some of the return trips were a thirty or forty-minute drive. Four sweaty men in the cab of the truck. Three sleeping and me driving. I was never taught how to look truck-driver-cool, but did my best James Dean as we rumbled down the road, windows rolled down, hair blowing in the wind. Cruising through downtown Woodstock, just a young Man and his 10-ton truck, not a care in the world.
Until my eyes met the eyes of a couple of cute young women walking down the sidewalk; then James Dean would spasm back into a typical 19-year-old, waving and making goofy faces while forgetting about turning cars, traffic signals, and pedestrian crossings.
Grinning with one eye opened, Sam would say something like “You know those girls? Keep your eyes on the road.”
We’d always stop before reaching the shop and switch drivers because I wasn’t supposed to be driving. That was against the rules.
We were digging a new hole alongside a dirt road up in Fort Valley one brutally hot August afternoon. Looking up the grade of the hill you could actually see heat rising up from the dirt road. Seeing heat rise from dirt. Now that’s hot.
It was a great summer job, working with some terrific people. But old me sure is happy that the rains have cooled things off this weekend.