The whole crew was on edge. We were building a hundred and sixty-one kilovolt powerline across the Cumberland plateau, east of Lebanon, Tennessee. T shaped structures out of heavy gauge steel laced together like two hundred foot erector sets. The right of way was a muddy scar cutting through a valley surrounded by steep mountains. In December the job fell behind schedule because of rain and snow. The ground froze every night and melted into a slushy mess during the day. We averaged working three days a week, and spent the worst days at the motel playing poker and drinking, not getting paid. Everyone was thinking about Christmas shutdown two weeks away, short paychecks.
I shared a motel room with a lineman named Robby, a guy with a patchy beard and dull eyes. He was a few years older than me, mid-thirties, and had worked coal mines in Kentucky. He came for the light and the air, he said. Robby smoked grass when he climbed and made a lot of mistakes. The crew foreman, my uncle Lester, rode him hard. Every night in the room Robby would snap open a lockblade knife with a five inch blade and joke about how he was going to use it on Lester the next time.
Lester was a short, powerful man with a dark complexion and a permanent scowl. He and my father climbed for Valley Power almost twenty-five years, until my father had been electrocuted a few years ago. Lester said if I didn’t quit in the first year I could make as good a lineman as my father had been. The work was hard but the money was good. I thought I owed my father a year. I thought a lot about college and saving money.
* * * * *
Just after lunch the rain turned to snow and began to freeze on the steel. We had bolted in the last section of the tower and were locking the nuts and removing rigging. The crane was folded down. Lester was yelling for us to hurry up. He wanted another tower before dark. I was standing near the top of the structure when a lineman named Baughman slipped and fell the length of his safety belt. He hung there, his body an inverted U swinging like a pendulum a hundred and fifty feet above the ground. One moment Baughman was standing next to me, reaching for the cigarette lighter I was holding, and then he was gone.
In my mind I break it down into images: Baughman leaning toward me, his hand out-stretched, the dropped lighter, the sick look that passed over his face when he realized his feet were going, the way his hands caught at the air, the sound his chin made when it hit the girder, the way the tower shook when his safety caught, snowflakes rattling against my hardhat and jacket, Baughman moaning, blood running across his face.
I had never seen anyone fall before, though I had heard plenty of stories, most of them from Lester. It happened fast.
Robby climbed down to where I was standing and we locked our legs around the steel, leaned down and pulled Baughman up by his belt. He held his chin with one hand and the steel with the other.
“Name the last three presidents.” I said.
Baughman gurgled out some profanity. It looked like he’d bit his tongue or busted his lip.
“That’s it for today,” Robby yelled down at Lester, standing on the ground. “We’re coming down.”
Lester rubbed the back of his head underneath his hard hat. He looked small in his baggy coveralls. He waved his hand like he was giving permission.
We climbed down, trying to help Baughman, even though there wasn’t much we could do for him. He said his back hurt but he was mostly embarrassed. On the ground we slogged through the mud toward the crew truck. I took Baughman’s belt and put it away, then warmed my feet under the truck exhaust.
“You get blood on your skirt, Baughman?” Lester asked.
“Fuck you, Lester,” Baughman said. He spat on the ground.
“Get in my pick up and we’ll go to the hospital,” Lester said.
Lester looked at Robby who had already climbed in the crew truck and shut the door. He knocked on the window and Robby rolled it down.
“Get your tools back on Robby. You and Frank go up and finish the job.”
“I’m not climbing in this shit, Lester,” Robby said. He looked at me and said “Frank ain’t either.”
“I’ll call the job when I think it’s unsafe,” Lester said. “I’m running this show.”
“You’d better run it back to the motel,” Robby said. “That’s where we’re going.” Robby rolled his window up.
Lester grabbed my arm. “The day your father got burned, no one came off the tower until the job was done.” He looked at me like that should mean something, then went to his truck and gunned it across the muddy right of way. Robby flipped Lester the bird as he drove past.