My uncle was a lineman who told me that he could get me into the electrical workers’ union, and that they would send me out on construction building high voltage powerlines. He sent me to talk to the local IBEW business agent. I assumed it would be like any other job interview, so I dressed in a sport coat, tie and slacks, and carried a copy of my resume. The union hall was a prefabricated metal building on a street lined with huge oak trees. I parked my Toyota next to the door, underneath the sign that read: THIS PARKING LOT RESERVED FOR AMERICAN MADE CARS ONLY. ALL OTHERS WILL BE TOWED. I went inside and told the receptionist my business. She pointed to a chair and told me it would be a few minutes. There were two other men waiting, dressed in work boots, jeans, flannel shirts. When they went in to see the business agent I put my tie in my pocket.
The man sat behind a desk backed by an American flag and the union creed tacked to the wall behind him. The ashtray on his desk overflowed with cigarette butts. He wasn’t interested in my experience. He knew my uncle and I assume my job was in payment of a favor, or in return for a favor, whatever. He told me how to fix my application so it would show more construction experience than I really had. I paid eighty dollars for the privilege of joining the union, placed my hand over my heart and read the creed aloud–a lot of stuff about brotherhood, pride, and dedication to craft. The agent told me to report to work the next day to a Tennessee Valley Authority crew building a line in Nashville.
The TVA is a federal agency that provides flood control and cheap electricity along a seven-state corridor bounding the Tennessee River valley. The first week my crew was assigned to tear down a powerline that had never been used, working East, away from the cooling tower of a nuclear reactor that never went on line. I never understood the reason, something to do with the recession, or poor planning, but that ghost of a powerline stretching across the Cumberland Plateau left an incredible scar.
There was a wiry man on the crew named Willis, who was waiting out the two years to retirement by doing just enough to stay employed. He drove the crew truck from headquarters to the job site, and back, and spent the rest of the day trying to stay in the shade. The job was thirty miles down the interstate. The first morning Willis turned to me and said, “I’m going to run this truck at thirty-five miles an hour and there’s not a damn thing they can do about it, because I’m practicing safe driving techniques.” Apparently, Willis thought the highways much safer in the afternoons, because he ran the crew truck at fifty-five.
After a week a man visited our crew and asked me if I would like to enter the apprentice lineman program. “You’re tall,” he said. “I bet you’d make a good lineman. You can reach things.” I said it sounded fine to me, as much to get off the ground and away from Willis as anything else.
The next day I entered the first year of my apprenticeship and was sent to work two-hundred feet up a tower. I’d never been aware of a fear of heights, but as I climbed my stomach went slack and my hands hurt from gripping the steel so hard. In the motel room, I couldn’t sleep for dreams about falling. During the day I didn’t have any appetite because I dreaded my next climb. I didn’t trust my equipment–my safety or my padded leather belt–or my grip. It was like that for a few weeks.
One day in January I went up a tower with a fourth-year apprentice called “Bones.” The tower was set in a field of green winter wheat, in a valley surrounded by mountains. The sky was gray with light rain, the temperature hovered at freezing. The towers were T-shaped. The girder section formed the top of the T, and at the ends of the girder the wire was suspended by a string of ceramic insulators. Bones and I climbed a hundred and eighty feet to the top of the tower and out to the end of the girder, where there was nothing between us and the ground but empty space. My legs trembled. One foot danced across the steel and I concentrated on making it stop, hoping Bones wouldn’t notice.
We were stringing fiber optic cable for MCI, something new for TVA, and were having a bad time learning how to do it. The weather grew worse and after an hour we were no closer to being finished than when we’d started. The sky behind the mountain went black and came at us like a wall, as if the mountain was tilting over, rolling onto us. The wind rose and threatened to blow us off if we let go of the steel. “It’s thirty miles an hour if it’s anything,” Bones yelled in my ear. The rain turned to snow mixed with ice that stung my face and flew so thick the white crew trucks were invisible. A trash fire at the base of the tower scattered across the field and blew out. When I looked back at the tower legs, the steel had begun to ice. “We’d better wait it out up here,” Bones yelled, pointing at the ice.
The foreman yelled up at us but his voice couldn’t carry over the wind. Bones waved. The ground crew piled into the trucks. I thought about heat flowing from beneath the dash around my feet, about a bath, and clothes fresh from the dryer. There was hot coffee in my thermos and I wondered if they were drinking it in the crew truck.
Bones took out a pack of Marlboros and shook one out for me. We turned out collars up and smoked and talked over the wind and the ice rattling off our hardhats. There is something very comforting about a cigarette when you’re iced into a tower and can’t see the ground. That tiny glow of heat makes you think about warmth, reminds you that it exists somewhere. I don’t know what it was, but something about waiting out that storm with Bones made it all right to climb. I was still scared after that, but I began to grow out of it, and started to develop confidence in myself, something I’d never experienced on any other job before that.