The Tools We Work With, Part IX


I kept the hardhat on a bookshelf where I could see it, and my tools–a padded leather belt, a safety strap, and a set of wood pole climbing hooks–in my closet. I liked having those things to remind me of where I came from. I didn’t want to get too far away from that.

Two years ago–I had completed a Master’s degree and began a Ph.D. in writing–a friend from the powerlines called. Lance asked how school was going. We talked about the line we built at Dyersburg, Tennessee, the year we were crewmates. Lance is five or six years older than me, in his late thirties. For the last four years he’d been building houses, keeping close to his home town. He had half a dozen horses, forty cows, a wife, a daughter in second grade. He told me that housing was slow and he was thinking of going back to the lines. He’d sold his tools though, after he quit the job at Dyersburg. He wondered if I still had mine, and if I would sell them.

My tools had been collecting dust for three years, unused except for one late night climb to pirate cable TV service. I’d known at least ten linemen who dragged–lineman’s slang for quitting–because they were pissed off at the foreman or the company, another lineman or their girlfriend, or just tired. Most of them found their way back to the lines after a week, a month, or a year. People who climb towers and work with 161,000 volts of electricity don’t always make good career decisions. But a lineman selling his tools is like Hemingway selling his hunting rifles. There’s a finality to it.

I liked having the tools around, idle or not. I liked the smell of oiled leather and the feel of strapping on the hooks the night after the cable company turned off my service. I felt more comfortable knowing that if other things failed I could always go back to the lines. But Lance had a family to support and livestock to feed.

I boxed the tools and mailed them UPS, resisting the urge to try them on one last time, sad to let them go. It’s not that I planned to use them again. Recently, I’d noticed that my knees didn’t ache every morning before a hot shower. I liked rolling out of bed early, making coffee, and sitting down at the typewriter. When I came to graduate school, I thought I might take a few writing courses, learn what I could, and then go back to work again. But when I sold my tools, I had to admit what I had known for a long time: that I was through with the powerlines. The action seemed as irrevocable as tearing up my union ticket.

I work as hard now as I’ve ever worked in my life–writing, studying literature, teaching college English–but it’s different. It’s not work in the same sense as physical labor, which bothered me. For years, work meant diesel fumes, heavy equipment, bad weather, scars, good pay, and yelling a lot. Sometimes I feel guilty, sitting at a desk, because I call what I do work and never get dirty.

When they ask, I tell my family I’m working hard, putting in hours at the computer or in the library. It’s true, and they believe me. My father quit school after the eighth grade to farm. My mother finished high school and has worked as a secretary ever since. They were proud that my brother and I had the chance to go to college, proud of his work as an engineer, and proud that I will be the first person in our family to earn a doctorate. Oddly enough, I think that my parents may realize better than I do that abstract work is as honorable as physical work. They never had that choice.  My mother is relieved that I don’t climb anymore. She says that she sleeps better now, knowing that.

For years though, academia felt false to me, perhaps because it was dirty in a way that I wasn’t used to. I know that I romanticize the dirt too much, the idea of being working class. It’s easy to foget the days I slogged through knee deep mud wishing I was somewhere clean and dry, or the day lightning struck a pole two spans away and green fire sizzled through the wires three feet above my head. I missed the companionship of my crewmates, and the satisfaction of seeing my work strung up in the air.

What made me stay in graduate school though, was the desire to write. I realized that a college English department was not the pure world that I once imagined. There are slackers and screw-ups, professors riding tenure to retirement, and self-important backbiters struggling for a modicum of power; but there are just as many men and women who find value in–and who others place value on–their work. They enjoy a satisfaction at the end of a day that no one can take away from them.

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