LINEMAN FOR THE COUNTY
Sometimes being the youngest in a large family carries an unfavorable fate. Not only are old clothes handed down, but also so are the least desirable jobs. Being the youngest of five children, I know I was to carry more than my share of the burden.
I grew up in a small village in Kansas where my father was the owner of the local telephone company. If one could unwind a certain yellowed family scroll handwritten in Gothic an organizational chart would be found showing my father as the Chief Engineer; my mother, the Telephone Operator; my sisters,the Bookkeepers; my brother, the Inside Plant Man; and I, the Outside Plant Man or Lineman. It was what everyone considered the dregs; the job, which had been passed down to me.
My mother always operated the telephone switchboard, but during lunch or dinner one of my sisters would take over while she prepared a hot meal for the whole family. Noontime meals would consist of some kind of homemade soup and bread with butter. In the evening it was mostly some kind of pasta concoction, which I invariably hated. On rare occasions, meat would be included. Vegetables were plentiful and always present since they were grown in the garden by Father with a great deal of weeding and hoeing help from the family.
To me the telephone switchboard was a fascinating device. It consisted of rows of magnets, one corresponding to each person having a telephone and a bunch of cords looped and weighted to prevent tangling. They were used for connecting two people together even though they were on opposite side of the village.
Making a telephone call began by someone picking up the receiver and turning the little generator crank on top of the telephone et. This would cause a magnet at the switchboard to release a small trap door. The open door at the switchboard would alert my mother that someone wanted to place a call. There were many magnets but only the one requesting service by turning the crank would fall down and lay open on its hinge. My mother knew this a signal to take action. Unlike the robotic indifference of our modern electronic telephone switching systems, she knew that a real live person existed behind each of those magnets.
When a call came into the switchboard, my mother would plug one end of the cord in and speak to the person, who she knew since tire location was always in the same place on the same cord in the switchboard. Sometimes the person would simply want the time, or perhaps to gossip a bit. On other occasions the customer, after some friendly conversation, would want to be connected to another person such as the butcher or baker or perhaps a friend. Since the community was relatively small, no numbers were used, just the person’s name. I was always fascinated and intrigued by the simplicity of the whole operation-no numbers to remember, no dialing; all you had to do was just ask Also, before a person was connected to his or her party, each could hear all of the local news and weather reports from my mother. Other people could listen in if they had a party line and most did. Sometimes arguments would erupt over the accuracy of the news (gossip) or weather reports.
As Father and my brother added new subscribers, their lines would be assigned to new magnets. After the assignment was made, my mother would call the new person and in a short time they would also be acquainted. From then on, they would be initiated into the community telephone family, not as a number but as a human being. In the beginning the telephone service was offered only during the daytime. Later on it was on twenty-four hours a day.
After I reached the ripe old age of thirteen, I remember vividly Father taking me to the far end of the village, strapping the climbing spurs onto his legs, looping his belt around the pole and climbing up and down the pole effortlessly and naturally as walking up and down a ladder. Many times had I seen him do the same thing, but this time I had a feeling it was different. When he got to the top, no work was done, no splicing of wires or fixing of anything. Father nimbly waltzed up and down that pole and at the same time explained the correct and incorrect techniques of pole climbing. When he came down he smiled sheepishly at me and looked at me laconically. He strapped a pair of climbing spurs onto my legs and then placed the beltround my waist.
“Joe, it’s time you learned to climb.” He spoke softly while his large piercing blue eyes left no mistake: the time had come for my ordination into the telephone business. I began to shiver and shake, but never did it enter my mind to rebuff my day and say, “But I want to be an architect or an accountant or a truck driver or a garbage collector or a logger. I don’t want to be a pole climber! I’m afraid of that job!” I retrenched for I dared not face the consequences of such utterances. The black pitch oozed out of the pole creating a garage-like smell. It was obvious from the numerous jutting splinters that many people before me had practiced on it. So I climbed it without hesitation.
“Not bad!” I mumbled to myself as I made my way to the top. “There isn’t much to this. My calves hurt a little, but not bad.” While on top I view the surroundings and listened to the wind whistling through the wires and fluffing my shirt into a balloon. This was the highest I had ever been and it felt exhilarating. Now for the descent. Getting up the pole was relatively easy. From below Father was shouting encouragement and “ataboys” at me.
Unfortunately, reality of set in and the likelihood of falling and so I panicked and froze like a chunk of ice, not able to do anything but tightly cling to the pole wishing that this was all an impassioned dream. I clutched it with all my might and with an elevated fear; I pulled out the right spur, reached down about a foot and drove it into the pole. I pulled out the let spur with the intention of continuing down, but unable to hold my weight the right spur gave way, splintering the wood. Tightly clutching the pole for dear life, I experienced an uncontrollable free fall slide down the pole, gathering splinters all the while. I was quaking with utter fear as beads of salty perspiration burned my eyes and blinded me. The force of hitting the ground caused my knees to buckle and I landed in an awkward position on my rear end. Still strapped to the pole, I managed to stand up and wipe the tears from my eyes with one sleeve and then the other, the more I wiped the more the tears gushed.
Shaking uncontrollably, I waited for some condolence from Father. Instead I head shout, “Joe, go right up that pole again and this time do it right!” I was dismayed and bewildered but too shocked to disobey. And up the pole like an automaton I climbed, to dazed to feel the splinters burning my legs and pricking my body. Really angry I clambered to the top, all the time feeling hurt at the lack of support from my father. “I’m just a little boy,’ I cried, “I should be home being comforted by my mother. Why is he being so mean to me?” When I got to the top I paused, looked around and tried to rationalize my predicament. But all I felt was abandonment.
By now my choler was so acute that I jabbed my right spur into the wood with great force, pulled out the left one and continued down the pole making sure the spurs would really sink into the pole. I reached the bottom without incident. I was too angry to feel nervous.
My new accomplishment soon overcame the anger. Before I could say anything, Father spoke, almost kindly, “Son, if I did not demand that you climb back up that pole, your fear would be so great that you would think I was being cruel, I really had you best interest in mind. After all, you play an important role in the family business and the rest of the family is depending heavily on you abilities.”
Even with the pain of pulling out the splinters, I was much relieved and even exhilarated to learn of my newly acquired importance. I lost all my antagonism towards my father. For the first time I looked deeply into my father’s blue eyes, and as I never dared to do before, and thus envisioned myself as a man.
After mastering pole climbing, my inauguration into the outside plant was imminent. I had garnered some pride, especially when I would relate some of the stories of my newly leaned accomplishments to my classmates at school. Some of them shared my exuberance that made me feel good; some were outright jealous. Others didn’t seem to care one way or another, and their indifference puzzled and saddened me.
Unfortunately each and every subscriber needs pair of copper wires for carrying their speech. And each pair of wires emanated like a spider’s web from the subscriber’s home, then tied to a few intervening telephone poles and on the back of my mother’s switchboard. This was part of my job, my domain - running the wire putting up the poles, (some of which were shared with the Power Company) and installing telephones in the customer’s homes. The installation I especially liked since it invariably ended in receiving some homemade pie, cookies and milk from some kind lady.
If this was all there was to outside plant, it would be a cinch. But unfortunately Mother Nature does not always cooperate. Wires are crossed and shorted; they break or come loose and have to be spliced and put back up on the top of the poles. Tree branches get in the way, shorting the wires. And during snow and ice storms, the wires become weighted down and break. Of course, yours truly had to don a raincoat and work in the snow and rain, oblivious to lurking dangers.
As part of our expansion and modernization, we were in the process of connecting our switchboard with the neighboring villages. Unlike the open single wires we used to run in pairs the cables were made up of a multiplicity of wire bound together with an outside shield. This required running the cable from our village to theirs even though some of the intervening terrain wasn’t amenable to truck traffic. The reel containing the cable was on the back of our old pickup truck. We pulled as much as we could with the truck, and when the route got too rocky we had to stop. My brother had an idea and suggested that we visit the nearby farmer to see if we could borrow his mule. It was a cinch! We could have it done in no time. The farmer looked askance and then back at us. I could tell that he wasn’t too enthusiastic about lending us what just have been his one and only work mule.
“How about ten dollars?” my brother proffered.
The farmer scratched his head and looked me in the eye. I smiled a smile of assurance and he said, “All right! But don’t you mistreat my Josephine!”
“Great! This has to be our lucky day,” I exploded with joy.
We removed the reel of wire and strapped it on Josephine’s back. She didn’t seem to mind, such a gentle mule. Josephine got us over all this rough ground and up to this point the operation had proceeded admirably
But with each good comes a bad; with each success, a failure; with each sunshine a little rain. So it was with us. We had approached small stream, which was about eight feet wide and about a foot deep. We guided Josephine down the bank and into the stream. The water was fairly cool and Josephine kept going until she sot to the middle of the stream and then suddenly stopped. Apparently the water was a little cool for her. To get her to move, I pulled and my brother pushed, but that mule not budge. We tried to persuade with apples; we tried slapping her on the backside. Nothing fazed Josephine; she became as stubborn as the proverbial mule.
What to do! What to do! My brother and I looked at each other with that look of hopelessness. All is vanity! Vanity, vanity. Then my brother got a bright idea. “Why don’t we use the Megger?”
“Yes, the Megger, “ I agreed.
A Megger is an instrument used by the telephone people to measure the very high resistances of telephone wires. It generates it’s own electricity. Its voltage is quite high. The shock is like getting hit with an electric fence or an ignition wire of a car.
“Let’s connect it to Josephine and when we zap her, maybe she will move forward,” my brother said. We hooked the one end of the wire to the mule and dug the other into the ground on the bank. My brother turned the handle of the crank and to our dismay the mule dropped dead.
“O Lord! What have we done? We killed Josephine!”
We stared at one another in disbelief. “This can’t be! The Megger can’t kill. It’s not supposed to happen like this. What do we do now?”
Unhooking the cable, we managed to pull poor dead Josephine to shore. Her large, sad, brown eyes were still staring at us. We stealthily made our way back to the farmer’s house to tell him about the tragedy.
Oddly enough, he didn’t seem to be too upset over the death of his mule, but at the money needed to replace her. He demanded ninety dollars as compensation for Josephine. At the time I didn’t know whether I was more upset at the death of the mule or the farmer’s indifference in equating Josephine’s life to money.
Come time for reckoning, my father was visibly unsettled when we told him of our predicament. But he took steps to reimburse the farmer for the loss of his mule and borrow another so we could complete the job. This time we took no chances and pulled the cable across the stream ourselves and used the mule on land only. The laying of the cable was finally completed inaugurating communications with the neighboring village, which to everyone seemed like a miracle.