My Life With a Lineman's Ticket
These are memories of my 45 years working in the Electric Power Field. Mostly as an Electric Journeyman Lineman climbing and building power lines across America. Traveling Linemen were called "Tramps". Many of my expressions, terms, tool names and actions are used only in the Lineman Trade. I will try to explain them as I go and try not to interrupt the stories. (Which, by the way, are mostly true) If any are not understandable to you, please Email me with the Link at the bottom and I will try to explain what I'm talking about. Deal???
Well, I'll just blame it all on Larry Blanke! He got me started on many adventures, including a coed group skinny-dipping at the Holyrood Lake. There I was, minding my own business (another line that I always wanted to use to start a story) playing pool and actually winning, when he came in flashing his money. He had found a job with an Oilfield Electric Contractor in Great Bend, KS just 30 miles from our home town of Holyrood (pop 601). He was making $1.25 per hour and working 80+ hours weekly and I just knew I wanted some of that. He said they were hiring and I should go there Monday.
I had been doing some odd jobs in the oil field that were odd to me. I was only 19 and still growing, yet smaller than most of the guys around town. The oil field was too harsh to me, very dirty work. I was wanting and dreaming of the usual needs, like a better car, etc. So I went to see Bucky the owner of C&P Electric, got hired and started work the same day. This was on Halloween, Monday, October 31st, 1960. They mostly set poles, strung wire and hung electric power transformers energizing oil field pumping wells converting from diesel and natural gas. Also many of the new wells recently drilled started off with electric motors running them. We loaded up the trucks and away we went heading west out of town.
My crew hauled materials, drug and scattered poles to where they would be put in the ground and did lots of hand digging with "banjos and spades". These are shovels with long handles that will dig holes down to 10' and over. Also included in these "digging sets" are long, heavy steel digging bars Well, it didn't take me long to see I did not want to do this for very long, I wanted to be a Lineman as their work just looked easier and paid better.
We were on a new lease where many wells had been drilled. I drove my truck right into a recently filled waste water pit that was used while drilling. Growing up in the oil field I knew the uses for these pits and how to spot them but I was excited about driving this large truck, larger than the farm trucks I had driven before. My brother once brought home a dead rabbit that he said he had killed, but from looking and smelling, our mom knew that rabbit had drowned in a pit. Anyway, I knew that I was going to be fired on my 1st day, but the Foreman just brought another truck, hooked up a long chain and drug me out of that pit. Another word was not said and back to scattering materials I went.
When I got home that night I went to see the owner of our local hardware store. I asked if he had and lineman hooks and belts for sale. I told him about my new job and what I wanted to do. He said he had an old pair he used to use that he would give me. The hooks were an old pair of Army Surplus Buckingham "straights" and the gaffs had been sharpened into a round shape. He said the leather belt was too small for him anymore but I needed to check out the many repairs on it made with bailing wire and leather laces to make sure it was still safe. The safety strap that goes around the pole was also not in very good repairs. I was very excited to show up the next day for work with my new Lineman tools!
I proudly showed Bucky my "new" tools and he quickly took me and my tools to an old Lineman working back in his shop. He said to show me the right way to sharpen the gaffs and to check out my belt and safety. He told my Foreman to take me out and see if I could climb. Well, he did and I did. Most of the poles set in the oil field for the 3-Wire Secondary voltage of 480 volts were from 30' tall up to sometimes 50' tall. It was a struggle, but I got to the top without "burning" (gaffs cutting out and free falling) any poles. That day. No more being a Grunt, now another Lineman on the crews!
Bucky had relatives in my town of Holyrood, so he had heard of Larry and mine's escapades. He kept us usually on separate crews, especially when we stayed out of town and stayed in hotels or in motels. One of his trucks was a flatbed truck with an "A-Frame" gin poles attached to the end of the truck's bed. A winch line went over the end of it and a large auger hung from it. It was very handy to dig holes and set poles quickly. When travelling, the gin poles were lowered and pinned to keep below overhead wires and the auger was held up to the truck bed with the winch line.
It was usually parked out back of C&P's office yard, but one day Larry decided to park it near the office so it would be ready to go the next morning. He backed it into a parking slot, then felt a large bump. He drove the truck forward, got out, walked around the truck but couldn't see anything. So he backed it up again and the same thing happened. By this time Bucky was out the front door and yelled at Larry. He started pointing up. Larry looked up and saw where the gin poles had gone through the outside wall right over the desk in Bucky's office. Well, that pretty much ended his truck driving days!
So Larry usually went with an electrician to do the final hookups on the wells or just to troubleshoot and repair the older installations. We had an electrician that had worked many years for Mobil Oil Co and he was very good. But the wild women and whiskey got him down when he was working for Mobil in Thailand. Mobil gave him a choice: Give up the (mostly) whiskey or give up your job. He gave up the job and ended up working for Bucky. After Bucky died from a tractor rolling over him on his farm, Syd was one of those that bought out C&P Electric.
A few years earlier Syd was on a pole and got between 2-480 volt wires. He cut his leather safety with his skinning knife to clear himself and fell to the ground. After healing up he never did climb again that I knew of. So Bucky would send a Lineman to work with him instead of the usual Grunts or the ones trying to learn to be an Electrician.
We had a shop in the back of C&P's office where the electric risers were built for the new well installations. They had a very large control box at the bottom and conduit pipe going up with the wires to connect to the overhead wires. Older workers built these and other parts for electricians and crews. One day I was sent out with Syd to install one of these. He asked me if I could climb and I said "Yes, I had climbed lots of poles!" He asked if I had ever worked on 480 volts "hot" and I said "Oh hell yes!!!" But it was a good thing he didn't believe me.
He took out a pair of high-voltage gloves and showed me how to air-test them and how to check for cracks in the rubber from sunlight and just old age. Our gloves were never tested, just thrown away when they were found to be bad. He gave them to me along with a pair of leather "keeper" gloves. These keepers were put on over the rubber gloves to protect them from getting punctures and/or cuts from the wires, splinters and other hazards.
In my mind I knew that the rubber gloves were hot and stuck to my fingers. I also figured that the leather gloves wouldn't protect me from getting and electrical shocks, so I put the leather gloves on 1st then put the rubber gloves on over those. Syd just watched and never said a word to me. But he watched me like a hawk until I had finished the connections on top of the pole and was back safely on the ground. Syd just acted like all was OK and told me that I had done a great job. It was days after that when I saw another lineman test and put on his gloves that I knew how wrong I had been!
Most of the C&P employees were young. The Crew I was on was usually from 6 to 10 guys. We had a fat, lazy Grunt on it. I told my Foreman he should just fire him after I found him hiding out from the hard work. The Foreman said "Are you crazy? He's the only one here that's over 21, old enough to buy whiskey at the liquor store!" Well, he was the only one that had some kind of job security!!!
During the slack days in between jobs Bucky had us working in the yard. One Saturday he said we had some boxes of dynamite that were leaking some nitro glycerin. So me and the others piled them up in back of the office, poured some gas on them and lit it off. Some business owners near us called the Fire Dept. to report the funny colored smoke coming off of our fire. When the Fire Dept. showed up, they asked what we were burning and I told them. They didn't stay very long!
We needed dynamite on a job in western Kansas so our Foreman loaded up some boxes in his pickup. He loaded the electric dynamite caps in another pickup that the lazy Grunt drove. These were hauled separate because the company radios we had could set off the caps when keyed to talk. We were on the jobsite all day when the Foreman opened his toolbox and saw the boxes of caps on top of the dynamite boxes. He yelled at our lazy Grunt asking him when and why he had put them there. The Grunt told him he had put them there before we left Great Bend yard as he didn't want to chance them going off while he was in the pickup. Well, the Foreman rode him hard that week and maybe he dropped a few pounds.
Syd got a job assigned to him to wire a control room in Blackwell, OK at an oil refinery. Larry and I were assigned to go with him. I learned a lot of inside wiring and control work from him, but our biggest job was just to drive him around on the weekends when he would party. He would drink lots of whiskey, chase women and just party hard. He would sit in a chair for an hour or two and get up seemingly sober and start it all over again. Larry and I took turns driving and he would wear us out. But we were always back to work on Mondays.
Syd took us to his home town where we met his ex-wife and family. We also met one of his Mobil friends that used to party with Syd. He told about when he was with Syd out drinking. The telephone lines used to be just lots of open wires before they started using cables. These wires were on wooden cross arms on short telephone poles. One night Syd hit a pole, knocked it down, and then they went to Syd's house where Syd parked the car inside the garage to hide the damage from the cops or anyone else.
The next morning there was a knock on the door and it was a local cop. He asked Syd if he had hit a telephone pole the night before. Syd said "Why, yes I did, but how did you know that? The cop said "Come outside." Syd went out and the cop pointed out of the small telephone wires in the street, where they turned into Syd's driveway and went under the garage door. Well, that's pretty hard to deny!
I stayed with C&P off and on for several years. My mom knew Bucky's aunt that lived in Holyrood. One day while visiting her the aunt told my mom this story that Bucky had told her. Bucky said that I was a very good Lineman but he always told his Foremen to watch me very closely. I had the bad habit (to him) of just throwing my tools over my shoulder and walking down the road "dragging" the job. He said I was the only hand he ever had that would quit the job just before he handed out the Christmas bonus checks. Well, that's just the way I was back then and probably would be the same way if I was not retired now.
Larry quit C&P Electric and got a job for a Kansas Power Co. as an Apprentice Lineman. He called me and said I should also apply there as they were Union with a great pay scale and lots of benefits, but that's another Chapter.