Friday, June 21, 2013

(Seemingly Endless) Days of the Condor

My daughter Hillary is on vacation, visiting her sister Vinca in Virginia this week and asked me to write a guest post.  So, while she views the monuments in D.C. and tromps the fields of Gettysburg, I will sit at my desk and slave away, dredging up old memories, just for her.

When I was younger, I worked in powerline construction; you know, those giant steel and cable behemoths that crisscross the country delivering massive amounts of electricity.  In those days, we built EHV powerline mostly out on the great plains.  It was an attempt by the government to connect the entire country on a grid and eliminate the plague of blackouts that were then occurring in the NE United States.  (If you live in the NE and are old enough to remember those days, well, you're welcome.)

One of the most dangerous jobs in what was overall a very dangerous profession (the only professions with a higher mortality rate in those days were combat soldiers, astronauts, and race car drivers), was cutting in dead-ends.  A dead-end is a structure constructed at a point where the line has to make a turn so sharp that it won't facilitate continuous conductor cable.  The conductor must be cut at this juncture after it has been connected almost horizontally to the dead-end structure by strings of insulators (or bells, as we called them, because of how they look).  Great loops of aluminum conductor are then slung beneath to connect up with the phase running off at a new tangent beyond the structure.

We all hated and dreaded cutting in dead-ends.  It required the lineman to sit on the wire while maneuvering extremely heavy six-bolt stays onto the bundled conductor and attaching them by screwing them down hard onto the conductor with a torque wrench.  The six-bolts would be fastened to the structure in order to keep the line under strain so that it would maintain its proper sag.  Then the conductor would be cut between the six-bolts and the tower and the groundsmen would send up another extremely weighty hydraulic device called a press.  With this, the lineman would press a sleeve with a ring on the end onto the conductor by which the conductor could then be permanently attached to the structure.  

Sometimes the line would be lowered after it was cut (though kept under strain) and the pressing of the sleeve done on the ground, a much safer and easier method.  Just as often, however, usually because of the configuration of the right-of-way, the pressing had to be done in the air.   

All this while, the only thing holding millions of pounds of aluminum and steel in place was an operator's foot on the brake of an immense machine known as a puller.  Oh, yes, there was an emergency brake, too, but this was a huge cumbersome thing and seldom used.  Men in a hurry to build big things tend to cut the corners where they can.  Besides that, our company's puller was an out-dated, even ancient thing, which we all suspected had been first built thousands of years ago and used up and worn out by the Romans or maybe even the Hittites.

I personally knew four men that died on the job in those years and two of those deaths occurred while cutting in dead-ends.  Believe me, when tons of thick aluminum cable, held under tremendous strain, comes loose, it tends to ravel and twist as it recoils back up the line, seeking the drum from which it was unreeled.  Gathering up the unfortunate lineman's remains for a funeral is a sad and often messy task. 

Eventually, someone from OSHA came by and forced our company to come up with a better solution for cutting in dead-ends than simply hanging a lineman out there in perilous space where old man death could draw a good sharp bead on him.

The company's solution was to acquire another incredibly ancient Hittite machine - a high-lift truck capable of extending a bucket containing two men up to eighty feet in the air.  The massive truck had once been called an Eagle by the manufacturer - we knew this because those of us with better eyesight could just make out the smudges of painted letters that had long ago faded into the metal.

The Eagle was a loathsome beast, contrary, undependable, dilapidated, and scary.  Sometimes, as if on a whim, with two lineman stuck up there at the end of its fully extended boom, it would decide to re-adjust the pressure of its hydraulic fluid and drop its boom three or four or sometimes ten feet.  You know, just for the hell of it.

Needless to say, this peculiar habit of the ancient animal made us all more than a bit skittish.  (And caused us all to heap abuse upon the poor operator, who of course never had a clue as to why the machine acted like it did.)

We finally decided that it wasn't an "Eagle" at all, but something extinct or at least nearly extinct.  So, we renamed it the "Condor".

Those of us on the clipping crews, responsible for permanently attaching the conductor to the structures, came to fear and despise the thing and our skittishness eventually devolved into terror.  How we all hated to see a dead-end structure show up on the line!, especially if it might be our turn to take a ride in the Condor.  That ancient beast became the stuff of my nightmares, and by the haggard, weary look of my comrades most mornings, I knew that it haunted their sleep as well.  We even began to long for the old days, when we sat on the wire while we wrestled with six-bolts at dead-end structures.

One day, it fell to Wamsley and me to take our lives in our hands, ride up on the end of that worn-out, bouncing boom and cut in the dead-ends.  It actually wasn't too bad that day, for the way that the truck was situated, the upper arm of the structure was right to our left, within reach, and most of the lattice-work mass of the lower half of the structure was directly beneath, fifty feet or so below our position, cutting off our view of the ground even further below where the ancient beast might seek to deposit us in rude manner at any second. 

We had the six-bolts positioned on the wire and were working to secure them to the conductor when the Condor decided to have one of its moments.  

Abruptly, the bucket dropped.  I stared at Wamsley, wide-eyed, and he looked back at me in like manner.  He was a lean, wiry fellow, with a tendency to squint, which made his eyes appear small.  Usually, all one could see of Wamsley's eyes was only about half of his brown irises with little triangles of white to either side.  This day, however, I could see all of his irises, plus a fair amount of white all the way around both of them.  His eyes, I realized, were actually quite large when one got a really good view of 'em.

We expected the bucket to stop, as was its wont, but it kept going.  In a fraction of a second, I realized that this was it - the machine had utterly failed and wouldn't stop until it, and we, were buried upon impact deep in the earth.  Somehow, we had to get out.

Dead-end towers look rather like big X's, with the feet splayed out to hold the structure up and the arms, to which the conductor is attached, reaching up and out to either side.  The upper part of the structure was just then passing by the bucket on my side.  Instinctively, in a spasm of self-preservation, I leapt from the bucket, catching the lattice-work with my left hand.  At the last instant, I thought of Wamsley and reached for him as I took my leap.  His safety strap was hung over his shoulder and my fingers caught it, grasped it, and my hand formed a fist.

The bucket of the Condor continued to fall, finally grinding to a shuddering halt on the leg of the structure thirty or forty feet below.

There we were, seventy feet in the air; me hanging onto the steel lattice of the tower like grim death with my left hand, and Wamsley dangling at the end of his safety strap, suspended in space from my right.

He gazed up at me as he twisted slowly back and forth and his face grew sad.  "We're all gonna die, you know.  Sooner or later that damn thing will kill us all."

"I know," I replied through gritted teeth.  "But not today."

We decided after that episode that the Condor wasn't a condor at all.  I mean, there are still a few of those birds extant out in California - right?  No, our beast was something more ancient still, something truly lost in the deeply layered age-old dust of history.

It occurred to us that it was, in fact, a pterodactyl.  Truly extinct, a denizen of pre-history.  So we re-named it.  The Pterodactyl it was from that day forward.  And still, though a member of a species that hasn't been seen on earth in many multi-millennia, it persisted in terrorizing us endlessly.

One day, I'd had enough.  I went to the shop and found a can of black spray paint.  After work, and after dark, when the crews had gone home, I hung around til the show-up yard was deserted and then I painted its new name up along the side of the boom.  In great, bold letters. 


Later, when I became part of management, I understood that companies that construct powerlines have clients - the various power providers in the various states, and an image of professionalism must be maintained.  Having your men deface company equipment, especially when that defacement can be construed as demeaning to the company, is really not a desirable thing.  But at the time I did it, I didn't know this, and truthfully, might not have cared.

The next day, the general foreman of our crews, a huge man named Marlatt, found me where I was clipping in a phase up on a structure and yelled up at me, ordering me to the ground immediately.  Now - dammit!

Once I was on earth, he proceeded to chew me up one side and down the other for defacing company equipment.  He threatened to fire me.  I believe he even threatened to kill me.  I took it all as stoically as I could.  Finally, he paused and asked me what I had to say for myself.

I struck as casual a pose as I could muster.  "How do you know I did it?"  I asked.

He went red (redder) in the face.  "Cuz you're the only one of these lost souls with enough education to know how to spell a word like that.  And it is spelled right - I checked."

My penance consisted of painting over my offense with white paint and even sprucing the old beast up a bit.  It didn't matter.  The guy from OSHA eventually came back around and ordered the thing off the job (our theory was that this particular inspector was actually thousands of years old and had first encountered our hapless machine in ancient Mesopotamia or perhaps the land of Uz).  So, the Condor went away, its days finally over.

I seldom have nightmares these days about those days of the Condor - in fact, the nightmares may have stopped completely. I haven't had one now in, oh, I don't know, ..... four or five days.

Have fun in Virginia, Hoodoo.


  1. Wow, what a story, and what a piece of writing: and what a punchline! When's the movie due out?

  2. Tim, I second all of that! Thank you, Dad, for publishing this here. What a story! I am very honored that you would give such a great piece of writing to my little site. Please, send more powerline stories! Though I should really be paying you for this material...

    I love you, Dad.


  3. Awe! Powerline days! I never met pterodactyl but I always thought Marlatt might have been some kind of kin to the thing as he was good at destroying machinery that was NOT ancient! I still sometimes look at those pictures of us dangling between heaven and earth and wonder how any one survived! Thanks, Dan for the reminder. Nightmares? I haven't had one since..... well maybe tonite!

    1. I love all the Powerline stories....Marlatt, Wamsley, Sherwood - they're all legends to us kids. We never get tired of those tales of death-defying days. Can't wait to hear them again.


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