4. Linemen

My Lineman Climbing Experience


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        While I was working for the C&P Telephone Company, in Bethesda, MD, I had the great good fortune to be able to work with the amazing Ron Layman; Lineman Extraordinaire.

        When I started with the phone company, I was required to attend Plant School in Washington, DC.  While there, I learned how to install house phones, hang a drop from the pole to the house, and understand the workings on the phone system.  Wire color coding, Tip & Ring and all that.  In addition, they took us out to the yard next to the building and taught us how to climb a pole.

        Keep in mind this was 1966 and well before the effort to bury all telephone and power lines, so most phone lines were still run on poles.  I had an excellent instructor and was thrilled to be actually be climbing a telephone pole on hooks.

        I must admit it was helpful that I was inspired by having read the book “Slim” by William Wister Haines back in 1958 while I was living in London.  Found the paperback on a rack at the PX in Grosvernor Square; the old embassy building before the current one was built.  I was captivated.  The paperback cover alone made me want to be a lineman; at the tender age of 16.

        Once I was assigned to work out of the Bethesda garage, learned the process of fulfilling the daily orders and getting my own panel truck, I found out how much I preferred working outdoors on the poles rather than in the houses.  Some houses were very nice work, others were nightmares.  I could tell you stories.

        So it didn’t take long for the other installers in the garage, who hated to climb, to start swapping their climbing orders with me.  And I got all the ‘hook poles’ in places like Potomac, MD.  Now it’s all built up and the lines are all underground.  But in the 60’s there were a lot of new housing developments where ‘hook poles’ were used.  In the older residential areas like Bethesda and Chevy Chase, all the poles had ‘step bolts’ already installed.  So hooks were not needed, just the portable first step which slipped over a bold head on the pole.  This helped keep anyone but trained telephone company employees from climbing the poles.  Remember, power lines ran on the same poles only a couple of feet above the installers head.

        It was on a climbing job where I first worked with Ron Layman.  Just watching Ron climb took me back to the description of linemen in the book “Slim”.   He had a way of setting his gaff in the pole and straightening his leg that looked different from how I learned in plant school and seems smoother, faster and more sure-footed.  My training began.

        We didn’t climb that high in most cases, maybe 40 or 50 feet.  But some jobs in the distant suburbs had us on higher poles, the 70 foot variety.  The first time I watched Ron come down a tall pole in 10 strides, I was dumbfounded.  But he had been a lineman with Ivy Smith, the electrical contractor, for years and really knew how to climb.   This I had to do.  Like anything else that was about ‘go fast’, I had to learn this.  And I did.  That’s why I took all the hook pole tickets from the other installers.  I wanted to climb.

        Before I left the phone company, Ron did.  He was dating one of the girls on the ‘wheel’, from where all out order tickets were derived, Maureen or just Mo,  Possibly they left the area together, I don’t know.  I just remember my upset that we wouldn’t be able to work together again.   I left C&P a short time later.  I was put on jobs pulling cable in office buildings and just said the hell with it.

        Many years later, around 2004, I found myself speaking with an Ivy Smith lineman in the Germantown, MD Applebees.  He said he knew Ron Layman and heard he had died.  Seems all the linemen he knew, knew of Ron and he was highly respected.

        To this day, whenever I see a string of tall telephone/power poles or towers, it brings back the wonder days of hooking tall poles in the summer heat and racing Ron Layman to the ground, chunk, chunk, chunk.