Linemen spend a great deal of time in safety meetings. It seems like at least twice a month since the day I hired on, I’ve been in a meeting discussing rules and reading from safety books. I used to take it for granted. I always understood that the rules needed to be followed, but when I was told that our safety rules were written in blood, it didn’t resonate with me the way it does now. It wasn’t until the blood of one of my brothers went into the printing of that book that it really hit home.
I recently lost a friend to the line of work that I love, and I’ve been having a hard time with it. Of course, I’m not going through anything close to what his family is dealing with, but I have had to ask myself some hard questions regarding the accident that took his life. I think it’s human nature to ask yourself if you did everything possible to prevent an undesirable outcome, and although I was nowhere near my buddy when he had his accident, I still can’t help but feel like I may have been able to prevent it, somehow.
If you’re already doing everything in your power to positively influence the people on your crew into working safely, great. Keep it up. But, if you ever look the other way while someone you are working alongside does something that you know he shouldn’t be doing, have the courage to speak up.
Train every apprentice you work with as if both of your lives depend upon it because every time you teach a shortcut, or pass on a way of doing something that is unsafe, you’re setting a trap. That trap may spring years or even decades down the road; it may never spring at all. But unsafe practices taint the well for an apprentice thirsty for knowledge. Anytime you knowingly break a safety rule that has already taken someone’s life, you’re desecrating their grave. Our line of work is hazardous enough when we do things right; let’s quit making it more dangerous than it has to be.
The following is a letter I wrote to my friend who lost his life. He’ll never read this, but I felt compelled to write it anyway. My hope is that you’ll never have to do the same.
The ceremony was beautiful. The entire town showed up. There were people standing along the walls inside and outside the church.
Your kids looked so grown up. I guess it had been a while since the last time I saw them. The flower arrangement your wife picked out was perfect, and the way they draped your climbing belt and tools over your casket and placed your hard hat on top was a nice touch. The slideshow of pictures of you alongside your family was almost too much to take. I wish I could say that the lump inside my throat and the tears on my face were because of the incense they were burning off, but I’d be lying. You always had a knack for calling me out on my B.S., anyway.
I quit filtering my heartaches out through my liver some years ago, but sitting there in my coat and tie, with my back aching from that old, creaking church pew, I watched as your daughter cried, and I couldn’t help thinking that it may have been the perfect day for a relapse. I refrained, but I’d trade my sobriety to have you here with me knocking back a bottle for old time’s sake the way we used to when we were apprentices.
I just want you to know that I forgive you. I forgive you for whatever lapse in concentration you may have had or for whatever shortcut you may have taken. I forgive you for the self-doubt you’ve left me with and the constant worry that haunts my family now. Yesterday, my eight-year-old daughter asked me if what happened to you was ever going to happen to me. That was a difficult conversation. She was scared and I was mad at you all day long, but I forgive you. I always loved you like a brother, and love forgives.
The person I’m having a hard time forgiving is myself. I’ve been staying up all night tossing and turning, wondering if I’d ever seen you taking the shortcut that took your life and chose not to tell you anything. If so, I’m sorry. God knows I would go back and change it if I could. I would have said that to your wife, but my heavy conscience kept me from looking her in the eye. Like a coward, I set my gaze to the floor, hugged her, and said, “I’m sorry.” She had no idea just how heavy those two words are on my heart right now. I’ll carry them with me like a scar on my soul for the rest of my life. Linemen don’t get the luxury of clocking out and forgetting about work. Electricity doesn’t discriminate, and it plays for keeps. Our society has grown accustomed to never being without its convenience, and you and your family paid the ultimate price. It’s an invisible force that most people go all day long without even thinking about, but it took your life all the same. I’ll spend the rest of my days wondering if I did everything in my power to prevent what happened. I’ll never know the answer to that question, and it hurts like hell.
I hope the decorations and the bucket trucks staged outside the church were enough. I hope the stories we told put a smile on your face and I hope they reminded your family just how loved you were. We did our best to send you off the way you deserved, with a Lineman’s Farewell. I just wanted to tell you, rest easy brother, your dance inside the fire is over — we’ve got it from here.
The Salty Lineman