Of Billy Pilgrim and Yoda

Once upon a time I read Slaughterhouse Five. Not when I was five, but it seems just as long ago. At the end of the book, Billy Pilgrim and his fellow captors wake up one day to find their prison unlocked, the war over. They wander out into the streets, and he meets a bird. The bird says to him, ‘Po-tee-weet?’ To read it written, this bird doesn’t seem very onomatofriendly, not to me anyway. This intimation of bird-speak never sat well with me. It was incredible, or incredulous rather. No bird sounded like that. On the other hand, this is Vonnegut, he’s not in the business of lying, so why shouldn’t Vonnegut’s bird exist somewhere in the world? It was possible, but I waffled on the issue for a while, until I gave up on it, leaving the matter, for the time, unresolved.

This was a concept I always struggled with from that day forward. The committing to the written word of the animal sound.

When I was in high school, I took French all four years, even though in retrospect I wish I’d taken Latin my freshman year. Point being, there was this chapter all about animal sounds, and I hated it. It was bizarre crazy talk, and none of it sounded accurate to any degree. Like the rooster, who in French says co-co-ri-co! Really? I didn’t believe any of it. It was gibberish. Was this small-minded of me? No question. Arrogant? More like ignorant. I was in high school, though; of my many intellectual transgressions then and since, this one’s a bottom feeder, a worry from someone who doesn’t yet know what worry is. I did pass the subsequent test, but only because it was vocab memorization, and that was easy. But the subject left me unsettled, a kernel stuck in a back molar, an audible anomaly I had no rationale for.

Cut to years later. My age has more than doubled. I’m working in Boston, downtown, underground in the middle of the sidewalk on Tremont. Not underground yet exactly What I’ve actually been doing is standing on the sidewalk pumping water out of the hole I’m about to go into so I can in fact go down into it. It was December 15th. I remember this because two memorable things happened that day.

This particular area of Tremont was right across from the Common. The Common’s this big sprawling acreage, not sprawling really, because it’s rectangular, bisected more or less in the middle by Charles St. It’s in the middle of downtown proper, the cornerstone of every neighborhood – Chinatown, the Theater District, Beacon Hill, Faneuil Hall, and so on. If there’s a heart of the city, this is it. The Common’s all dolled up for Christmas too, except for this one part on December 15th, this one little area across from St. Paul’s, still under construction. St. Paul’s is this old school Greek-style church with massive columns and wide steps that run nearly the length of the building, and I’m near the bottom step with this grate open in the sidewalk with a hose running out of it into the street, looking at this little construction area across the way, and all this water is pumping out of the vault, hundreds of gallons of it, and the water’s warm enough to melt snow and ice as it travels curbside down towards Boylston, warm enough to trail steam in its wake, like a fire smoldering for ten yards in a straight line. The water cut a divot in the snow and ice, down to the pavement. The pump wasn’t that great, so my partner and I had already been there for a few hours, pumping, pumping, and watching. That’s what happens when you build a city on backfill; everything underground gets wet.

This small construction area’s fenced off. I really shouldn’t say fenced off because the fence was only knee high, more like a decorative garden fence from what I could tell too, and there’s also caution tape wrapped around it, which is what gives me the construction area impression. The fence is circular, and in the middle of the fence is a Christmas tree. The tree’s in working order, lights and all, star on top and all, nothing wrong with it from where I’m standing.

So I’ve been there for a few hours, long enough that my partner and I have taken turns walking down the street for burritos and black cherry sodas. But it’s late now, near the end of the shift, so, what, maybe close to 10 PM by now. In the winter it’s dark from the time you get in on, so the afternoon watch might as well be the overnight shift for the amount of sun you see. I was thinking about going home and having a snack, a pleasure I didn’t usually indulge in until close to quitting time, so yes, ten sounds about right.

Fine then. It’s right around ten, and the streets are empty. This isn’t a residential section of town. The only foot traffic comes from either the homeless contingent or foot traffic from the Park St subway station close by, and that’s sporadic at best, more in than out, more down than up. I stood there, hands in pockets, and stared at the star atop the tree. Nothing special about it, just your typical five-pointer, but it reminded me of how nice it’d be to be able to look up and see some stars in the sky. For all the sights Boston has to offer, a constellation isn’t one of them. Maybe, maybe you can catch the North Star if you’re in the right place at the right time at the right latitude and longitude and elevation, with no clouds or streetlights or brownstones. Or Venus even. Again though, you’d need some help.

While I was artificial star gazing, a woman and child came into view. Both were bundled to the point that only their faces were visible. They walked up to the edge of the fence, the caution tape reflecting all the various colored Christmas lights with a jaundice hue, all the while flailing at their knees and ankles. The mother leaned down to say something in the son’s ear. He nodded in response, then put his mitten in his jacket pocket. He pulled something out, looked at it in his cupped hand, and tossed it towards the tree. Whatever it was, I couldn’t see it rise or fall as it went, nor did I hear it land. The woman put a hand on the boy’s shoulder for a moment, then they both got down on their knees. They made the sign of the cross, and other than the soft gurgle of water I couldn’t hear anything, it was so quiet in the city late at night, and I thought, please God, bless them both, grant them your strength, safety, wisdom, love, and compassion. Amen. I felt around in my pockets. They remained empty.

Not long after, they rose and left, and not long after that, the water was all gone. Finally it was time to go down into the sidewalk. I climbed down the ladder, careful not to touch anything. Vaults like this that’re constantly underwater are like Dagobah. Slimy mudholes, dirty and sometimes rusty. No home they are to anyone. And of course the padlock on the switch handle has been underwater all that time too, and I’m trying to get the lock to open, one last switch to throw and we can pack it up for the night, but the lock won’t budge. Rusted in place. So I call up for a pair of bolt cutters and wait, and while I’m down there waiting I’m looking up, looking up at those Greek columns outside the church, all the more massive from ten feet underground, the whole front of the church backlit in soft blue-white, Saint Paul, also known as Saul, converted on the road to Damascus, Damascus meaning ‘a well-watered place’ in Aramaic, my mind flitting about while I’m standing in mud and hypodermic needles up to my ankles, and that’s when I realize that Vonnegut’s bird was meant to sound like nonsense. That was the truth of it, of Vonnegut’s bird, of the somewhat absurd sound to word interpretation. Jibber jabber, his response to the question of why war?

Vonnegut’s bird didn’t literally exist, but the concept of that bird lives in every one of us, I realized, that potential to examine a rational or concrete thing and determine it generates no response other than irrationality. That rational thing could be anything, anyone, any situation in life. I’m talking about an illusion here, the irrational belief that we have control over our lives. We can’t control it, nor should we try, nor should I hate myself for things that happen as a result of what I perceive as a personality flaw, an inability to dictate the dealings of the universe, a pointless effort to push back against an impartial world, the insurmountable and eternal sine wave, armed with only an equally large ego. To what end do we push, or, more importantly, why? And did it do more harm than good, to fight against something that couldn’t change, couldn’t be beaten? Why should I be angry all the time?

Down in the mud at my feet the syringes twinkled blue-white, a cobalt hue. Po-tee-weet?

Here, then, was a turning point in my life.

Dealing With Dealing With Death – or – Why I Stopped Drinking Gatorade But Not Smoking Cigarettes

A few years back in the halcyon days of my depression I developed a fascination with death. Specifically my own (this is not to say I was suicidal, but rather comfortable and content at the time with my life in the toilet). Working with electricity, I got used to the idea of potential personal expiration every time I operated something, so thinking about death eventually evolved into a habit. It’s never bothered me, thinking about death. I accept it as part of my job, as part of my life. I welcome it in my own way. Thinking about death keeps me honest, stays my hand when I think about cutting corners. In my nine plus years on the job, almost every significant injury I’ve been witness to or heard of can be attributed to at least one of two things: 1) lack of communication, and 2) taking a short cut. There’s been a dozen or so substantial accidents in my time (some without injury, some requiring minor medical attention, two comas and one death), and almost every one is not only avoidable, but avoidable because someone was doing something stupid (read: lazy).

Despite my constant morbid thoughts I’m not afraid of the work. Instead I’ve developed over time and experience a healthy respect for what I do. Every time I operate a piece of equipment, every time I open a cubicle door, every time I walk into a substation even, I shift gears mentally. I become almost hyper-alert to everything going on, looking and listening for anything out of the ordinary. I’m not on edge, not nervous or skittish, just alert.

So take nine years of forty-plus hour work weeks filled with scores of blow ups, accidents, injuries and job-related urban legends, combine that with two hours of daily commute time to ponder it all, and it’s fairly easy even for me to see how I became preoccupied with death.

Which is fine as far as I’ve said. It’s become a familiar albeit not entirely comfortable facet of my life. Every so often though a mood strikes in which I’ll take the whole death thing one step further. It always happens at work too (no surprise there). During my shift I’ll have rather vivid and detailed…no so much fantasies since it’s not something I want to happen but more like imagined scenarios where I’ll picture myself in some horrible and oft times bizarre accident. These scenarios tend to revolve around whatever it is I’m doing at the time, from the mundane to the exotic.

The other day I was struck by one of these moods. Some of my imagined accidents included having my legs decapitated at the knees from a car failing to brake in time and pinning me up against the back of my work van while I was out innocuously setting up a traffic cone, taking a fireball to the head because the uninsulated 14,000 volt fuse disconnect I’d just operated failed during the process, getting crushed up against a cement wall by a large metal fridge-sized door which blew off a transformer (although this might not happen in my mind since there was a steel rung ladder in between myself and the wall and that might prevent me from making it all the way to said wall), and asphyxiating from a half-chewed slab of Nutty Bar wedged in my throat. This last one is of course pure paranoia due to my recently begun conversion to eating vegan, and since I felt guilty about the treat my brain conjured up said scenario.

Usually the mood lasts an entire shift, sometimes two before it passes. The thing is though that while the mood passes the images will sometimes transform into memory which I’ll then remember later on, so when I revisit a place my brain conjures up the corresponding bludgeoning. Not too long ago I was out walking in the yard at a Brighton station where I once pictured a hinge bolt snapping above me, causing the 115 kilovolt conductor it supported to crack my noggin good. Here though was a more unique death in that it raised an interesting question: what would I die from first? My brains getting bashed in or the sudden inrush of 115,000 volts into and through me? There’s always a chance the protective relays would recognize a fault on the line in time to de-energize the conductor before it relocated my brain to my stomach, in which case I’d be spared that fleeting moment of consciousness where I realized I was on fire before losing the ability to think as my cranial matter sped past my eye sockets which were now empty as my eyeballs shot out and sat on the trap rock ten feet away from me. Maybe by some strange phenomenon my eyeballs would be facing me and I’d catch a glimpse of myself – on fire or not – before all went dark.

I know, I know. I’m more likely to die from the Nutty Bar.

You can say I’m paranoid, and you may be right, but I don’t think that I am. The difference to me is based on the fact that I’ve never let these imagined roastings, beatings, brainings, freak sinkholes, manhole collapses, lightning strikes, decapitations, et. al. keep me from doing my job. In fact, I give credit to my imagination for making me more safety-conscious. Dealing with electricity primarily in bulk is something Joe or Jane C. has no concept of, as an electrical grid is not designed to work the same way, say, a breaker panel or house feed would. When I first took the job, I had the most rudimentary understanding of electricity. An outlet, for example, has two wires, one is energized, the other isn’t. And even that little tidbit was completely useless. It had no bearing at all as to how a power grid works. Point is though, I started the job blissfully ignorant of all the numerous hazards and their implications. So if I saw someone taking a short cut and there were no immediate negative consequences, I accepted that as standard practice. The people who trained me had years, even decades of experience, and they survived unscathed, so in my mind I should be able to as well. As time went on though, soft hot intestinal trash happened, and people got hurt, not only hurt but in ways that were both unbelievably stupid and completely avoidable. Over time I changed my tune and realized there was no chance worth taking. This philosophical change has now been cited as the germ of my current overactive imagination, which despite its seemingly negative implications does nothing more than reinforce the need for safety and precaution.

All right, if I’m being truly honest here, there was one time where in retrospect I did act a little paranoid. Even I’m willing to admit that.

During the summer months I always carried a fruit punch flavored sport drink with me (any other flavor makes me gag). One day I was studying the bottle’s label and after reading about how said drink was an excellent way to replenish electrolytes, I began to reason thusly: if by drinking and replenishing I’m adding more electrolytes to my body, then I’m increasing my own state of electrical conductivity and making myself more prone to get electrocuted. So I stopped drinking Gatorade. And felt weird about it. To combat this unorthodox belief, I did some research on the subject and realized that my internal chemical and biological state had a microscopic impact on my whether or not I’d get zapped. All I really had to do in the first place was abide by the safety guidelines and maintain the minimum approach distances from exposed conductors (as listed in Section 7 of the Incident Prevention Manual (previously known as the Safety Manual (which was then changed to the Accident Prevention Manual until it was determined through extensive and exhaustive corporate marketing research and brainstorming that using ‘Accident Prevention’ had negative connotations and thus the name change. Accidents, they reasoned, cannot be prevented. Incidents can. This is also further proof that simply by changing the nomenclature we are able to make things less dangerous (also proving the invaluable nature of corporate marketing and lawyers)))). I’ve stayed off the sport drinks altogether, but more so for dietary and health reasons.

And as for the smoking, I know all the arguments against it, and until I reach the point when I’m ready to quit, I accept the consequences of my actions. But at least with smoking I have a fair notion as to how it’s all going to go down. Unless I’m having a butt while climbing down into an enclosed subsurface location and there’s a gas leak coming in through one of the cable ducts. Then that might be a surprise.

I don’t of course have any foreknowledge as to exactly when I’m going to bite the big one, but one thing’s for sure: the next time I’m underground in the North End and the tide’s coming in filling up the vault I’m working in, if on the off chance the sidewalk hatch closes on me and locks me underground and at that moment a parade walks past on the sidewalk preventing both me from getting the hatch open and anyone from hearing my cries for help, you can be damn sure when they pull my soggy carcass out they’ll not only find my lungs full of salt water but my mouth full of partially chewed Nutty Bars.

Finding Manny – or – Just Rank and Serial Number Please

Last week started innocuously enough. The sun came up Monday Morning. The world twisted on Wednesday when the body was finally discovered, which led to Friday and a new tattoo.

Just to set the record straight, the tattoo was not inspired nor dedicated to Wednesday’s events. The idea for the tattoo had been in the subconscious for some time. Wednesday was, however, the catalyst that put that particular thought into motion. The tattoo is not integral to the story, other than as a quick side note to say that you never know where you’ll find the inspiration to act, even if it is death.

I really blame Tuesday for last week’s commotion. It was too reassuring, what with its loafers and no socks up on the desk with ankles crossed look as it said to me, ‘Relax. Yeah, you’ve got problems A through X, but right now they’re under control for the most part. You can run on autopilot for a while, let your guard down. Nothing wonky’s going to happen. Just put it in cruise control my brother.’ Which was the worst advice to listen to, but lulled by the prospect of a paint-by-numbers week I followed Tuesday’s advice. Tuesday, that lying sack of shit. It probably already knew that Manny had gone missing the day before and that the search was already on. Probably also knew (based solely on my opinion that Tuesday’s got a touch of precognition) that Wednesday was going to reveal the answer to that mystery. Fucking Tuesday.

The greater New Bedford area has a sizable Portuguese population. Anyone who’s gone to school in the area can easily rattle off a list of a dozen or so classmates surnamed Cabral, Costa, Mello / DeMello, Medeiros, et al. The Silvas, Silveiras, and Silvias have their own section in the phone book. Manny was born and raised in the area, went to high school and college there, moved a few times but always within the area. He worked at our local service center down there for 30 years. Just a coffee shop local kinda guy.

What I’ve been able to cobble together of Manny’s story so far (more on that later) goes like this: On Innocuous Monday Manny called in sick to work. Fucking Tuesday acted like a church mouse. Then came Wednesday.

The local service center got a call from Manny’s brother. He hadn’t heard from Manny in a couple of days, which to him was alarming, and so he called there trying to get in touch with him. They told the brother Manny’d called in sick Monday, which made the brother nervous, which in turn made the service center people nervous. People started making calls, asking friends and neighbors and co-workers, and as the day went on started assuming the worst. By mid-day no one had turned up anything. Until someone noticed his work truck was missing from the lot.

All our work vehicles now have GPS, so with just a few keystrokes they found where his vehicle was. A quick call to the police for an escort, you know, just in case something was in fact wonky, and the local supervisor set out to the location: a small electrical substation. The worst was now assumed, that Manny had had some sort of accident at work and gotten hurt, maybe even killed. The supervisor opened the substation door and there they found Manny, hanging from the rafters.

Turns out Manny had been separated from his wife for a while with a divorce on deck, which seems to be the impetus behind his suicide. There were probably other mitigating factors as well, but now no one will ever know what they were, or what it was that finally gave him the resolve to take his own life. It’s all just speculation from here on out.

Stories like this are always disturbing, even more so when it hits close to home. Having gone through a divorce myself I can fully relate on that level. This is not a memorial for Manny however. I never met the man, and despite my own feelings about suicide, I’m not here to judge him, nor to pay my respects, which I’ve already down in my own fashion. What really bothers me about the whole ordeal, the part I’m really here to take umbrage with, is the complete apathy at work regarding the situation. It’s now been six days since Manny’s body was discovered, and here’s what the company has said to us, its employees, regarding the situation: nothing. Not one word. Not that I expect them (the company) to go about trumpeting the fact that one of their employees killed himself, but for fuck’s sake, where’s the humanity here?

Not one word.

You can say all you want about how it could be a matter of respect in not speaking about it, but here’s the thing: everyone’s talking about it already. Just not in large groups. So what’s the difference then? Why not give us some word as to what actually happened, dispel some of the rumors that are flying around? Tell us something, anything, even if it’s just to say ‘Hey, something horrible happened, but he was a person and we acknowledge that.’ How about even just telling us when and where the memorial service is?

Not one word.

Most of the supervisors here people who’ve worked their way up the ranks, did the job that I do now. They understand the inherent danger of working with high voltage electricity and, more importantly, what it’s like to come to terms with death. The guy worked here for three decades. Doesn’t that mean anything?

And just so you don’t think I’m on a Cold and Impersonal Corporate World rant here, it’s not as if the Local has been any more forthcoming either. I’ve gotten a lot of tight lips and shrugged shoulders down that avenue as well. Either they really don’t know, don’t care to know, or are reluctant to share what they do know.

As adults, we’ve all thought about death, and had dealings with death in one way or another. Why then does this taboo persist that it should go unspoken about and left in a dark closet until we absolutely have to deal with it? Death is not romantic, and is often times ugly. But it has to and should be dealt with, and in an upfront manner. This social stigma which relegates death to confessional-style conversation does no one any good, and that includes children. To me, ignoring death as a part of life not only makes it harder to deal with when the time comes but dulls the appreciation we should all have for life. When did we all become so afraid of being human and dealing with emotion?

After I got home from work last night I found the obituary in an online newspaper. It simply said that Manny had passed away and that the funeral would be private. There was a memorial held last night as well, but I was too far away to make it in time. So as I’ve said I honored Manny in my own way, as a person who struggled with life, as we all do.

Fuck Tuesday right in it’s earhole. I got out there and lived today.

Ghost Stories from the Grid

(This story is neither fiction nor non-fiction but a mixture of both. For those interested, the more gruesome details to the story are the true ones. The rest of the story is built around them and is mostly made up. The thought was that I’d heard enough stories at work over the years to work them in to some sort of serial fashion, this being the first part.)

 

It was our annual fall getaway, and the campfire was already going. It was a good turnout this year, with almost everyone present. Other than those scheduled to work the weekend, there were only a few who didn’t attend, and with the rash of new hires over the last four years, our little group had quite the eclectic mix – old and young, new and old, men and women.

Dead and not dead and almost dead. And Undead.

The getaway wasn’t anything the company sponsored. Perish the thought. In this day and age, we were lucky enough to get flashlight batteries, let alone a weekend retreat on the company dime. It was something that we, as the workers and fellow union brothers and sisters, put together. And it was always impressed upon the trainees that it’d be in their best interest to attend, not because they had to fear any sort of repercussions if they didn’t, but because they had the most to lose out on if they missed it. The electricity business is no different than any other business in the sense that, if you’ll pardon the pun, knowledge is power. To their credit, the trainees were well represented. You see, the stories told were of local legend, almost unbelievable if not for the fact that someone in our department, either current or retired, had been a part of them, an unwilling witness to some of life’s horrors.

Some time around dusk everyone began to naturally collect around the fire. Conversations between smaller groups began to either die out or blend into others, until we were all in a big circle and part of one big discussion. From that point, it was only a matter of time before someone would start in with the first story, waiting for that right moment when a natural segue to the unnatural nature of our business could be found.

Knowledge is power, and these are stories that need to be told. That we need to tell.

Part I: Sue is idle

It was Wink who spoke up after Chinner’s ignorant comment about how the Undead didn’t really exist.

“Well, I seen a lot in my day,” Wink said, “and I never believed in ‘em either, until I saw one. I been here over thirty years now, and not only do they exist, but they come in all shapes and sizes too. Arms missing, legs gone, spilling their guts out, you name it. They’re all just different varieties on the same theme. A gross misshapen deformity of what they should be. The one you always remember though is your first one. If you can deal with that, then you can deal with anything on this job. Can’t deal with it? Then you don’t belong here.”

Wink settled back in his lawn chair. He crossed his legs at the ankles, his steel toe boots resting on a rock that lined the fire. He rubbed the scruff on his face. We could all hear the sandpaper sound coming from his big-knuckled hands.

“Two weeks I’d been on the job. I was getting my training, which meant someone was driving me around to show me where the stations were. All you babies who cry about your training now, hah, you got nothin’ to complain about. In the beginning I wasn’t even allowed to set foot in a station unless I had to. How’s that for training? Whatever I learned I learned on my own, without no one teaching me. And I never let ‘em forget it neither.

“So Flask is driving me around, and we’re out in The Berry and he’s showing me this station and that, just driving by, and we had just left The Eternal Flame Station when Dispatch called over the radio.

“ ‘We got a live one!’ they says. ‘I mean, a dead one!’  ‘Hold on,’ I says. ‘What are you talking about?’ So he says, ‘Someone’s down at Eternal Flame!’ and I says, ‘What? We were just there! There’s no one over there!’ I had the call sheet with me, so I looked it over again to make sure there was no work going on over there. Nothing. ‘I don’t care what you saw or didn’t see,’ they says. That was Dewey running the show upstairs that day, eating his Tums like they were M&Ms, and as he was talking to me I could her him crunching away. ‘Some guy from the construction site next door saw a flash and heard something let go, and he said when he ran over he saw what looked like an Undead in the yard. Said he was on fucking fire!’ ‘All right Dewey,’ I says, ‘call the cops and the fire and an ambulance then. We’ll head back.’

“Flask pulled a u-ey and we sped back. He had one hand on the wheel and the other inside his jacket. I tried calling Sue on the radio but I didn’t get no response, so I gave up. We pulled off the main road and up to the gate. I didn’t know what to expect. I barely knew where the hell I was let alone how to handle this. But it was my job, and sometimes we’re better off going in to a situation ignorant, otherwise we might not ever go.”

Of the forty-plus of us around the fire, not one person made a sound. Everyone was lost in some degree of thought; you could see it on their faces. Shop Boy ran a fingertip in circles around the scarred blob of skin that consumed most of his forearm. He was well-versed in death of course. He and others stared across the fire at Rogue Squadron, a new sect that currently had two members. Sancho Asspan was a military guy before joining our little family, and it was hard to tell but he looked a touch pale. Rogue Squadron Leader sat and said nothing, as he should (or shouldn’t). The fact that the two of them had not only broken protocol at work, but also killed someone in the process had not escaped anyone’s attention.

It was one thing to be Undead, especially if it happened on the job. At the very least that was worth some amount of sympathy and remorse. It was a whole different ballgame though to be responsible for making one.

“Who’s got a toothpick?” Wink said. “Anyone?” The Don fished out a plastic tube and tossed it to him. “Thanks,” Wink said, and as he fished one out of the tube he started up again.

“This was back in ’85, just shy of my fortieth birthday. You’d think at forty you’d have a good handle on life. Not that I was old, but I was starting a new job, and that age I felt like I’d seen enough and experienced enough not to be surprised by anything. Which of course I was wrong about. After this happened, I learned best way to deal with life is one day, one situation at a time.

“So we pull back up, and still I ain’t heard nothin’ on the radio from Sue. But it’s not like we can wait for him to go in. Flask went first, but not by choice. I’d never set foot inside the yard and had no idea where anything was, or what I should be looking for. If I’d had another two months, or even a month under my belt I’d have gone first, I know that now. But he led the way, and I followed.

“Right inside the gate was the A transformer. That’s right, the same one that fifteen years later would blow up and burn for a week. You’ve all seen those pictures. There was just too much heat to ever be able to put the fire all the way out. They had no choice but to let it burn itself out, and instead keep everything else around it soaked as best they could so that didn’t burn up. Anyway, back then it was in good shape, and I followed Flask as he walked all the way around it. As far as I could tell there was nothing wrong with it. But we could both smell something, like a pig roast gone bad is what Flask said later, and that’s close enough. So we followed the scent across the yard to the B transformer. As we got closer we could hear the chain link fence rattling, and the sound was coming from the same area as the smell. We turned a corner around the transformer and that was where we found the guy.

“Like I says, Undead come in all shapes and sizes. I didn’t see him at first, turned out it was a he, though we didn’t find out ‘til later when someone heard it from the hospital. No way you could tell if it was a man or woman just by looking at him. He was black, pitch black, head to toe. His back was to us as we neared, and he was holding on to the chain link fence. His hands were shaking the fence, but he couldn’t or didn’t want to let go. Then as we got closer I seen that his skin wasn’t all black. Most of it was, but there were large patches all over him where it was burnt off altogether, leaving red raw blobs, and the edges were rimmed with crispy skin. There was no way to tell if he still had any clothes on.

“ ‘Hey!’ I says. “You all right?’

“So the guy turns around then, and I seen his eyes. No white in ‘em, just pupil and all the rest red. Then he starts talking to me. Never mind how he was still alive, or still standing, but he could hear me, and now we were having a fucking conversation.

“ ‘Hazzle grump fortula?’ he says.

“We couldn’t make out a thing he was saying. He was talking gibberish, and no matter how hard he tried we couldn’t make nothin’ out.

“Meanwhile Flask runs back to the truck for some rubber gloves and a switch coat to cover this guy up with. I wasn’t going to touch him anyway. Burn victims, right, first priority is to cover ‘em up, keep their skin from bein’ exposed too long so’s they don’t get an infection. This was long before we had gel blankets, but we had to do something. The coats back then were long like a trench coat. Once we got the gloves on we got his hands off around the fence and wrapped him in the coat on the ground. I sat with the guy while Flask went back to let the ambulance in once they got there, and he talked his nonsense the whole time. Just before the ambulance got there his eyes rolled up, and there was nothin’ to see but all red in the sockets.

“The worst of it was the smell.”

Wink pitched his toothpick into the fire. He waited another minute before he continued.

“Come to find out this guys homeless. He was out scrounging around, saw the overhead wires, and decided to kill himself. He climbed up over the fence, they found pieces of his clothing in the barbed wire later, up onto the transformer, and got whacked right in the head and chest with 115,000 volts. That fence, as you know, was forty feet away from the transformer, so he got knocked at least forty feet sideways and the transformer’s what, twenty feet high? One of the doctors said it went right down his spine and out his left leg. He lived long enough to tell what little information we know before he died.

“Sue retired not long after. He couldn’t deal with the fact that he’d been asleep when everything happened.”

If you didn’t work for the company and happened to stumble across our little gathering around the fire at that moment, and someone asked you to pick out which guys were new on the job and which weren’t, you’d have no problem doing so. The older, more senior guys looked more relaxed. They had the familiarity of having dealt with this type of situation before, and knew there was no real way to prepare yourself for what it was like. As Wink had said, you dealt with it one day, one hour, one moment at a time. They were comfortable with this knowledge, and it showed in their body language. The trainees, however, were the exact opposite. They sat or stood looking almost frozen, their eyes a little wider. If you were close enough to one of them you could smell a tinge of fear, that sour, stale smell. They were afraid, all right, and in our business a little bit of fear is a good thing. You need that fear to have respect for what you’re doing, to keep you focused on the job at hand, because even under ideal conditions shit happens. The thing is, they weren’t afraid enough yet, because the fear of the unknown, that vague sort of fear that can paralyze you when you’re faced with it, isn’t nearly as bad as the fear of what you did know. Knowing what you’re up against, despite being afraid, helps you stay prepared.

In our business, knowledge and information is the real power. And like I said, there are stories that need to be told.

 

Annie

So there she is, sitting at our usual table.  She’s facing inwards toward the dining room, the preferred seat of the first to show up.  The empty seat left me with a view of the bus stop outside where I’d just arrived two minutes ago.  I sit and order a vodka tonic; she already has her rum and diet soda.

“Not too busy tonight,” I say, taking off my jacket and throwing it over the back of my chair.

“It’s still early.  Most people still work nine to five, you know,” she says.

I shrug my shoulders, uninterested.  “So what’s new, or do I dare ask?”  I already know she’s got some dirt to share, but I ask anyway.

She stares at me for a moment as if she can see right through me.  “What’s with the act?  Why do you pretend to hate talking about other people?”

“It makes me feel like a responsible adult.  Cigarette?”

She shakes her head no, lifting up her blouse sleeve to reveal the Patch.  I already knew that too.  Just testing her resolve.  “And your oral fixation there doesn’t make you feel like a child?”

“Baby, men are all about oral fixations.”  I exhale my first drag.

She gives me a smile that’s part amusement, part disgust, shaking her head at the same time.  She’s interested in me, sure, but right now sex between us is not an option.  Truth is, I actually do value her friendship and don’t want to risk losing it by complicating our relationship with sex.  Yet.  “Why don’t you go first this time love?” she says, still holding on to that smile.

“Well, before you tell me about Aimee and Philip,” I say, and she looks appropriately shocked, not thinking I know things between them are ugly, “I do have some news about Austin and Richard.”

“They broke up!” she says, a statement more than a question.

I flash a smile, impressed but not surprised that she guessed.  Actually, she probably knew before I did and is just acting surprised.  “Right now Richard’s at Dominic’s and little brother Austin’s at my apartment in tears, desperately trying to think up some fiendish plot of revenge but, sadly, not doing too well.”

“Richard and Dominic hooked up?  I knew it!”  She stares off into space, contemplating this new wrinkle in the lives of those we call our friends.

“Austin wants to pack all of Richard’s stuff up and leave it out in the street, but so far he can’t even bring himself to go back to their apartment.”  I give an exaggerated sigh.  “Young love.”

Movement outside the window catches my eye, and I see a bus pull up to the stop.  There are people standing around, waiting to get on the bus, eager to depart.  And who can blame them?  There has to be somewhere better than here.  Yet they wait patiently while those on the bus wait as well for the bus to stop so they can exit.

“Speaking of young love,” my girlfriend says, and when I say girlfriend, I mean friend that’s a girl, “did you hear what happened to Patrice?  Turns out she…”

I tune her voice out, having previously heard about Patrice’s woes more than I’d care to, and instead listen to the muted hydraulic hiss as the bus doors open and the lemmings begin to file out, satisfied with another day’s work at Dullsville.  My drink arrives.  I nod to the waiter and toss the straw out of the glass.

“…and that was right after sleeping with some guy she’d just met at the club that night – she was hopped up on X of course…”

Ho hum, still talking about Patrice.  Back at the bus stop I watch an elderly couple help each other off the bus.  Behind then is a guy who’s obviously impatient.  Looks like the kind of guy who’s just dying to get home to a chilly reception from his wife since finding out that he’s banging his secretary – excuse me, personal assistant, sounds so much more romantic you know – from the office where he puts in ten hour days under fluorescent lighting that really accentuates his rather large bald spot.  Bald Guy checks his watch, now angry, then elbows his way past the couple, almost knocking them to the ground as he passes them.

“…when she takes her glass and smashes it right over his head!  At his Christmas Party!”

“Appalling,” I mutter.  “The nerve of some people.”

“That’s what I said,” Girlfriend says, “and you’d think she’d at least have the decency to go with him to the emergency room to get stitched up, which of course she didn’t.  But here’s where it gets really good…”

If this was thirty or forty years ago that old man would’ve whipped Bald Guy’s ass, I can tell.  As it is, he just glares after him for a second or two, then goes back to helping his wife.  I can’t blame him for not wanting to start anything with Bald Guy.  I’m a lover myself, not a fighter.  My glass is empty.  I signal the waiter for another.

“…kicked him right in the mouth, breaking two of his teeth…”

Everyone else waited politely if not patiently for the elders to finish getting of the bus.  Not that any of them tried to help them, mind you.  Once safely out of the way, the rest of the drones continue their mass exodus.

Suddenly my heart stops as a pregnant woman steps off the bus.

It’s Annie.

No, it isn’t Annie, but the similarities at first are amazing.  Her close-cut auburn hair, her round face, her tiny little body.  There are subtle differences though.  The shape of the eyes, the fullness of the lips, her skin complexion.

Plus this Annie is very pregnant.

Somehow I keep my emotions in check, so Girlfriend isn’t aware that my heart just recently jumped into overdrive at the sight of someone I once knew.  Or loved.  Maybe.  No, Girlfriend’s still chattering away, spewing out Patrice’s life story.

“…so she said, ‘No way.  You’re not getting into this bed tonight.  You are going to…’ ”

Ah, Patrice and her careless flings.  How amusing.  Like a sore on your ass – it’s fun for everyone else.  Meanwhile, my faux Annie is turning her head from side to side, looking for somebody.  Disappointed, she waddles over off to the side out of everyone’s way, travel bag in hand.  Someone’s not on time to pick her up?  What a horrible thing to do to a pregnant woman.  Probably her thug of a boyfriend.  I can see him now, as brutish on the inside as he is on the outside, tan skin just oozing his ego, not a care in the world.  Another reason I know it’s not Annie; she definitely isn’t into the meatheads, as this girl obviously is.  She’s awful cute though, standing there absentmindedly rubbing her big belly as she watches the nobodies file on the bus.

The waiter comes over with my second drink and to take our order.  I glance at the menu and order something at random.  Doesn’t matter what it is, it’s all good here.  Girlfriend pauses in her storytelling long enough to order her meal and a fresh drink, then resumes her diatribe.

“So where was I, Oh yeah, so here’s Kenny without any shirt on…”

God, Patrice, get a clue, will you?  Outside, Annie number two starts pacing as the bus grumbles to life.  She stares after the smoggy exhaust as it fades into nothing, lost in thought, wondering where her Meathead is and why he’s not there to pick her up.  She begins chewing on her pinkie fingernail in an oh-so-familiar way that makes my stomach drop again.

It is Annie.

“Holy shit,” I say.

“Well, that’s not even the worst part.  It was all a lie!  Kenny had really slept with…”

Outwardly I’m still calm, but I can begin to feel sweat building in my armpits.  Suddenly it takes all my willpower to suppress an urge to run to her and confess everything – how I’d felt nothing but guilt and regret since walking out on her and really wanted to be with her all along.  I start to push my chair back away from the table when I think, this is crazy, it can’t really be Annie, can it?  And is it possible that I could still have such strong feelings about her?  Then I notice the tattoo on her right shoulder of a big yellow sun.

My Annie would never get a tattoo.

I slump back into my chair, surprised that I’d even gotten so far as to get up out of it.  Girlfriend has stopped talking and is looking at me expectantly.

“Bathroom,” I say.

“Well can’t it wait?  I’m almost done with the story!”

Just then the waiter arrives with our meals, effectively diffusing the tense situation that has suddenly been built much better than I could have at that moment.  But what was going on here to feel tense about?  The saga of Patrice and her hoard of lovers?  Girlfriend and her obsession of other peoples’ lives?  I pick at my meal and Girlfriend starts up again, and I really try to concentrate on what she has to say, but my gaze is drawn out the window where I can see that bright yellow tattoo clear as day.

It’s definitely not Annie I tell myself.  She’d have to be crazy to get something like that.  I start to relax, unaware that I was getting tense again.  I sit back in my seat and breathe out a long silent sigh.  “Great,” I say.

“Great?  After months of putting up with his abuse and basically working like a slave for him you think it’s great that he just up and leaves her with nothing?  Nothing!  No money, no clothes, no…”

Annie Two walks to the curb and back, repeatedly checking her watch.  Arriving back at the bus stop for the third time, she gives a big sigh, shoulders slumping, then eases herself down onto the bench.  I want to tell Annie Two that meatheads only let you down but then I think, didn’t I let you down too?  So what does that make me?   She looks up at this point, this time to the side so I could only see her profile.  She turns her head from side to side, still waiting for Meathead.  Maybe she’s just waiting for a cab.  As she turns to the left, the sun shines on her face.  I can see tears glistening on her cheeks, that hurt expression on her face that comes not from a late taxi but from the disappointment of a loved one, the same disappointment I saw as I turned around to face Annie from the bottom of our front steps, one last look at her face as I walked away, her innocence and the last chance between us now gone forever.

Dammit, it was her.  It was my Annie.

“…not two but three different men!  And one of them was his best friend Danny!”

“Annie,” I say softly.

“Oh,” Girlfriend says, maybe seeing something awkward on my face, definitely sensing something in my tone.  “Honey, I said Danny, not Annie.  I would never bring her up in front of you, you know…”  For the first time tonight Girlfriend is speechless.  Unsure and looking a bit awkward herself, she reaches her hand across the table and takes mine, squeezing it.  “I’m sorry,” she says, and this certainly would be a great bonding moment between us except for the fact that I can’t concentrate on her right now.

“Thanks,” I hear myself mumble.  I force myself to smile and make eye contact with her.  This seems to do the trick of reassuring her that all is okay in our little universe.  She releases my hand, smiling in an awkward way that strangely makes her seem repulsive to me.  It’s the first time I’ve felt that way about her and it surprises me.

“Are you sure you’re okay?  I mean, I know how hard you fell for her and all…”

I force myself to regain my composure, if for no other reason than my reputation.  “Listen,” I say with absolute conviction, “it’s all in the past, so please, continue.  I’m over it.  Really.”  I shovel in a mouthful of food that tastes like paper and chase it quickly with my quicksand drink.  The mixture quickly sinks to the bottom of my stomach, a pile of lead.

She smiles again, a real smile this time.  “Anyway,” she says slowly, “as I was saying before, she was suddenly getting this reputation for sleeping around.  Her track record was awful, especially…”

I look out the window again, and I’m paralyzed by indecision.  I should say something to her. I have to.  I can see she still needs me like I still need her.  Just as I can bear it no longer and finally work up the nerve to do something, I see her perk up, rising slowly off the bench and making her way as fast as she can toward a man in a finely tailored suit.  Good for you I think.  You always deserved someone who would come for you.  Plus, he’s not a meathead.  Seeing her with someone else convinces me again that this is certainly not my Annie.  Then again, by some strange coincidence, her name could be Annie, so I guess what I should say is that she’s not my Annie.  Not that I ever owned her, mind you, just an old term of affection that I used to use.

What the hell’s wrong with me right now?

Annie Two (I can’t think of anything else to call her at this point) tries to embrace the Suit, but he gives her a hard shove away.  Surprised and hurt, she backs off slightly, but her need for him is still evident in her body language.  She wants to run to him, be held by him, reassured, comforted.  It hurts me to watch her in such obvious pain.  She says something to him, gesturing at the same time with her arms.  He stands there, arms crossed, shaking his head no.  She starts to pace in front of him, now swinging her arms, ending her statement with a point to her mid-section, then to him.

The bastard, he can’t even say the word no.  He just stands there, shaking his head instead.

She’s dumbfounded, mouth slightly open, staring at him.  At that moment I see her again with crystal clarity, every pore on her face, every wrinkle.

I know it’s not her.

I sit back in my chair again, feeling relieved but not totally, still a bit worked up, feeling the effects of the recent roller coaster ride my insides have just experienced.  It must have shown on my face as well because Girlfriend says, “I know what you’re thinking, that it’s totally not her style, right?  But who else do you know would have the guts to go into a full restaurant on a Friday night and…”

Still, even though I’m positive it’s not my Annie, I’m still mesmerized by the situation, if only to see how everything turns out of course.  My cigarette has burnt down to the filter, mostly untouched, so I light another, just to give my hands something to do while I watch.  Maybe if things turn bad I should go out and offer to help the young lady.  Chivalry and all, you know.

Annie Two reaches for her purse and pulls out a pack of cigarettes.  She pulls one out, puts it in her mouth, and actually gets as far as snapping her lighter on before the Suit snatches it out of her mouth.  She glares at him for a second or two before reaching for another.  He manages to take this one away from her as well, though she certainly puts up more of a struggle this time.  And despite the horror of a pregnant woman smoking, I can’t help but feel even more relieved.

My Annie would never smoke.

Annie Two is pretty mad at this point.  She charges the Suit, beating on his chest and throwing her fists at him, not really doing any damage.  The Suit wrestles with her for a minute until he gets her arms under control.  Then he forces the pack of cigarettes out of her hands.  She goes slack in his arms, so he lets her go.  Defeated, she lowers her head into her hands.

The Suit stands there, resolute, bits of tobacco and cellophane showing through his clenched fist.

Her head is shaking up and down in her hands, most likely crying.  I’m not sure what I’m feeling right now towards this woman.  Pity?  Anger?  Disgust?  Sorrow?  My insides feel like a mess, but for the time being I push all those feelings aside, utterly absorbed by what’s going on.  I know how my Annie would react.  What will this Annie do I wonder?

She pulls her face out from her hands, and I can see her eyes are red and puffy.  Still sobbing, she makes her way back to the bench.  The Suit follows at a distance, the cigarette pack crushed, dropped on the ground behind them, forgotten.

She brushes her hair out of her face and for the first time I see her ears, those tiny little elf ears of hers.

How could I have ever doubted it?  It’s my Annie.  I suddenly get hot all over as again I feel consumed by an urge to run to her, take her in my arms, tell her that this time I can be the man she’d always hoped I could be.  Tell her that instead of walking away and telling her nothing like last time I could love her the way she deserved to be loved.

The Suit sits next to her and says something obviously full of venom.  Suddenly she wheels around and cracks him one, an open-handed slap.  He’s so stunned that she smacks him again.  I can hear the report through the glass and over the conversation in the restaurant.

I rub my own cheek, remembering the sting of her attack and the hurt that went along with it.

“He put her in the hospital for five days, the bastard.  When she got out though…”

Annie changes tactics then, trying to be consoling.  She puts her hand on her arm, caressing him, soothing him, and I feel a stab of jealousy.  What has this guy done to deserve her love?  That’s when I notice she’s missing the ring finger on her left hand.

Not my Annie.

It looks as if the Suit might actually cave in, his face almost one of compassion.  But no, he proves that he’s a meathead without the muscles and ends up just pushing her away.

She gets up from the bench and starts screaming in his face.  He gets up and you can see that his fuse is short, but she doesn’t notice.  She’s yelling for two now, giving it all she has, and by the look of his expression her words are really ugly.  His face turns red, what isn’t already red from her little love taps that is.  She certainly has spunk.

People walking by begin to notice what’s going on, and soon there’s a small crowd.  Some people make an obvious attempt to avoid the situation altogether, making a wide berth around them.  Some people openly stare as he starts jawing back and the situation escalates into a full-blown argument, her openly crying now, him throttling the bus stop sign in frustration.

Some people hide and watch.

Finally a young guy tries to cut in, play the hero and calm things down at least.  The Suit shoves him into the street, nearly getting him run over by a pick up.  The truck’s horn honks, drowning out the Hero’s remarks.  Now I’m almost hoping a cop will show up and break it up.

“…took a knife and gave him fifteen stitches in the arm and….”

The Suit’s staring down the Hero so he doesn’t notice Annie walk over to his side.  She places a hand on his forearm and he turns and takes a swing at her, all in one motion, cracking her in the head.   She goes down hard.  I can hear the gasps from everyone outside (or is that my own gasp?).  Some big guy, some meathead weightlifter, steps in and tries to end it.  At least meatheads are good for something.

That’s when the Suit pulls the gun.

The crowd backs away, uncertain and afraid.  Annie rises, a bit wobbly, a thin line of blood trickling from the corner of one eye.  She wipes her nose with the back of her hand, sizing the Suit up as he’s holding the gun in her direction, though not pointing it directly at her.  Once again she clears her hair away from her face and that’s when I notice the birthmark above her right eyebrow, close to her hairline.  The birthmark shaped like a star.  Her eyes, suddenly full of hate and despair, knowing eyes, those eyes turn in my direction and lock in on mine, turning my guts to ice.  Everything inside me comes crashing down.

Annie!  I want to scream.  Annie!

Words are exchanged between the two and I watch as the Suit actually raises the gun, pointing it at her.

Annie stands there, defiant.  But who is she defying?  Is she telling the Suit that her life will go on no matter what, or is she telling me that?

“…divorce will be…is there something wrong?”

The Suit seems on the verge of a breakdown, the gun shaking in his hand.

Annie says something to him, and I can’t help but think it will be her last words.

My fear is confirmed as the Suit steadies the gun, his arm now straight and level.

I stand, upsetting my drink, barely able to keep myself from losing it.

“What the fuck? You just dumped half a plate of lasagna on my dress asshole!”

A final tear rolls down Annie’s cheek.  She spits out some comment at him.

Jaw clenched, the Suit lowers the gun to point at her belly.

I close my eyes, powerless to do anything.

Fear in a Handful of Dust

“And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Lands”

Truth be told, I have few fears in life, but one that I face every day is a fear of dying on the job, and not just dying on the job but dying because of the job.  Sure, there are the obvious dangers: working in and around electricity, operating high-voltage equipment (up to 345,000 volts, pushing a button that will open a circuit breaker the size of a car that shakes the foundation of the building as internal contacts open and close), operating in confined underground areas to name a few.  Then there are those dangers that may have more long-term effects: PCB contaminated oil or asbestos-lined cables for some of the physical dangers, or the more sinister and often harder to recognize mental and emotional stress that comes with the territory of watching horrors unfold before your eyes.

There is a big difference in my job between being afraid and living in fear.  The former is acceptable – good even, because being afraid, when controlled properly, will often keep you aware of your surroundings, and alert enough to keep from making any stupid mistakes.  The latter, though, is nothing but a recipe for disaster.  If you work in this job and you’re afraid, whether it’s fear of something bad happening or fear of making a mistake, you might as well pack it in, because you’re more likely to make a mistake.  All it could take is pushing the wrong button or throwing the wrong switch, or opening the wrong blade for disaster to strike.  You can’t do this job half-assed.  You’ve got to not only be confident in what you know, but be confident in what you do, and that means pushing aside your fear, controlling it somehow.

I recently had a conversation with someone who’s very near and dear to me, and she said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “But you always seem so calm and under control,” to which I replied, “Because that’s how I have to be.”  You have to not only know what to expect when you’re operating electrical equipment, but you have to think ahead to what you’re going to want to do in case something goes wrong, and even that may not be enough, because if something blows up in your face, what are you going to do then?

The job was actually very easy when I first started, because I just didn’t know any better.  I was ignorant of both my surroundings and of the inherent danger in what I was doing.  Then after a while I heard of an accident on the job.  A manhole blowing up.  Someone getting hospitalized with third-degree burns.  Then I started to pay attention to the guys in the locker room, see their scars and hear their stories.  Gradually, it starts to sink in that I’m dealing with some heavy-duty shit.  And if you’re ever seen something blow up, then I can assure you it sinks in in a hurry.

I can very easily picture the first explosion I saw.  It was downstairs in the basement of a BU Medical Center building.  The customer had a problem on their electrical gear, and so I went down with the building electrician to check it out with him, since I’d already examined our gear and found no problem.  It was his first week on the job, and he was nervous both because of being new and the fact that one of the medical buildings was currently without power.  He found out where the problem was, and so he closed a 14,000 volt switch to pick the building up.  What he didn’t bother to find out, maybe because he was nervous or afraid of what might not happen if the outage was prolonged, was where the problem was in the first place.  Turns out it was right behind him inside a dry (meaning no liquid insulation) transformer.  I can close my eyes and see the initial ball of flame explode, blocking him from my sight, then in the next instant feel the blast of heat and wind as the flame expanded outward, the noise like thunder in my ear.  Smoke and debris filled the air, and it was minutes before I could see or hear again.  But somehow the guy who threw the switch survived with not one scratch.

Point is, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and think ,”Oh shit, this building’s out and I’ve got to get the power back on,” but it’s always, always better to take a few extra minutes and think about what has happened and why.  Apologies to all those that experienced extended outages, but if the person working is good at their job, they’re not going to rush to put your power back at the cost of their life, or even worse, someone else’s.  You don’t just lose power for no reason.  The thing to remember is to find out what happened before you do anything about it, or you could end up compounding the problem.

The BU electrician got off lucky, but others haven’t.  Here’s a few examples just to give you an idea of what I’ve seen or heard from the guys at the shop.

An overhead lineman is working on connecting up some cable to a new transformer.  While he’s insulating a termination with one hand he reaches up with the other to give himself support.  He ends up grabbing on to the other end of the transformer and in doing so completes the path for electricity with both of his arms, killing himself.  In addition to this, because any death or accident on the job is now considered a crime scene, no one was allowed to lower the bucket truck to remove the worker until the police had made an investigation of the scene.  His wife showed up and was forced to look at her husband’s body slumped over the edge of the bucket truck for almost three hours until the investigation was complete and he was finally lowered to the ground.

During the Blizzard of ’05, there was an explosion at an electrical station for a biomedical research building in Cambridge, which caused some pretty widespread outage.  Travel was slow (we ended up with almost 2 feet of snow when all was said and done), but finally the crew arrived and the problem was found.  The fault inside the gear was isolated and the worker was simply going to cut the faulted section clear in order to put the customer back.  He tested the equipment de-energized, then went to his truck to get some tools.  While he was gone, something happened at another location, the result of which was the line became re-energized without anyone knowing.  The worker came back from the truck and, with power tools in hand, leaned into the gear.  He got hit with 14,000 volts which entered into his abdomen and exited through both his thumbs.  He was induced into a coma for six months and now, almost four years later, can tolerate minimal exposure to the sun.  The doctors managed to save his hands which they initially thought they were going to have to amputate.  He is still out on disability.  One of the other workers present is still in therapy, and another worker left the job altogether.

A worker was doing some maintenance on a transformer outside in the back of a mall.  He was working on the protector part of the transformer (a protector is basically a circuit breaker that operates automatically with some relays that protect and monitor the breaker.)  He was almost done and took his protective hood off to close up a tiny sliding door inside the protector.  What he didn’t know was that there was a screwdriver left inside the protector, and when he slid closed the door it bumped the screwdriver, causing it to fall, and it came in contact with the internal parts of the breaker, which exploded in his face.  A man who happened to be walking his dog behind the mall saw the worker running and beating at his head which had caught on fire.  He was good-hearted enough to tackle the worker and roll him around, effectively putting out the fire and saving his life.  The worker returned to light-duty after being out of work for over a year, and retired nine months later.

Now these aren’t examples of how fear can cause mistakes, but they are a constant reminder of what can happen on the job.

Whenever I work with someone who’s new to the job, I try and take them to the oldest station we have, built in 1903 by Thomas Alva himself.  If there was ever a place to make me believe in ghosts, this is the place.  Most of the equipment inside is retired, but some of it is still in use.  But that’s not why I take them there.  I bring them inside to give them a first-hand look at what can happen on the job, even when we are careful.  I show them the aisle of switch blades in the basement that’s nothing but pure black, everything burnt to a crisp, and tell them that water had leaked into the room and caused a fire.  The fire department, not wanting to spray any water around all that exposed conductor, simply shut the doors and let the fire burnt out on its own.  Almost forty years later it still smells of burnt wood and plastic, and just walking down the aisle feels unnatural to the skin.  Then I take them one aisle over and remove a barrier to show them a speed wrench lying on the cement floor next to a section of disconnected copper.  The wrench itself was only used once, and how do I know that?  One of the guys who still works here (we’ll call him Grant) got a call to respond to a trouble call at this station.  When he showed up he saw two guys sitting on the curb outside.  One of the guys had his head between his legs and his hands on the top of his head.  Grant went up to the two men and asked them if they were all right.  They said yeah yeah, they were fine, the guy sitting down was just dizzy.  Then the guy sitting down removed his hands from the top of his head and Grant was shocked to see a piece of the man’s skull missing.  He was looking directly at the guy’s brain.  I shit you not on this.  Turns out, they snuck inside with the intent of stealing copper and the guy put his wrench on a piece of copper energized at 25,000 volts.  In through the wrench, out the back of his head, taking a piece of his skull in the process.  How the guy was even still conscious no one knows, and no one ever found out because his friend helped him off the curb when it looked like Grant was calling the police, and the two guys walked away, refusing even the request for an ambulance.  No one at work knows what happened to these guys.

I tell them all these stories and any more I can think of for two reasons: to make sure that they know exactly what they’re dealing with, and to make sure that they never forget what can happen even when we are as careful as possible.  This is one job where you’d better make damn sure that you learn from the past, because if you don’t you do a disservice to not only those that have suffered before you, but to yourself as well.

Death and Miracles at Clunker Central

December 8, 2006

I’ve spoken about my job briefly in the past at a place I call Clunker Central, and for the most part what I’ve told you deals with my first job in the company, which was in an office. I’ve had a different job for the last eight years in the same company working out in the field for the electric utility in Boston. I work in the operations department, which means that we’re responsible for “operating” the electrical equipment that feeds the city. And while I love the job, I’ve been reluctant to speak about it until recently when I felt it was time to open up a little on the subject.

Before I tell you my story though, here’s a quick lesson in electricity for your own personal knowledge. Electricity is measured in two ways. First is voltage, also called potential or electromotive force. This is basically the measure of the strength of electricity. Most everything in a house, for example, runs off of 120 volts, except for some of your major appliances, like a dryer or electric stove, which run on 240 volts. Picture voltage as a stone if you will. The larger the voltage the bigger the stone, so 120 volts would be, say, the size of a rock that you could fit in your palm. At my job, we deal with voltage ranging from 120 volts to 345,000 volts. Pretty big rock, wouldn’t you say?

The other measure of electricity is amperage, or current, which is the rate at which electricity travels. Current should give you a nice image of a river. The more current there is, the faster the river travels. Current is what kills people by the way, not voltage. A person can become energized at alarmingly high voltages and live, as long as the electricity has nowhere to go, but once the electricity starts to travel, game over. It only takes 1/2 an amp to kill someone even at 120 volts.

Electricity needs a circuit in order to travel, a closed loop of some sort that creates a path for the electrons to move along. Once a circuit is established, electricity will travel when there is a difference in potential (voltage). Here’s an easy visual for you. You plug in a lamp operated by a light switch which is off. Two wires on a plug, right? One for the electricity to come in, the other for the electricity to go out. That makes the circuit. Your light switch acts as a circuit breaker, keeping the circuit open to prevent the electricity from flowing. Once you turn the switch on, the circuit is closed and the electricity flows. Simple enough, right? There’s more to electrical theory than that, but what I’ve told you is enough for now.

On December 8, 2006, sometime late in the morning, I was watching a local Boston TV station and the news came on, interrupting the normal programming for a breaking story. A building in Cambridge was on fire. Cambridge is one of the areas we cover out of our service center, so the story caught my ear. I recognized the building in question and knew that our company had electrical equipment there that I had personally operated on several occasions. Not many details were available, so I made a mental note at the time to catch the 12 o’clock news. Hell, I might even have to go to the building in question once I went into work, which was the best of a bad situation considering the fact that it’s always better to go somewhere after a disaster has happened rather than be there while it’s going on.

Time goes by, I go about my business at home, until twenty minutes later the news cuts in again. This time, they report that the fire was caused by an electrical failure in the basement. Now I freeze, and I get that feeling, that feeling when you know based purely on instinct that the shit has hit the fan? I stop what I’m doing and now I’m parked in front of the TV. Ten minutes later, it’s confirmed that the fire originated in our electrical room. Another five minutes and they report that two of our company’s workers were on scene, but only one has been located.

Thirty minutes later the fire department reports finding the body of my co-worker, Kevin, dead.

As I said, I wasn’t there at the time this all went down, but after several company hearings on the incident, I’ll tell you what I heard from someone In The Know as to how things went down.

Kevin and Chris enter the electrical vault to put a transformer back into service. The transformer is energized but the breaker for the transformer is open, meaning that there was voltage but no current. Their job was to close the breaker for this transformer. Kevin tried a couple of times to get the breaker closed with no success, which is not unusual given the type of equipment he was working on, and again, that’s part of electrical theory that has no part in this story. Finally he got the breaker to close, and that’s when all hell broke loose.

The breaker in question was designed to handle 480 volts and up to 3,000 amps and it’s about the size of a small fridge like you might find in a college dorm, fairly standard for this type of equipment. But something happened inside this breaker when it finally closed. Nobody knows, and nobody will ever know since the breaker was found in a melted puddle on the floor after the fire was put out. Perhaps something broke off inside and caused a flash or a short circuit. Perhaps the equipment was old and simply malfunctioned. Whatever happened, when that breaker closed something inside exploded, and there was a big ball of flame that shot up out of the breaker. Instantly the room begins to fill with smoke as metal and the copper conductor catches on fire. Mind you this breaker is steel 1/2 inch thick, and the copper itself is 4 inches wide and 1/2 inch thick, but the blast creates such heat that they both catch fire like dried leaves.

Here are the three things you need in order to make fire: heat, oxygen, and combustible material, or fuel. Part of the problem in the electrical industry is that when those electrons move they create a tremendous amount of heat, and lots of what we do in our department revolves around safeguarding the equipment from the excessive heat. Oxygen is of course everywhere. And I’ve watched enough videos in fire school (yes, part of our job involves going to fire school training annually) to tell you that once something gets hot enough, it’s going to burn, no matter what it’s made of.

So the breaker blows up and catches fire, and now there are two problems. One is that the room is quickly filling up with a thick, black smoke, and two, the fire is between Kevin and Chris and the door they used to come in. Part of electrical safety regulations, though, require that there always be at least two ways in and out of a location, specifically for situations like this. It’s only been two or three seconds, but the smoke has already filled the room, and Kevin and Chris are quickly losing oxygen and the ability to see. They take each other by the hand and head for the rear entrance. Another second or two and the lights go out, and now they’re in the dark as well.

Kevin and Chris manage to find their way out the door, but they are now in another room, not in the hallway they’d hoped to come out to that would lead them to the stairwell. Still, they keep moving forward, hand in hand, feeling their way along the wall, until they find another door. Open the door, and out finally into a hallway. Smoke follows them out, just pouring out now like there’s an active volcano on the other side of the doorway. They have two choices, left or right, and they choose right based on their sense of direction. This turns out to be the correct choice as they are quickly back at the original door they went in through. To the left is the stairwell, and to the right is the door back into the room with the burning transformer. Mind you they can’t see because any emergency lights are now covered up by the oily smoke that is now almost down to the tops of their heads, and they can’t hear because of the fire and explosions still going on. Then the unimaginable happens. They lose contact from one another, their hands slipping apart. Chris reaches out for Kevin, groping in the dark, but he can’t find him, and he’d later be treated for smoke inhalation made worse by shouting for Kevin over the roar of the flames. It was a couple of weeks before his voice returned to normal.

Can you picture the panic at this point? I can, and all too well, but then again, I face the possibility of this situation every day. But try and imagine being in near perfect darkness, the very oxygen being stolen from you to feed a fire that needs an endless supply, a concrete wall standing between you and a raging fire that rocks the air with explosions and gives off so much heat that your skin will begin to blister from twenty feet away, and your partner, the person you trust your life with, your only lifeline and hope at that moment, that person is suddenly gone? Dear God in heaven.

Chris’ instinct was of course to find Kevin and get them both out of there, but time was now short, and now he was faced with one of the most difficult decisions anyone ever has to make: does he try and find Kevin and risk getting them both killed or does he leave Kevin behind to save himself?

Chris turned to the left and headed for the stairwell, and I hope you don’t dare question the validity of his choice, because it was the right one to make. As heart-wrenching as it was to leave Kevin behind, he can not and should not be faulted for thinking of his wife and children in this decision.

Kevin was found in a corner of the customer’s electrical room, the same room that he and Chris had escaped to immediately after the fire had started. It was easy to track how he had gotten there, because all you had to do was follow his handprints that were clearly marked in the soot that caked the walls, a long white smear that traced his path as he tried to use the wall to find his escape after making a wrong turn from the hallway back into the room with the burning transformer.

The official cause of death was smoke inhalation.

There is one last detail which to me adds to the surreal nature of this accident. This building in question was the last one that needed to be worked in for the day, and there were two crews originally on the job. Both crews offered to finish up the job, but after offers were made back and forth from both parties, no one was willing to concede to the other. In the end, in order to decide which crew would finish up, they decided it the old-fashioned way, with a simple coin flip. A coin flip that decided who would go down into the vault and finish the job. Again I ask in light of what I’ve told you, can you imagine? Can you imagine your life being decided this way?

Kevin’s death was a tragedy that hit home all too much for those of us at work. Going to his funeral was one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do. At work it’s all too easy to imagine any one of us lying in that coffin, because the nature of the beast that is electricity is that it’s often unpredictable. You never know what might happen when you’re out doing something that is as simple and routine as closing a circuit breaker. Disaster may very well be around the corner, lurking with flesh-searing heat and smoke that will choke the life out of you.

So what have I taken out of all this? Certainly a greater respect and sense of responsibility for the job that I have. We are given protective equipment designed specifically to withstand the initial blast from an explosion, and I use it religiously. I’ve also developed a greater sense of awareness when doing my job. Not paranoia per se, but rather an unconscious level of thinking that causes me to look for all available exits whenever I enter a building. I stop and think before I do anything, form a plan in my mind of what to do if something goes wrong. I try and tell those newer to the job than I am of the things I know and try and impress upon them one thing – you can never be too prepared or too careful in our line of work. I tell them Kevin’s story and other stories that I know, and after I’m done I tell them to remember these stories, keep them in mind as a reminder of what could happen even if we are careful, for those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it as the saying goes.

Death is a familiar face at my job. And for every person that’s died on the job, there’s a hundred that have gotten blasted with incredible amounts of electricity and lived to tell about it. I see the reminders every day in the locker room, scarred and twisted flesh, burn marks that will never never heal, pictures that hang on the walls that proclaim electricity’s unforgiving nature. Then there’s the plaque at the entrance of the Union Hall, on which is engraved the name of every one that’s ever died on the job. That too, serves its’ purpose of reminding us all of what is really important, the same message that can be taken from death itself, that life is what matters most of all, and that despite the dangers we face in our line of work every hour of every day, somehow we manage to survive and go home to our families.

Do I believe in miracles? You’re fucking right I do. The guys I work with are living proof.