The Last Cowboys Of The Information Age

Donald J. Davies whips out a videotape of his favorite Late Night with David Letterman show to play for me. On that night two years ago, Letterman decided to shinny up a splintery telephone pole onstage. At first, Davies smiles as he watches the gangly talk-show host scamper up the pole like a monkey. Then he shakes his head. "You see--watch, he's doing it wrong," says Davies. A second or two later, Letterman's spiked foot slips, and the talk-show host comes within a hair of crashing to the ground.

Davies knows better than most how to do it right. Here, in an industrial park in Valley Forge, Pa., he runs Bell Atlantic Corp.'s sprawling Training & Education Center--better known as the Telephone Pole Academy. At this and a handful of other facilities around the country, phone employees--plus a few cable- and power-company workers--learn how to string cable, splice wires, and climb poles. Telecommunications may have moved from copper wires to fiber optics and satellite links, but pole-climbing, a throwback to the first days of the telegragh, is still a respected art practiced by an elite cadre. Many of today's top phone executives, including American Telephone & Telegraph Chairman Robert E. Allen and his predecessor, James E. Olson, were pole climbers early in their careers. Norman Rockwell once even painted a picture of a lineman at work. Those who can still do it are often seen as the last cowboys of the Information Age.

PIONEERS. With this folk-hero image in mind, I headed off to phone-pole school to try my hand--and feet--at climbing. My instructor on this day was Harry Dewees, a barrel-chested phone-company veteran of 36 years. Before we start the physical stuff, he shows me his membership card from the Telephone Pioneers, a group of longtime phone workers. It features a pole climber trudging through the snow. I think of the paintings I've seen of postal workers plowing ahead through rain, sleet, and snow.

The school graduates 5,000 to 7,000 men and women annually, mostly service technicians. But it also helps train management types--who may need to climb if unionized linemen ever strike. Only a small number of the students who come here, usually for about a week of training, flunk out. Those who pass receive a diploma certifying their climbing expertise.

For obvious reasons, I'm interested to know if there have been any injuries in recent years. Dewees says no--with the exception of injured pride. But working around high-voltage wires and clinging to the top of a swaying pole strike me as a bit risky. As I wait for my first climb on a short beginner's pole, I notice a page from a recent Life magazine tacked up on a pole: A brown bear nervously clings to the top of a phone pole in New Mexico. Then, the bear gets zapped by a power cable and falls feet to earth in a hail of sparks.I don't have to worry about electrocution, since the wires on my pole won't have current in them. Even in real-life situations, I'm told, pole climbers are partly protected by their nonconductive hard hats. Still, there are plenty of dangers. Rotted poles, for example. They look fine on the outside, but the inside is sawdust. Then, there's the maneuver known as a "cut out," when a climber's spikes slip on the pole. This often leads to an excruciating experience known as a "burn out," the result of hugging a splintery pole to break a fall. I notice that Harry's forearms are covered with blotchy scars.

For the most part, although the other trainees look a bit queasy at the prospect of climbing a bare pole, they're still game. (They prefer the ones with metal steps, but there aren't many of them.) Most of the students probably won't be doing that much climbing during their careers, anyway: The U. S. pole population is steadily declining as more and more cables are installed underground.

'THE PIT.' The students are here for a variety of reasons. Some are phone-company executives who simply want to prove themselves, much as they might on an Outward--or upward--Bound trip. Others are here for the money. Cheryl D. Allen, 29, who has been here a week, says she spent seven years as a service representative until she was ready for a change--and better pay. She heard that "linemen" make $700 a week, compared with the $560 she was earning. So she signed up. "When I started on the pole, I was really scared," says Allen. "I'm still a little scared, but not as much." John May, 31, who used to be a phone operator, yearned to be outside more. After his second day of training, he tells me proudly: "I'm ready to face the world."

My training starts in an area called "the pit," a garage-like room with six poles sticking out of hard black-rubber mats. Two remote-control video cameras are at either end of the pit so students can watch a tape of their performance and get critiqued by instructors. Harry tells me my running shoes are too soft and gives me some workboots. I slip on my spikes, a heavy safety strap, a hard hat, and a long-sleeve shirt to protect my forearms from splinters.

TOUGH STUFF. In 1982, the technique for pole-climbing was revised. AT&T decided that too many people were getting injured on the job, which was costing the company a small fortune in worker's compensation. So the phone giant commissioned its then-subsidiary, Southwestern Bell, to figure out a safer climbing technique. The company switched from something called the "bicycle method" to "three-point contact"--meaning that at any time, three limbs should be touching the pole. Injuries among pole climbers dropped dramatically.

When it's my turn, I discover that it's a lot harder than it looks. I claw the pole like a cat being chased up a tree, so my arm and back muscles hurt. I'm told I'm doing it wrong and need to work on my technique. It's much easier when I swing my safety belt around the pole and lean back. Still, after climbing for less than an hour and rising only 10 feet, I'm ready to quit. Even though I have participated in three triathlons, the constant exertion of pole-climbing and the 90 heat turn my muscles to rubber.

My brief time on the pole was enough for me to develop a real appreciation for the job's difficulties. So I'm glad for modern day wire-stringers that pole-climbing is becoming outmoded. Still, I'm a bit nostalgic. I think of the thousands of gritty, determined aerialists who helped make America great--lighting the lights and connecting the phones. Today, computers run much of the show in telecommunications. And they're not something Norman Rockwell would have tried to capture for the ages.

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