Today’s post is inspired by the lightning strike on Big Butter Jesus last night. Having been a high voltage electrician when I served in the Air Force, I can tell you that electricity can do some pretty amazing things. Path of least resistance my ass…it does what it wants to do with no regard to logic.
I worked in those days in a pretty decent shop, but my favorite standby partner was Pup. Pup was an airman from Wisconsin, and he got his name by running with the big dogs. Pup was the only guy I’d work with drunk. Which is good, or we’d never have gotten anything done.
On this particular Sunday, Pup and I got paged to come in and fix a power outage on the base…the West Ramp was completely dark. Since that included the control tower for the airfield, it was a very high priority item. The air traffic control guys don’t like using the semaphore flags. We dragged ourselves in, making sure to put on uniforms for this one, since we’d be in the more visible areas of the base, and both of us had proven to be allergic to screaming colonels.
Without boring you with details, we quickly figured out the outage was one whole circuit, all the way back to the 64,000 volt monster called “The Switch” at one of the substations. It could be an easy fix, just throwing The Switch, or it could be headache time. We went straight to The Switch, and got ready. Pup approached said Switch, turned his face away from the equipment, and grabbed the handle. I took a few prudent steps away from the Switch, lest it bite me in anger. He pulled down on the handle like a senior citizen in a reservation casino…and the circuit held. Jackpot. Power restored.
After a quick high five, we had to perform part two of the outage, which was to ride the line and try to find the cause, so we weren’t back in a half hour. Like having dessert after Chinese food. Riding along, we passed some of the Fire Dogs putting out a small brush fire…right at the base of a utility pole. Now, I’m no genius, and Pup sure as hell isn’t…but it looked like this might be related. We drove on, seeing no power problems on that pole.
A full half mile down the line, we found the cause of the outage, and it was fortunately something that we could put off for Monday. A blown lightning arrestor (which had done its job) had created a short circuit. It bears mentioning that a short circuit with high voltage is much different than one in your microwave, by a factor of holy-shit-that’s-a-lot-of-volts. Pup and I looked at each other, looked at the popped porcelain, and looked back at each other.
“Think that made the fire?”
“Yeah, Pup, I do.”
Here’s how: pay attention, class. When a short circuit happens, for a small amount of time you have what’s called infinite potential. Laymen’s terms: Ouch that’s fucking hot. Every single utility pole has a ground wire on it, for taking this fault voltage to ground if needed. Our fault voltage had skipped a full half mile of these ground wires, gone around a corner, then jumped off the pole itself: leaping like a drunken spider monkey across 3 massive insulators to ignore about 70 chances at the least resistance of copper and take a ride down a steel “guy line” (those things that keep poles standing up straight.) It had heated that steel up so hot, that it had caused the brush fire we passed.
Now, most of you are not electricians…but I’d bet you understood what I just said there. As the man said, “It ain’t rocket science.”
We got back in the truck, noted the cause, and decided we’d replace the arrestor on Monday, so as not to interrupt Pup's plans of intimacy with a 12 pack. And we headed for the site of the brush fire.
We pulled up to the site, seeing a perfect charred circle around the base of the guy line, two fire trucks, and one of the base cops. Little did we know we were about to meet Sergeant Fife. We got out of the cab, and just as feet hit ground, we were challenged by the cop. His hand on the butt of his pistol, he put one hand out to stop us as if we were charging groundhogs.
It bears mentioning, to truly set the scene, that we had just pulled up to a fire at the base of a power line pole, in an obvious 60 foot long power line maintenance truck, with power line tools all over it. Some of the more astute members of the human race might have put this together. Not so Sergeant Fife.
“You know anything about this fire?” he queried.
Pup spoke up. “Ayup. We caused that fire.”
Sergeant Fife crouched a bit, his hand sliding lower on the butt of his pistol.
“Whaddya mean?” he asked.
I explained it to him, just as I did for you a few paragraphs ago.
“Whaddya mean?” he repeated, his eyes narrowing at us suspected arsonists.
“Well, there were a lot of volts that made that steel get really hot, and it caused a fire”, I said.
Unbelievably, his knees bent more, his eyes narrowed more, and I was sure he wouldn’t go for the hat trick. He did.
“Whaddya mean?” he asked Pup, since I was obviously not to be believed.
Pup had hit his limit. He started walking away, and tossed “JFM!” over his shoulder. I think some of my more prescient readers can predict the next piece of dialogue here…
“The category…great quotes in idiocy…the answer…Like a skipping record”
Thank you, Alex. Ah, Sergeant Fife has buzzed in…
Sure enough, his laser-beam-intense gaze swiveled to me, and his mouth opened…
“What does he mean?”
“Just Fucking Magic” I replied, and walked off. Pup and I talked it over with the firemen, and then headed back to the truck. We passed Sergeant Fife, his hand still on his gun, staring at the top of the utility pole as if waiting for it to produce a rabbit from its hat.
Sometimes, it’s just fucking magic.