I’ve mentioned before that I worked high voltage when I was in the Air Force. We kept the power on, and the airfield lights lit. Our shop was mixed: military and civilian, and the civilian employees were typically the lead on each truck we ran. We had some real characters, too.
Two Six was our short bucket truck, useful for line work, traffic light maintenance, and plenty more. Its other nickname was “the Popemobile”, because it was Carl’s regular truck. Carl was a very, very dedicated Christian. He tithed 15% to his church. When you rode on Two Six, the radio was tuned to the local praise music station all day long, and you kept your expletives to a minimum. He’d park the truck for a 15 minute break in the afternoon to read scripture. Devout.
26 looked a lot like this...only older, and a LOT more green.
Carl himself was soft-spoken, and had a very hard time speaking ill of anyone. He wouldn’t say “shit” if he had a mouthful of it. The other troops made fun of Carl from time to time, but I actually liked working with him. It was an unlikely combination, to be sure, but I liked being paired up with somebody who was so easygoing. Nothing rattled him. Well, nearly nothing.
There was a day that Carl and I worked a line on the west side of the base, a simple bit of maintenance for which we didn’t even have to shut the power off. We were just replacing one insulator on a pole. It was a cake job.
Crash course in high voltage: typical high lines on those wood poles run about 12,460 volts. Thick rubber gloves are proof against 60,000 volts, and the fiberglass arm of a bucket truck is good for 100,000. Theoretically, you’re perfectly safe “working hot”. You just have to avoid touching more than one line at once, or you run the risk of cooking like a freakish human marshmallow. That’s because those lines are out of phase, and bridging two of them makes a short circuit…infinite volts for a moment, also known as “boom”.
Also, it bears mentioning that there is still what’s called a static potential between you in the insulated bucket and the line you’re working on…it has no amperage, but it’s like shuffling your feet across the carpet and grabbing the doorknob…only with about 5000 times more oomph. The hair on your arms starts standing up about 2 feet away from the lines. Feel like an expert now? Good.
So, up we go in the bucket. All of our tools were ready, our gloves were on, hardhats perched on our brows. It was a fine, sunny day. Carl had bent the copper tie-wire (used to literally tie the lines to the insulators) in half over the edge of the bucket, so it would be handy.
As we neared the hot lines, I asked if we were going to use a line hose (thick rubber to protect against incidental contact). Carl looked thoughtful for a moment, then replied.
“No, I think we’ll be OK.”
“Fair enough, Carl. You’re the boss.”
He just grinned at me, and we got ready to work. The insulator was on the middle conductor, and he reached out for it carefully. Just as he was about to grab it, he gasped and jumped back, bouncing off the back of the bucket. The copper tie wire had pulled the static off the line with a mighty ZOT. He grabbed the front of his pants with two gloved hands, like a toddler who needs a potty break.
“Carl, are you OK?” I asked.
“Uh…uh…yeah, yeah, I’m alright. Just got a static shock.” Tears ran slowly out of both of his eyes.
“Where’d it get ya?”
“Uh. Uuhhhhhh…I’d rather not say.”
Needless to say, we used a line hose for the rest of the job.
I have to admit, I think the news stories of late inspired me to remember this story. I’ve also gone to Sonic for a hot dog recently…it seems like America has Weiners on the brain for some reason. Maybe it’s the summer weather?