The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Telephone Company

By Philip T. Perdue © 1996

Issue: Summer, 1996

Editor's Note: On April 22, 1988, Philip Taw Perdue passed away. We will miss his heartwarming stories.

Fifty years ago most 'phone companies were part of "Ma Bell," and every town bigger than a broad place in the road had a "Central." I don't remember when we didn't have a telephone; my dad worked for the company as a "trouble shooter" before I was born and "central" was very real to us. I can even remember the number, it was 179.

Dad had to go out sometimes at night in a buggy to fix storm damaged telephone lines. We had a special earphone that would fit in our telephone, and when connected to the radio in the "radio room," the night operators could hear KDKA from Pittsburgh. This was the only radio station that broadcast music at the time.

Dad had a lot of experiences at the company, some of them not pleasant, but one I remember well. He was repairing a line on the side of a steep hill, when a blue tailed lizard climbed up the pole behind him. The lizard got bigger every time he told it, but he didn't want to climb down the pole past the lizard, so he climbed down a few steps and started dropping tie wires, the short pieces of galvanized wire used in those days to fasten the phone wires to green glass insulators. Each time a wire would get close to the lizard, it would move around the pole. Finally he ran out of tie wires and started dropping roles of tape, finally his pliers. It was obvious that the lizard was not going to go down the pole, so picking out a large bush near the pole, he loosened his safety belt and sailed off into the bush. The lizard went on catching flies.

In the middle of the '30's I got old enough to work for the 'phone company in the summer. The line foreman of the construction gang was Jake Leonard, a man with great experience in telephone construction, as well as having the patience of Job; otherwise he would have fired me the first week I worked. As a child I had learned to use lineman's climbers, the J shaped steel hooks that you fastened to the legs with sharp spurs at each instep. In those days the leg irons were too long to fasten the straps around above my calf, so I fastened them above my knees. Every pole in the neighborhood had splinters up about three feet all the way around, but climbing trees got you warmed on your sitter.

I worked until Thanksgiving, because I remember having to heat the huge copper irons on a plumbers lead pot, with a line fastened to the handle so that the hot copper could be quickly pulled up to the freezing lineman on a pole. All the "toll" lines in those days were bare copper, and every joint had to be soldered. That day the wind was blowing hard and it was freezing outside, but the poor lineman waiting on top of the pole had the worst job.

One job we had to do in the hottest summer time was dig a hole for an anchor in an alley behind a church. The place was beside a chain link fence, and in hard shale rock. Since I was the youngest "grunt" (ground man) both in years and in seniority, I was sure that was going to be my job. But Jake selected a younger and stronger fellow named Firebaugh. He worked all day on this hole, and when we picked him up in the evening he had got down about four feet, where the shale came together in a "V" in the hole. The next morning, it became my turn, I dug all morning and when the crew came back at noon, I had gotten about a foot and a half deeper. Jake had to do something, the rules were that the anchors had to be down seven feet, so Jake took the anchor rod to a machine shop around the corner, and had it cut off and rethreaded. We put the anchor in the hole and with a special wooden handled anchor spreader, having an iron U shaped bottom to fit over the rod, we drove for an hour trying to spread the anchor. Finally we got it spread enough so that it would not buckle, but were afraid to drive it anymore because it might break. We carefully tamped and filled the hole, fastened the anchor cable and got away from there. That was one anchor that wasn't to specifications!

I had been after Jake all summer to let me climb, I couldn't see any future in the bottom of the post holes, but this was a skilled job, earned by long experience and paid extra because it was hazardous. Finally we got on a job that a road was being straightened, right down a slope that the telephone line ran, because the state wanted the road straightened we had to put five poles of new line on the opposite side of the road and string new galvanized wires. We worked several days with the line truck, which was driven by an old timer named Bates. He was a real expert with a winch, could put the pulley block and hook anywhere. Bates was a short man without a tooth in his head, and only drove the truck.

All the linemen were busy "cutting over" the new line, so Jake sent Bates and me out with the truck to pull the old poles with the winch. The poles were new "black jack" pine and could be reused. Now there are two ways to do this job, you can get a ladder off the truck, and put it up against each pole, fasten the "choker" (a steel cable that was looped around the pole and had woven loops in each end), climb back down the ladder and put it back on the truck. The choker had to be fastened at least half way up the 25 foot pole or the pole would flip ends when pulled and hurt somebody.

I had borrowed a pair of old hooks and a belt from the truck, and when we got out of sight down by the creek, I put them on. Bates, as usual, backed the truck up until the block and hook were touching the pole about half way up. I climbed the pole with the choker in a loop of the safety belt and looping the belt around the pole, I pulled the choker out of the belt and looped it around the pole, fastening the woven loops in the hook. I motioned to Bates to take up slack, which he did. When the choker was tight, I loosened the safety belt and went to the truck. Bates pulled this one easily. Then we had to move up a hill which was pretty rocky. Fastening to the third pole in the same manner, we pulled but nothing happened, the pole didn't budge. Finally, the front end of the truck came up off the ground by about eight inches, because I hadn't taken the time to put the jacks in place. These were heavy and in those days had to be taken out of a special compartment, put on a fastener with a special pin and removed and put back in the compartment before the truck could be moved.

Anyway, I told Bates to lock the brakes, and I ran around to the front bumper and jumped on it. The pole came out like an arrow from a bow, went the full length of the winch cable, but fortunately the choker held onto the pole and the tires didn't burst when they hit the ground, but Bates disappeared from sight inside the truck.