Sandy Slover stood at the base of a makeshift utility pole as her husband, Roger, climbed 40 feet to the top to rescue a weighted dummy the size of a grown man. Roger was competing in the Hurt Man Rescue category at this year’s Huntsville Utilities sponsored, Tennessee Valley Lineman Rodeo, where Sandy and her daughter stood nearby as spectators. The sunny afternoon at the Space and Rocket Center was a far cry from the sleepless nights Sandy spent worrying about her husband throughout his 30-year tenure as a lineman.
It’s a hard career being a lineman. One of Roger’s first calls as a rookie was similar to the Hurt Man Rescue. Someone was shocked at the top of a utility pole, and Roger had to climb to the top to get him. That man was revived, although some aren’t so lucky. Roger’s best friend was killed almost 10 years ago when he fell out of a bucket lift.
Roger is 57, but Sandy notes he can “still shimmy up the pole.” Recently, storms rolled through his hometown of Lenoir City, Tennessee, and he ended up working 26 hours straight. That’s not unusual for the hundreds of linemen who came to compete at the Tennessee Valley Lineman Rodeo.
“Every person cannot do it, and every woman cannot be a line wife,” Sandy said.
She trusts her husband in a way that isn’t required for all marriages. When he goes to work, she has to trust he will take every safety precaution available.
Mary Bavousette’s husband worked those same stormy nights in Tennessee, totaling more than 43 hours overtime in one week and spending days and nights away from his family. It’s worth noting that Mary’s husband is not a frail man. He’s easily 6-foot-6 with Gaston-like looks—from Beauty and the Beast—albeit with a better personality.
The majority of the linemen at the rodeo look similar, so when the wives say they’re worrying, it’s because there’s something out there bigger and stronger than their super-tough husbands. Think about it this way: They work hardest when the weather is the worst. When rain, lighting, thunder, snow and ice hit the area, they are the ones making sure you still have electricity.
Complaints of sleepless nights are echoed by other wives who came out to the event. That’s why it’s so important for them to have one day of fun, fellowship and the opportunity to meet other linemen and line-families. Huntsville Utilities sponsored the 20th Annual Tennessee Valley Lineman Rodeo, complete with opening ceremonies and a heart-wrenching tribute to the linemen who have died while on duty in the past year.
Wes Kelley, the new CEO of Huntsville Utilities, honored the hardworking men and women for their dedication to their communities.
“They work in all kinds of weather doing whatever it takes to keep the lights on,” Wes said.
Rodeo competitors are judged based on safety procedures, work practices, neatness, ability and equipment handling. Some events, like the Hurt Man Rescue, include a time component because in real life, they only have a few minutes to revive someone after a shock. For that event, competitors have four minutes to go up the pole to retrieve the dummy and its tools and get back down.
One Big Family
The Lineman Rodeo highlights one of the lesser-known subcultures of blue collar workers. Wives and family members cheer the linemen on as they compete. It’s a big deal, too. Repeat competitors can tell you what awards they’ve won in the past. Vendors flocked to the Lineman Rodeo with decals and shirts celebrating the lineman life for everyone involved.
While they are competitive, the camaraderie is what draws hundreds to the rodeo each year. Line families get to meet, talk and celebrate their lifestyle.
Still, it wasn’t all fun and games. The tribute to the fallen touched on one of the hardest parts of line work: 23 linemen died on job last year, and15 have lost their lives so far this year, but their families are not grieving alone. One organization, the Fallen Lineman Organization, honors those workers who died on the job. You can find them here or on Facebook.
“It’s a big, line family,” Sandy said. “When one hurts, they all hurt.”
The rodeo highlights some of the incredible work ethic of the linemen in the Tennessee Valley. Not only do they head out in the middle of storms, they do it in the Deep-South heat wearing long-sleeved, flame-retardant shirts, long pants, boots, socks, gloves and tool belts. If that doesn’t seem intense enough, keep in mind they’re doing their jobs at the tops of 40-foot poles.
While they may or may not want to pass on a passion for line work to their children, these men and women do want to teach them the value of working hard.
Roger and Sandy Slover will have their first grandchild in five weeks. It’s a little girl, but they already have tiny lineman outfits picked out for some of her first photos. Roger wants to teach that little girl to never give up because he never gives up, Sandy said.
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