Utility companies such as FairPoint are racing to install fiber-optic cable as part of Governor Peter Shumlin's "Connect VT" initiative to provide all Vermonters with high speed internet and cell phone access by 2013.
photos by Duane Beckwith
Today’s news takes me back to those haunting lyrics that describe a lone lineman perched high on a telephone pole along an empty highway. The inspiration came to songwriter Jimmy Webb, known for his talent with a couple of other popular Campbell tunes, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "Galveston," while driving from Kansas City to the Oklahoma panhandle. It was along that lonely stretch of pavement that he noticed a solitary fellow in a hardhat high in the sky talking into a telephone.
The image stayed etched in Webb’s mind, wondering more about the lineman and what it was like working all alone except for a couple of birds on a wire. By the time he got to Wakita, Oklahoma, a piece of paper on the front seat of the car was filled with notes that magically turned into a classic that sold over two million copies and was number one on the charts for five weeks. Obviously, he took license in changing Wakita to Wichita because it was easier to sing.
Linemen have been working in the great outdoors since the 1840s with the widespread use of the telegraph, installing the first line along the railroad tracks from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, Maryland. The nickname stuck and made perfect sense for those brave men setting the wooden poles in the ground and stringing the wire along the way through history with the invention of the telephone in 1870 and the beginning of electricity dotting the landscape. It continues today, following the work that requires great agility and plenty of guts installing and maintaining telephone, electric, cable and fiber-optic lines that crisscross the country.
In Vermont, there’s a race against time in getting the entire state wired for high-speed broadband and cell phone capabilities by 2013. It’s part of a project that Governor Peter Shumlin has embraced, vowing to get modern technology to his entire state, in spite of the difficult terrain and sparse population in many areas. Navigating those nooks and crannies from border-to-border isn’t easy and not always feasible for bulky utility trucks normally found on a
Enter Claude Desmarais, retired dairy farmer from Barton, Vermont, and his team of draft horses: two dependable Belgians, Fred and Pete; and three eager Percherons, Jack, Ben and Chief. “They’re able to do what our trucks and other equipment can’t accomplish,” says Maureen O’Day, Area Manager of Construction for FairPoint Communications in Burlington, Vermont. “They can reach and cover miles of the backcountry without disturbing the land, getting the job done in record time.
“It would probably take 15 guys to do what Claude and one horse accomplish on any given day, saving us both time and money. They can pull 5,000 feet of cable with no sweat, usually rounding out a typical work day pulling 8,000 feet. Property owners along the way really appreciate the fact that we respect their land, and they love the idea of seeing a big draft horse in the neighborhood. When we’re done, you can’t tell that a crew has been there; the footprint on the land is miniscule. Many a time we’re greeted with waves and hugs from everyone from babies to grandparents, often with baskets of apples and carrots. The crew has the same affection, carrying peppermints in their pockets and backpacks full of treats. Claude’s horses are so friendly and help make the long hours and hard work fly by. It’s been an honor knowing this truly gentle man during the 27 years I’ve been with FairPoint.”
An example of the kind of popularity to which Maureen is referring recently occurred in Manchester, Vermont, when the crew was installing cable across the Batten Kill River in the downtown area. Soon a crowd of 100 people came to watch, including town officials, local TV crews, members of the Chamber of Commerce and reporters from the Bennington and Manchester newspapers. Everyone cheered and commented on the professionalism and skills of the crew and the infamous horse placing the cable in such a difficult situation. People were snapping photos on their cell phones and sending messages to friends on Facebook. This sort of thing doesn’t happen every day.
Claude found out about this line of work from another teamster 30 years ago over a cup of coffee at a local horse sale. Being outdoors appealed to him, and any opportunity to work together with his horses was a bonus. He was hired on the spot and is proud to say he’s never missed a day of work except for a short three-week hiatus when recuperating from hip replacement surgery in 2003–not bad for a fellow 68 years of age. He began the adventure with Bill, a Percheron that worked by his side for 20 years before retiring.
Claude rotates his team, working with one horse at a time. When he’s on the road, a good friend and neighbor takes care of the other animals, along with his happy-go-lucky family of Plott Hounds. It’s a year-round work schedule, usually with a typical assignment lasting six to eight days with a short break before heading out again. Wintertime brings some interesting challenges, especially walking on snowshoes, something Claude enjoys except when his horse steps on the back of his shoe, causing him to topple over. He swears they do this on purpose, getting a chuckle out of it.
“This kind of work requires the easy-going temperament that draft horses have,” explains Claude, “especially when we’re near the trucks and the air brakes go off or when a lineman in an overhead bucket makes a sudden move. This doesn’t bother any of my boys at all. Neither do they care about the garter snakes that we occasionally encounter during the warmer months. I’m deathly afraid of anything that slithers and will be the first to flee, but it doesn’t faze the horses one bit. They seem to get a kick out the fact that we humans have such fears.”
On a recent assignment, Claude unloads and readies Fred for the task at hand. As he gently whispers a signal, Fred’s ears twitch a bit, as if to say “OK,” and he begins tugging on a length of cable from a mammoth truck-mounted reel. With a pull, the cable rises to a lineman, who loops it through a “lasher,” a device that slides along the aerial line. It’s the primary tool for laying the line, comprised of a metal cylinder the size of a block of firewood that binds newly laid fiber-optic to an existing line strung between utility poles. After laying the cable along the ground, the crew works backwards, sliding the lasher along the existing line 15 feet overhead to raise the new fiber-optic cable and secure it. When it jams or reaches a utility pole, the crew stops to run up a ladder or kick their way up the wooden poles using pole climbers (metal hooks bound to the insoles of their boots).
It’s a sight to see–a crew of linemen scurrying about and Claude and his horse moving along the path. Fred is outfitted with a normal harness, and attached behind that, an iron whippletree, used for pulling. The aluminum hames are about all the technology Claude has employed since he first started working with the telecommunications company.
It’s a peaceful line of work, usually affording Fred or any of the other horses Claude might have on assignment, time to stop and graze on flowering Trillium, dandelions or a tasty crab apple. It’s a routine that moves along like clockwork. Claude walks along, getting plenty of exercise and an opportunity to chat with the fellows on the crew. He wishes he had logged the miles they’ve traveled with a pedometer or kept track of the steps along the way. Claude attributes his good health to being outdoors and on the move.
Thirty years on the job has forged many a friendship that Claude cherishes. He’s been there to share the news about graduations, birthdays, anniversaries, the births of many a baby, and sadly, the passing of loved ones. He’s watched young men grow up, learning the skills that make linemen proud. When he had his hip replacement surgery, Claude was touched and overwhelmed with all the get-well cards, best wishes and visits in the hospital. For him, this is more than a job; it’s family.
The crew chimes in with great affection for Claude and the horses. There’s something unique about having an animal on the job. Claude notices many of the guys stop to pat Fred or the other horses that happen to be there on a particular day, often sitting nearby on a lunch break. Being close to such a gentle giant seems to have a calming influence that’s relaxing and a nice way to unwind. After Bill retired, everyone continued asking about their Percheron pal. They truly missed their buddy. It’s the same with all the horses–each one seems to have an ability to connect with the crew, especially when a lineman leaves for another territory. There’s always a bit of sadness when saying goodbye.
Claude is proud that his grandson, Dillon Wright, has chosen a career as a lineman. He looks forward to seeing him out in the field, catching up with family news and sharing stories about working with draft horses. This is something Claude relishes whenever anyone asks about Fred or the other boys. “I’m more than happy talking about the horses and answering questions about the different breeds, farrier work and how these animals continue to work and help mankind," he admits. "It’s especially fun when someone encounters a draft horse for the first time. They’re in awe of something so big and yet so docile. It’s a great opportunity to explain more about the work on the line, and the logging and plowing we do back home. It’s truly an honor sharing a lifetime together with these amazing animals. I can’t imagine a day without my horses. And, who would ever think old-fashioned horsepower would be an asset to the marvels of modern technology? I still pinch myself on every assignment, grateful for the work all these years, happy for my health, and honored to walk side-by-side with the horses I love.”
Perhaps if Jimmy Webb is ever driving through New England, he’ll stop and see the cable-pulling horse moseying through the hills of Vermont with Claude and the crew. Imagine the song he could write about that!
Here’s to all the linemen working the land–installing cable and keeping things in check every day of the year. And, when disaster strikes and the lines go down, they’re back in the field, grabbing their hardhats and weathering the storm, bringing us light, warmth and keeping the lines of communication open. No matter what the conditions, no matter how dangerous the situation, these dedicated individuals are out there in thunder and lighting, hurricanes and tornadoes, raging blizzards and scorching heat–keeping us safe and secure in our homes. So, next time you see a lineman up there on a pole, stop and wave a grateful hello. They are truly worth a salute and a song!