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I started my first full-time job, a lineman for the Illinois Bell Telephone Company, shortly after high school.
I got the job because I applied for it and did well on an aptitude test.
Just a couple weeks after graduating, I reported to work at a large garage in suburban Arlington Heights, where I was issued gloves, hardhat, belt and a small assortment of hand tools.
As a junior member in a crew of nearly a hundred men, I was assigned grunt work exclusively my first six months. At the time, many of the jobs involved taking phone lines off of telephone poles and burying them underground. We had an assortment of trenchers and backhoes to do the bulk of the digging, but the machinery couldn’t be used in every situation. If there were other utility lines in the area or the space just too confined for the big equipment, the digging had to be done by hand and that’s where I came in.
I enjoyed the work. There’s a Zen-like satisfaction to steady physical labor, and after a few months I was in the best physical shape of my life. To begin with there were another half dozen young men on the hand digging crew, but after a half-year only a guy my age named Chuck and I remained. The others had quit or been fired. As a result, Chuck and I climbed up the seniority totem pole and out of the trenches the second half of our first full year of employment.
Actually, Chuck and I almost got fired as well.
We were assigned to dig by hand alongside a manhole near a busy intersection on Chicago’s northwest side. A newly laid cable needed to be brought into the manhole for splicing, and heavy equipment was forbidden because the area was crisscrossed with other utility lines, including several major telephone trunk lines.
One of the things I liked about digging was that in general you were told what to do and then left alone on the job. This particular job was a very important one, however, and our boss, his boss and his boss were all on the job site looking down in the hole as we dug.
The finished hole was nearly eight feet deep, six feet wide and 12 feet long. The work was slow because we were expecting to uncover trunk lines, tubes three inches in diameter carrying thousands of pairs of copper wires. Site plans showed that they were there but we never encountered them.
After we got the hole big enough, the plan was for us to drill through the side of the concrete manhole using a pneumatic jackhammer. For those who have never had the pleasure of running a jack, let me just say it’s not the most pleasant job. The one we had weighed about 60 pounds and rattled the bones of the operator even when used in the manner for which it was designed: drilling down.
We were to drill sideways while a small gaggle of bosses loomed overhead, quacking advice liberally, many of the tips conflicting. After no small amount of lifting and positioning, we were finally ready: me with the jackhammer on my shoulder and Chuck at the controls. We were expecting to labor away at the chore for sometime since we were told the walls could be as much as a foot thick.
So it came as a surprise when the foot long chisel sank easily into the concrete. It was an even bigger surprise when a tangle of tiny copper wires came back out with the bit.
Both Chuck and I looked up to the formation of bosses overhead and began saying that we thought we had a problem, but we were cut short by our immediate boss who was trying to put on a show for his superiors.
“You two aren’t paid to think,” he said sternly, “keep drilling.”
Chuck and I exchanged glances, shrugged and followed orders.
The telephone outage caused that morning made the front page of the Chicago Tribune and nearly put United Airlines out of business.
I’ve always wondered what kind of aptitude they tested me for.