Monday, August 25, 2014

Help! An Amputee at the Waterpark!

 On Monday, August 18, the No-Handed Bandit hit the water park with his niece and nephew, from henceforth I will call them niblings (non-gender plural form for niece and nephew). It wasn't the first time to a water park and it won't be the last. I have a water park season pass and I hadn't used it this year plus I wanted to spend time with my niece and nephew before they hit the rebellious years. Funny because some of the things they learned from me probably weren't good things.

It started off as we came into the parking lot. Now mind you, a lot of what I'm about to say is not fact but opinion. This water park is in Provo and I find it fascinating that as a very conservative town, they have a ton of regulation. One of the regulations I despise is the streets that surround the water park are a no parking zone. This pretty much forces you to park in the water park's parking lot. The cost to park there is $7. If you know me, you know I don't mind telling people my opinion. So as we pull up to the parking lot attendant's window, which just happens to be conveniently located in my side, I pay him the money. He says his thank you and then I say, "Thank you," and a medium pause and then burst out, "For ripping me off!" My sister, who is driving, puts the foot on the gas and zooms away while we are laughing out loud. I don't know if that was a good thing to teach my niblings and they probably think I'm crazy but the latter is very likely.

After entering the park, we find a little spot to lay are stuff. My sister is very pregnant so she won't be able to ride many rides. She will be spending a lot of time on a chair or in the wave pool. The kids will be running around with their crazy uncle, who will not be wearing prosthetics, and our first matter of business is renting tubes. This always introduces the question, where do we put the wrist band? I'm usually propping my leg up on the counter while suggesting they put it around the ankle. This time the band is too skinny but my niece suggests they put two bands on her arm. It works.

Our second mission, we decided to get wet in the wave pool. My sister joined us. I took my tube and was flipping, rolling and bouncing off it. At times, the tube was right side up and other times it was  upside down. Suddenly I hear a whistle. The life guard is yelling at me to turn the tube so the handles are up. I asked, "Why?" He replied, "Because people drown when the handles are upside down." I can be a smart-aleck at times. This was one of those times. I replied, putting my arms in the air, "What does it matter? I can't grab the handles anyway! I got no hands!" He said, "Just flip the tube over." While giggling, I comply.

Provo is a very homogeneous town. Again, that's my opinion. To me, there aren't too many people who think outside of the box there. Or if they do they don't let it show and I believe it is because there is a fear of being different. From the 2010 census, the city is 84.8% Caucasian. A stat from the year 2000 taken by the Association of Religion Data Archives says Provo is 98% Latter Day Saint or "Mormon". Now, if you add in the fact that we are in an expensive water park, that makes it even more homogeneous considering that poverty rates of minorities are higher and they won't be as likely to be able to afford the water park.

At this point you may be wondering, "Now what in the world does all this have to do with being an amputee at the water park?" Ok, I'm getting to the point right now, LOL. I am a "Mormon" or a Latter Day Saint but other than that there isn't very much more that I have in common with the population inside the water park. In what seems like sea of blonde hair and blue eyed-people, a tall, tan guy with no hands is standing out like a sore thumb. Naturally people are staring, pointing and whispering at an alarming rate in my vicinity. I can imagine now how self-conscious an injured zebra might feel while surrounded by a pack of laughing hyena. 

I really had never felt so self-conscious in my whole amputee life. Every other time where a normal person would have felt self-conscious, I have been able to block it out. Usually, a simple smile breaks the ice and everybody is chill but the smile wasn't working and I couldn't figure out why. Thinking back on it, I'm chalking it up to the homogeneity in handling a disfigured person. The worst way, to me, for people to handle it is for the kids to be told and signaled to, "shhhhhh and don't look." My problem with that is it takes away my secret weapon, my smile. To add to the conundrum, I'm not wearing prosthetics and the prosthetic arms generally brings the "cooooool" reaction from most little boys.

Our first ride we go on is a multi-lane race slide called, Avalanche Mat Racer. For the ride, one must retrieve a mat at the bottom of the ride and carry it up to the start. When on the ride, one must lay or sit on the mat while the descend in a race to the finish. Just our luck, there is no line for the mats. We go on the ride relatively fast and at the bottom, people are waiting in line for their turn with the mats. While walking to the people in line, I let the niblings know I beat them and ask if they want to go again. We all agree to go again.

As we approach the people waiting for a mat, I see people that had just slid with us just keep their mats and go ascend to the beginning of the ride. I consciously say to my niece and nephew in a bellowing voice, "Let's give our mats to the people waiting and get in the back of the line." 

One thing I learned as a child was a thing called, "sharing". You may have heard of it and try to pass it on to my niblings. It goes along closely with respect and not thinking you are better or above anybody else. I remember when playing Nintendo with my siblings, we would give each other the controller after even one guy died or one guy passed a level. My father taught us that vocally and sometimes forcefully. When playing basketball or football, he taught us that almost subconsciously. He made a big deal about making sure everybody gets to score points or gets to touch the ball. I believe that to be a cultural thing. Samoans want everybody to join in on the fun.

Contrast that with what I learned, as an eight-year-old, at a sleepover at my elementary school friend Andy Brimhall. We were playing Mike Tyson's Punch Out on his Nintendo. He takes a turn and gets his character knocked out on the game. To my utter disbelief, he keeps the controller. "Ok, that's fine. Maybe they will just play their three guys and then let the others have a turn in a fair and systematic fashion," is what I'm thinking. Well, I was wrong. After he got all his guys knocked out, he just said, "I want to try again." Somehow the way these guys were raised up is that the more assertive you are the better. Well, I wasn't raised that way and so my passive self got to play one time that day and my turn only lasted until my guy got one TKO.

Fast forward back to the water park as an adult amputee. My niblings and I are waiting at the back of the line for mats. Three young men, just finished with the ride, decide they are taking their mats and skipping the people waiting for a mat to go back on the ride. I was angered by this but held it in. The man in front of the mat line says, "Hey, bring those mats over here." The boys come over and one starts complaining, "Oh so it doesn't matter that we had to wait ten minutes for these."

For me, it's one thing to have been caught red handed and sheepishly give up your mat with a laugh but to complain like it's your right to keep the mat because you had to wait before, that just sets my temper aflame. Plus, the fact that these younger guys were talking back to a father who was trying to get his kids a mat to slide on didn't help my temper either. As a young child we were thought to respect our elders. 

"What did you say?", I bellowed. I already knew what they said. They started to speak and I said at a higher than normal volume, "I don't care if you had to wait ten minutes for your tubes! Haven't you ever read the Book of Mormon where King Benjamin said to treat everybody fair!" Always grasping for something familiar in this teaching moment, I took a highly educated assumption that they were Mormon. Well what do you know, one of the young men's says the most aggravating words one can say to me when I'm angry, "calm down."

I think I've written about my father's angry eyes but just in case I haven't, my dad had one key indicator that something you may have done has gotten you into the no turn back zone of his ire, his eyes. If any cartoon could describe it, it would be the one where the pupils of the angry eyes become a nuclear explosion! As my brother attests to, I had the highest rate of talking back to my father of all my siblings. When I got in the ire zone, that was when I knew I was getting the belt, a broom, or anything he could get his hands on. Upon retrospect, that was partially where I learned respect but also I learned something bad. I learned, subconsciously, respect by physical or vocal force was normal procedure. 

Combine this force with an irritation with unfairness and you get me before the accident. After the accident, I became more likely to tell people about my feelings. Unfortunately for a while it was always in a more aggressive and hostile voice. I've been working with my psychologist on being more assertive than aggressive but in this occasion I was more aggressive.

In a Stone Cold Steve Austin voice, I said, "WHAT!" He replies, "Ok, Ok. Calm down." I told him, as I walked within striking distance, which happens to be very, very close when I'm not wearing my prosthetics, "I'm not going to calm down. You want me to elbow you in your head?" Of course you might be able to guess what he said, "Calm down." Luckily, I was able to regain control of my anger and get my mat and walk away.

While in the line with my niblings, I had feelings of regret and sorrow for the explosion of anger. I also feel shame for being a bad example for my niblings. One thing I've learned to do though, is let that sorrow help me to think about and see what I can do better in that situation. Then I've learned not to let that sorrow drag me into depression. So while in line I mentioned to one of the passing lifeguards that they definitely should have a lifeguard watching the line making sure that everybody shared their mats. He didn't do anything about it. At that point I just could either let it go or go talk to the managers. I decided to let it go and like most things when I let it go people around me, this time my niblings, let it go.

Now, my family and I had to get to the business of rides. I had gone to the water park in 2014 but just rode all the rides without actually looking at the rules. A year later and a little more conscious of the "rules" against amputees, I began to read the "rules." Many of the rules state if you are a using a prosthetic device, you will not be allowed on the ride. I feel bad for those using prosthetic legs because they are often not allowed on many rides because if they took off their prosthetics they would have to hop up stairs on one leg. At the same time I'm mindful that a lot of people working at these places, aren't educated or familiar with amputees and might be confused on the difference between no prosthetics allowed on the ride and no amputees on the ride. Most amusement parks I have to be ready to get to the front of a line and not be allowed on the ride or have an explanation of the difference between using a prosthetic device and just being an amputee. After all the anxiousness of thinking about what to say if questioned or stopped and sent back, I was let on the Cave-In ride with no questions asked.

The next ride we decided to try was the Vortex, a ride some people call the toilet bowl. We trade in our single tubes for a triple tube and head over. While walking over to the ride, I explain to my niblings that they may not let me on the ride. We jump in line to the ride, the lifeguard approaches us. My heart rate rises. He says, "You can't ride the Vortex with a triple." With I sigh with relief, I suggest we go on the ride next to the Vortex, the Boomerang. They agree.

Again waiting in a long line to get turned back can be disappointing but the alternate, warning management that you are an amputee that is coming to the park, can create problems too. Calling ahead, can get you disqualified for most rides before you even start. The infamous rule is three points of contact. I have had the best success rates of getting on rides has been the element of surprise. I know a lot of amputees who aren't allowed on rides but in my opinion this shouldn't be a question of how to restrict adults from rides. It should be to find out ways to help amputee adults ride safely. Also, I wouldn't mind signing a waiver to ride rides that I deem safe. The only exception would be if I was going to hurt someone.

My niblings and I make it to the front of the line and we decide I should be on the front of the triple tube because I'm the heaviest. The attendent let us ride, no questions asked. My niblings probably didn't know how steep that ride was going to be. At the end of the day, my niece said that was her favorite ride.

Now we take our triple tube and head to the ride called Shotgun Falls. As we approach the front of the line, I start reading the rules. A couple of them catch my attention. One falls under, "The following persons may not ride this ride:
*Guests whose health or physical condition could be affected by this ride
*Guests with braces, casts, or prosthetic limbs
Add that to the rule, "Hold onto the handles at all times." I was really concerned about this ride. To my surprise, no questions were asked and the lady even said have a good ride.

In our triple tube, we descended quickly. At the bottom of the ride is a long runway with deeper water to slow down the tube. Now here's where that rule of holding on to the handle all times comes into play. A short lesson in physics should demonstrate what happens next. Newton's first law of motion says, "An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force." 

During the ride, the tube and the riders are the objects in motion. The water at the bottom Provides the  unbalanced force, in this case friction. I was not holding onto the tube so I was disconnected from the mass that was being acted upon. While the tube stopped underneath me, my mass continued to be an object in motion. I went forward about two feet, while the forces that slowed me down were gravity and then friction. 

It would have been more dangerous if I was on the back because I would have smacked into my niblings. At the same time, it was a blast. I was laughing and telling and listening to stories with my niblings the whole way to the tube exchange. 

We exchanged our triple tube for one double tube for the niblings and a single tube for me. The Vortex, had a surprise waiting for us in the line and his name was Joseph. Now Joseph was the little boy just ahead of us in line. He was very talkative to the red-headed girl he was with, who I assume was a relative. I initiated a conversation with him by asking, "You ready for the ride?" Joseph began telling me all the intricacies of the ride. He wanted to come out of the Vortex facing the front. 

When he saw my residual limbs with missing hands, our conversation stopped. Joseph went up to the red-headed girl. I could see him point and whisper, "That guy has no hands." At that moment, I changed the subject by pointing at a pigeon, and speaking aloud, "Look that pigeon is gonna poop!" Hahahaha the old change the subject technique, which I have become a master of, worked again. Joseph started yelling at his mom, "Look mom a pigeon!" Then the pigeon flew away.

We began our conversation again when I asked, "Is that your mom?" I found out he was from England but he had lost his accent. I asked him to check my British accent if it's correct. As I attempted to a British accent, it kept coming out Australian. He advised me that I should have his mom check my British impersonation. The wait on the line went by fast during our time consuming conversation. 

Soon, Joseph was loading up on his tube for the ride but before he left, he said, "OK Sam I'm going to wait for you down at the bottom." A good feeling came over me. My niblings went first. Sure enough, Joseph was down there waiting for me to come out the Vortex. He was very impressed that I came out forward, LOL. We exchanged pleasantries and I gave him my version of the high-five, the high elbow bash.

That was the end of our rides. My sister didn't want to stay long. We did hit the wave pool one more time and try out my waterproof Galaxy S5.

I hope that by reading this blog, people can learn about some struggles an amputee may go through at an amusement park. Also, I hope my niblings learned a little bit of good things from me. I hope they may have learned that although I lost control of my anger, it's good to stand up for fairness. It would also be great if they have learned to make new friends or at least be cordial to people. Another thing they might benefit from is learning to forgive yourself after making a mistake. Most of all I hope they learned to smile and have fun in any situation!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Longing for Acceptence: Part 5 When a Tree Loses It's Limbs It Calls On It's Roots for Strength

In the beginning of any job, I am always worried about being accepted. When I would walk in the first day of any job, I would have this process of finding where I fit in. Suspicions and fears would arise about being fired or that bosses and coworkers didn't like me, felt that I didn't belong or didn't value my ability to do a job and do it well.I think that those thoughts stem all the way from educational experience.

Me in kindergarten in Laie
There is a vague memory of me going to first grade. I remember going to some elementary school in the town of Lā'ie, Hawai'i. It was my first day in first grade. For some unknown reason, I found myself staring at this older kid through the chain link fence. I must've been tired from the walk to school because my head didn't move from that staring position until the kid's hand came out his pocket and his middle finger and thumb stuck straight up in the air while the rest of his fingers crouched low. 

I didn't tell on him. I just started crying and ran home.
smiling always came easy for me
Sometime mid way through the school year, I remember moving from Hawai'i to West Valley City, Utah. My first memory in Utah was walking in the lunchroom to get my lunch and not knowing where to sit or get my discounted lunch tickets. Eventually, I found the place for my lunch tickets and a place to sit. I must've been nervous because I ate my lunch which included cheese squares and then vomited it up.
My home wasn't what I felt to be very accepting either. We lived with two Aunties, three Uncles, Grandpa, and Grandma. I remember always being nervous about getting on one of their nerves. 

In fact my most vivid memory of my paternal grandfather was being at a family prayer when he  called on me to say the prayer. I believe I was only about six years old. "I don't know how to pray," were the words that I forever regret saying that day. My grandfather then proceeded to hit me. Luckily my grandmother was in a defensive mood and protected me from excessive beatings. 
Another memory of the intimidation and nervousness that my grandfather caused me was the "cereal incident." I was pouring a bowl of Cheerios when he and my uncle came through the door. My bowl was full but I continued to pour while I stared at the two in the doorway. The overflowing food caught my grandfathers attention and he pointed made a sound. I was so startled by the attention to me that I quickly turned to recognize what I was doing and attempted to correct the situation. For some reason that day I didn't receive physical punishment.
Now, I don't tell these stories of my grandfather out of disrespect. In fact I love him very much. He was a very stern man that I sought  from but somehow never received it. I learned a lot of toughness from him. The reason for these stories is to show how I got to be a person who sought acceptance from everyone and also an urge to stay out of the limelight and almost be that wheel that is about to fall off but never squeaks for the grease. 

Dad and I coaching my brother's team
My grandfather moved back to Samoa but he wasn't the only one I sought acceptance from. I always made efforts to impress and be accepted by my dad. Whenever he asked me if I wanted to go help clean the theaters, I said yes even though there were times when I didn't want to.  When my father would wake me up, all he had to do was whisper and I would pop up like a prairie dog. Meanwhile my little brother, he would cry that he didn't want to go...(If he's reading this he's probably cracking up)

Sometimes it was hard to be accepted by him. Especially when playing football. One time, I remember playing corner in little league. My job, as corner, was to force the runner inside towards the other people on defense, or 'contain'. There was a play where the opposing team ran a sweep towards me. I always tried to do what the coach said so I didn't make the tackle, I just forced the runner inside by keeping 'contain'. The guy ran up inside and gained a crapload of yards. 

Cyprus Pirates Little League
After the game, my brother, my pops, and I were walking down the sidewalk. I could sense he was mad. He would have this look when he was mad. (looking back and laughing right now) I started to slow down and walk behind him. He said, "why didn't you get that tackle?" I said, "Because I was keeping contain." He said, "Why you walking back there? Come over here." I came up but stayed at arms length. One of his favorite questions, in my experience, after him asking you a question and you responding was, "Why are you talking back?" Or, "Did I ask you a question?" 

He then swung at me and I ran to just outside his reach. "Whiff," he missed. There are sooooo many stories like that. We, my siblings and I, tell them all the time and literally laugh out loud. That might be where I learned to look back at tough situations and laugh. It's super therapeutical.
Many people have commented that they were impressed that I smiled through the tragedy of losing my hands. I think I learned that through my mother's example but I also learned it through my Samoan Heritage. Samoans have an uncanny ability to go through difficulties yet still turn around after going through it and laugh at the story. My siblings and I tell many of our disciplinary stories and laugh uncontrollably.

My desire for acceptance led to a very difficult transition into middle school and an even worse transition into high school. I remember having to choose who to follow. My group of friends from elementary school began to split into factions. The divisions seemed to be along the lines of socioeconomic status and the lines of race. I remember some of my group of friends buying name brand clothes like Marithe Francois Girbaud, Guess, Nike, etc. I stuck with the kids in my socioeconomic status. The kids that wore pro-wings from Payless Shoes and got reduced price or free lunch tickets were the group I ran with because I felt accepted with my levi's and X-J900's.  At the same time, I thought, "This is stupid! Why can't we just all get along?" 

When I think about it now, I believe the divisions had more to do with relating to a persons home life experience. I remember once sleeping over at my Caucasian friend's house. We were playing 'MikevTyson's Punch Out' on Nintendo. It was the funniest thing I had ever seen because they would keep playing and playing but never letting me have a turn. I just wasn't used to that because in my house, sharing is emphasized. We, my family, aren't having fun unless everybody is having fun. In fact we usually play in a way that when you die one guy, it's the next persons turn. You can actually hear us cheering for each other. Experiences like that made me choose to side with other friends who were poor in monetary measurements but rich in compassion. I just needed people who I could relate to.

When entering into high school, the divisions began to be more and more by race. Being bicultural and not knowing how to speak Samoan, made my choices tough. I didn't feel like I was fully accepted by the 100% Samoans and I didn't have much in common with the Caucasian kids. My best fit was with Tongans. The ones in my school were very accepting and never spoke in Tongan in front of me out of courtesy.

College was a different story. I loved it because you could wear whatever you want and find someone that would accept you. When I graduated and went into the workforce I still had that longing for acceptance.
I took this longing for acceptance and disability to ask for help or express myself into line work. It is a dangerous combination. I have already mentioned the trench story and Ely Gelynus in a previous blog but there are other stories.
One weekend, when I was in my first year of the line trade,  my crew was working at Hill Air Force base in Ogden, Utah. Another crew, the WRC or Wasatch Restoration Crew, was working with us to help get a job done while the power was on a planned outage. The WRC was considered by me to be the top dogs in the whole Wasatch Electric company. To me, if line work was a high school then they would be considered the football team captains. I wanted to show them that I belonged so I ran everywhere. It was hot and I was sweating like bacon in a frying pan. I remember one of my coworkers saying, "they are running you like a Hebrew slave." My supervisor, Steve Bethers, complimented me on how hard I was working that day. While I received that compliment a tears of pride came out my eyes that were hiding behind dark safety glasses. The feelings I felt must've been similar to those of Knowshon Moreno, an American football player, in the video to the right, except not so much water. I was glad I was sweating so much that nobody could tell it was a tear. 
If there were poles that needed climbed, I was running to put my hooks on. When there was a hole to dig, I was the first to grab the shovel. A good apprentice doesn't have to ask what to do. He is following along and anticipating what the next move is and before being asked, he's doing it. Before linework I thought my dad was the hardest and most efficient worker ever but after my apprenticeship I saw many line workers a few steps ahead. It is peasant to work with a good apprentice because they are very helpful. In fact, I wish everyone could learn to work like a lineman. In fact it bugs me when they don't anticipate and do work without being asked.
With all this hustling that day, I jumped in a hole to relieve my friend from digging. The top of the hole was a little higher than elbow high. When I jumped in I landed on my right elbow. It was bruised and later on I knew I had fractured the bone. I remember trying to sleep that night. My elbow was throbbing. 
I had felt that feeling before. When I was in fifth grade, I fractured my collar bone making a game saving tackle at recess. 
The Gash
Of course I never told any one. I didn't want to be the squeaky wheel. The companies always complain about paperwork and I didn't want to cost the company a Workers Compensation case. Worst of all, I wanted to be accepted and didn't want to be fired.
Later on in my apprenticeship, while stripping wire for a capacitor bank, my knife slipped off the end of a wire and hit my thigh. I didn't think anything of it until I noticed a breeze in my Carhartt pants. My knife had cut through my pants, my long johns and my underwear. I could feel blood trickling out the gash in my leg. 

I didn't tell anyone. At night I looked at the gash and I felt it needed stitches. I was so afraid of the incident being a Workers Compensation case that I didn't go see a doctor. I simply bought and applied liquid band aids and butterfly band aids. Luckily I didn't get an infection.
Through my amputations I have learned to recognize this need for acceptance and attempt to put it where it belongs, in the garbage can lol. I am grateful for this lesson learned through the hardship of being a bilateral amputee. My psychologist and I continue to work on my transformation from the silent wheel that's about to fall off into the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. Along with that, the best advocate for you is yourself.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Dumb Courage's Cry for Help: Part 4 of When Limbs Break a Tree Calls on It's Roots for Strength.

Tattle tale is a word with very bad connotations for men. The animal most identified with the word is a rat. Other words for it are snitch and narc. When I was a child, those were words I never wanted to be called. Now, as a man, it is even more of an insult to be called or act in a manner that would be considered snitch, narc, rat or tattle tale.

In fifth grade, my teacher would turn his back to the class while writing on the blackboard. An occasional spit wad would fly up and stick to the blackboard. He would then punish the whole classroom by making us stay in during recess and copy pages of the dictionary. The alternative would be to tattle on the person who did it and with the exception of the perpetrator we could go to recess. The perpetrator was rarely turned in.

Early on in my apprenticeship, I remember being in a ditch that was about four to four and a half feet deep.  We were at a small airport in Falcon, Colorado. We, a crew of three, were putting in underground cable to provide power for the airplane hangers. The soil was very sandy, caving in often.

One of the dangers associated with excavations is being buried by a cave-in. The other apprentice I was with, Ely, refused to get in because he saw a huge fissure and feared the ditch collapsing. I jumped in with full gusto to show I was a harder worker and to be more liked by my foreman.

This is what I call dumb courage. I was doing something that put my life at risk because someone else expected me to do it. The other apprentice showed actual courage by standing up for a principle even when that was frowned upon by the majority of people. Granted, I didn't understand the magnitude of danger I was in while in that ditch.

Fast forward three years later, I'm a seventh step apprentice who has just done something that I thought was against the rules. I worked on an energized line with only two people. The rules in Denver say you must have three people on your crew to work on an energized line. 

After work, I'm glad to be alive. Inside my head, I'm drawing the proverbial line in the sand to never do that again. I remember thinking, "Mitch, the other apprentice, will be back on Monday and he'll have passed the lineman test. I'll never have to do that again." The actual rules in that town are that the minimum amount of people needed to work an energized line is two but breaking a rule that you thought applied still feels like breaking a rule to me. It, breaking a rule, brings me angst, a feeling of rebelliousness and guilt all at the same time. Those feelings aren't good for me when working around high voltage lines.

Those feelings aren't good for me when doing anything. I remember playing little league football while my dad watched. When he watched, it was like the part in the Lord of the Rings  where this huge red eye is glaring at you. The heat from the eye makes you sweat. Sometimes, if I didn't play well, he would do what I call a 'one knuckle tap' on my skull. It, the 'one knuckle tap' usually leaves a lump on your head. It's funny now, beause it reminds me of bugs bunny cartoons when he would ask, "one lump or two?" and then hit them in the head according to how many lumps of sugar they said they wanted, but it wasn't funny then. It also didn't help my performance as I messed up whenever I felt his eyes watching me.

If I would have had the courage of Ely, I would have said, "I'm not working until we get another guy on the crew!" Then we would have either got another guy, found out the rule, or my foreman would have done it. When a foreman has to do something he will give you crap to no end but in retrospect it would have been worth it.

I did go to the place I was staying and complain to my line buddy Keith
about how my boss was making me work energized lines with only a two man crew. Then I complained to my brother about it. I might have even jokingly sent him my password to my Facebook account with the instructions to tell everyone I loved them if I died. When the  weekend came, I was headed to Atlanta to visit a friend and sightsee. I drove my car to my favorite  foreman's house in Denver, where  he  let me park my 'Ol Betsy (my beat up car see previous blogs). He gave me a ride to the  Denver International Airport and I complained to him about the situation. When I landed in Atlanta, I complained to my friend there too.

Complaining about job conditions to friends and family is something that occurs at just about every job site. Maybe it was a way to put the responsibility of the danger in someone else's hands without them knowing. Now I see it's actually cowardly or dumb because instead of taking responsibility, it puts responsibility in everyone else's hands. Or maybe  I was taking my time to build up courage to say something. 

It's  too  late to change  the past and I certainly  took a long time to realize  that. In the very beginning of my life without hands, the phrases, "what if I would have done this?"  or, " I should have done that!" popped in my head and came out my mouth daily and sometimes hourly or even every ten minutes. Even now, as I struggle to open my in flight snack package in this tightly packed Southwest flight,  I wish I could have prevented that accident. 
But I now constantly remind myself that I can't change the past, I can only change the future.

Today I hit my 37th birthday. With that came a lot of retrospective thoughts  and self evaluation. A lot of it was depressing. Some of it stemmed from my college team, USU losing to BYU.
Nevertheless  my life has very few significant accomplishments compared to many others. Everyone my age has kids and is deep in their careers. They are going somewhere.

Again I remind myself, we can't change the past only the future so here goes: My future involves me taking an active role and asking the right people for help. My future involves me having actual  courage like Ely Gelynus, who told people when he was uncomfortable doing something. My future involves less dumb courage, which is me trying to  do things I know I can't do by myself without asking the right person for help. My future involves, god willing, children of my own. My future involves me not comparing myself to others. My future involves me having a career and going somewhere. That's one of the steps in moving on with ones life recognizing the mistakes and taking the necessary measures to not make those mistakes again. but not dwelling in the past.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Exit Here in Bright Neon Lights: Part 3 When Limbs Break aTreeCallsonIt's Roots for Strength

If it wasn't enough to have these difficult driving experiences, it seemed that I was offered some perfect exits to this road which would lead me to the accident that would take my hands. Sometimes, even though the exit signs are in neon lights, the driver doesn't take the exit. I have sat here dumbfounded about how stupid I was not to take the exit and the only reasons I can offer for not leaving the trade were pride and family.

My father had a saying, "There are no such things as friends." Upon further investigation the saying comes from my grandmother. According to my eldest cousin, the full saying is, "There are no such thing as friends. Everyone is family." My father's saying sounds like something 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin would say and my grandmother's saying sounds like something that could come straight out of Jesus' mouth. I believe that naturally my father although he got the saying wrong he taught us the principles of my grandmother's saying.

As a child my father took me to work at his part-time job of cleaning movie theaters at the young age of eight or nine (my memory fails me in my old age). This usually happened somewhere between the hours of midnight to four am and only when we didn't have school. I didn't get paid anything except the coins I managed to find. Some days it was seven cents and some days it was up to three bucks. One day, I even found $100 bill but the rule was anything over five bucks we had to give to our dad. It was a bonus to find any money but my pride came from the greater cause of helping my dad get done faster so he could go to his other job less tired.

He started to bring the other kids along to help as they got older. The scariest part of cleaning the theaters was carrying the full bags of trash to the dumpster. It usually was dark and quiet except except for the gurgling of the creek that ran behind the theaters. I would get spooked from a bird taking off from it's resting spot. When my siblings started to come I chose to be brave because I didn't want my younger siblings to be afraid.

There were some days, when I got older, my father didn't have time to drive us children home. The plan came down that he would drop us off at the bus stop and we would catch the bus home. I remember one time being dropped of on a Saturday at around 5:45 am. The first buses on the weekdays came around 6:15 am to 6:30 am. This Saturday I expected the same thing but the bus on Saturday doesn't come until 9:00 am. After about 30 minutes of waiting in the cold, I grabbed a newspaper and covered myself with it as I laid on the bench. Looking somewhat like a homeless, I napped till the first bus came. Some people might look at this and think, "Whoa!!!! That's child labor!" I didn't think of it that way. It just brought me more pride for helping my family and more stories to tell.

Soon, my other siblings began to come. Knowing that the bus wouldn't come until 9:00 am, I would convince my siblings that we should walk all the way to downtown Salt Lake City. We were walking about 7 miles but we didn't know it. By the time we got downtown, the bus that we usually would transfer to, Magna 37, was starting it's first run. Often we would fall asleep and pass our stop then wake up at the end of the line. The bus driver would kindly let us stay on while he went on the inbound route. We all did it not for the money but for the team.

On memorial day this year, my sister took a phone call from a co-worker. She is the assistant manager at a gas station. The coworker had called in sick on a holiday and she took it upon herself to report in to work. I asked her, "Why in the heck do you answer the phone when you know they are calling in sick?" She snapped back, "Because if I don't the person there will have to stay a double shift." It hit me that she was doing it for the team. A team that in certain situations she considered family because she understood and could put herself in the shoes of her coworker.

During my apprenticeship, there had been several moments where I was scared for my life. I can think of three right now that could have been those exit signs in neon lights. The first one was in orientation. After a week or two, as a new apprentice in the trade, Mountain States Line Constructors Apprenticeship Training called me all the way back from Falcon, Colorado to Salt Lake City, UT for a one week orientation of class and climbing.

As usual in my life, I was good on the class part. It was climbing poles that was difficult. I had bought my climbing tools from e-bay. The belt was too small and the hooks weren't sharp. I kept stepping up the pole and "gaffing out." Gaffing out means that the pointy sharp thing strapped your feet comes out of the pole when you don't want it to in other words falling of the pole. Everyone else was getting climbing.

That week, blisters started forming on the insides of my lower legs from the friction caused by the pads on the apparatus used to strap the hooks to my feet. I kept going up and falling, up and falling and again up and falling. Quitting was not a very viable option to me. I had just left my two jobs to join the apprenticeship without giving two weeks. My current wife had been cheating on me and we were in the process of getting a divorce. I didn't want to come back to Salt Lake City and be around her or the rumors and the whispers at church, in the neighborhood, or the Polynesian Community.

Being cheated on is one of the most painful things I had ever experienced in my life. It felt as if my heart had burst or blown up. I had revolved my life around a person who was revolving her life around someone else. All of a sudden the center of my universe was gone. My heart felt like it only had a little piece of it left. With all that burden inside me, I still continued to try and climb the pole.

Slipping out of the wood and falling was a scary feeling. Hitting the ground from ten feet up was even more scary. I thought about quitting right then and there because I didn't have someone to climb for. Thoughts of returning home popped up in my head. Then I thought, "I can't go back. Not now." I thought of my mom and how I could help her and my dad and how I could help him. I had something to climb for. Although my heart wasn't as strong, it was there and I imagined the little piece that was left beating at the end of some twisted up veins. I stepped on the wood again and up I went.

Near the weeks end, we were to be tested on a pole. We had to climb over two cross arms to the top of a 55 ft pole. I would look at the top of that pole with the fear of god in me, during the week. We were told if we failed that test, we would be sent home. Friday came and it was do or die time.

For the test, we were tied to a safety, so it wasn't do or DIE physically, just literally. I began my ascent, with what felt like all the pressure in the world. Even though I had two safeties there, one connected to my back and the belt around the pole, at 20 feet I began to sweat and my palms were wet. I crossed an arm at 30 ft. To cross an arm, one must unwrap the safety belt, from around the pole, and crawl over the arm with all the trust in the hooks on your feet. These hooks ,that weren't sharp and were bought from eBay, weren't something I would want to trust my life with. I made it over and stood on top of the arm. With fifteen feet and one more cross arm to go, I took a break and looked at the Salt Lake Valley. It was beautiful from up there.

I continued my climb. At that point one must climb sideways and then proceed up because the next crossarm is 90 degrees around the pole. Again, I had to unbelt and crawl over the arm. This time, I only stopped for one breath. I wanted to be done with this test. I looked down at 45 feet and, on my first time at that height, people look like ants. "Self, don't ever look down again!", I told myself. I got to the top and did the task to pass.

Going down was even more scary because you have to look down. But I was in a relieved state of mind. Just like right before my accident, I had done the difficult part of the job and became slightly complacent. I took two steps down and slipped right out of the pole. When bad things happen, I'm a pretty fast thinker. The feel of free fall came over me but the safety on my back caught me and the momentum, that had swung away from the pole, switched and returned to the pole. I hugged the pole with all my might and stuck my feet back in. Quickly, I looked over to see if anyone had seen it. Everyone down there was looking away or down. It seemed they had pretended not to see it.

I had the feeling that I had just failed. When I hit the bottom, I was looking down, with my body language showing failure. The teacher approached me and said, "Congratulations Sam you passed the test." My eyes, hiding behind a pair of safety glasses, had the look of bewilderment. Then the teacher said, "Sam you ride with me back to the classroom."

In the car ride home, the teacher asked me where I was working and if there was any climbing on my job. Then he told me, "Whenever you get the chance, practice." I knew that he knew that I had fallen but I told myself I would practice.

The other apprentices there that day were for the most part having no problem. A year later one of them had commented to me, "Your climbing has gotten way better." Two years from then, another apprentice told me, "I have mad respect for you Sammie. I remember in orientation when you couldn't climb but you never gave up. Every time I looked over to see what you were doing, you would fall but then just go up again." What they didn't know was that, with all that was happening in my life, there was no turning back for me

The second time I was scared for my life was in the Cedar City, Three Peaks Substation. To a know nothing apprentice, sometimes things that are dangerous don't look dangerous at all. Then you learn some things, after a year, and all of a sudden things that aren't dangerous look extremely dangerous. In fact everything seems like it could take your life. In my apprenticeship I was at that stage where I thought every thing could possibly kill me.

On this particular day of work, they were going to pick a huge platform, like the one in the picture below, and put it on top of some 20 foot tall legs, made of insulators.

I didn't know how much the thing weighed, I just knew that it was heavy. The foreman had done a practice pick, the day before setting the platform, and  I remember seeing the outriggers come up on the other side of the crane. A tipping crane is one of the things an apprentice is warned about.

The crane picked the platform 20 feet in the air and swung it over the insulators. Our crew scrambled to tighten the bolts that would hold the platform in place. They got in their manlift baskets and jabbed their spud wrenches into the bolt holes. There was prying and grunting. More pulling and grunting. The platform was fitting right.

I began to fear for the workers safety. "Should I help?," I questioned myself. Then I thought if they are going to die then I'm going to die with them. All this self talk occurred in a matter of seconds as I sprinted to a manlift and donned my harness.

When a manlift drives fast, the boom bounces. There I was bouncing in the basket to the rhythm of the terrain, afraid of dying but afraid my crew was going to die. Tears came down my cheeks. I don't know if they were tears of courage or tears of fear. My foreman screamed, "I was wondering if you were going to show up!"

We finally pinned that platform down with a few bolts. Later on as I sat on a beam, tightening a bolt, I felt relief. I let down my guard. With another journeyman nearby, I pried on the bolt hole with all of my might to try and get the other holes to line up. Then, just as the day of my injury, my guard was down. I wanted to impress the lineman, again just as the day of my accident, so I pried with all of my might and the spud wrench cameout of the hole. All the force I was applying was suddenly released and suddenly I was falling off the beam from 20 feet in the air. Luckily, the lineman caught me from my fall. We went back to work.

The last moment I was scared for my life, during my apporenticeship, was the week before my accident. It is difficult to explain some linework to those that aren't familiar with it so I drew some pictures. Also I need to explain that it is not common for an apprentice to work alone on energized lines and neither is it common for a crew with less than three people to work on energized lines. In the town of Kremmling, Colorado, however it is legal for both an apprentice to work on a line by himself and to work an energized line in a crew of two.

I wasn't aware of the different  rules in Kremmling and when the other apprentice left to do his Journeyman's test. I thought for sure we woulkd either not work or do work that wasn't energized. My foreman ate breakfast with me at the Moose Cafe. This was unusual as he stopped eating breakfast with us a couple weeks ago but more surprising to me was when he informed me that we were going to energized work. Not only would we do energized work but we would do the most difficult pole on that particular line, the corner pole.

A corner pole is where the line makes a 90 degree angle, or corner. We would keep the line hot but take ou the transformer. Then we would move one side of the energized, or hot line, from the old pole to the new pole. Next, the other side would be moved.

The first side was the hard side because to keep the line hot, we would need to use a mechanical jumper that was long enough to reach the line when it was attached to the new pole (red line represents mechanical jumper or mack). Not only did the mack need to reach the line at it's new position but it needed to be coiled so that it didn't dangle and touch anything else. Then we would cut the actual jumper(light blue curved line touching both lines) which would send all the energy through the mechanical jumper.
I would put on my gloves and sleeves(orange) and then as the line went up, I would uncoil the mechanical jumper. In order to come off the new pole, a grip(purple), a device designed to clamp down on a line when force is pulled on the loop in the grip, was put on the line and a rope(yellow) tied to it. The rope went from the grip to a sheave(yellow circle), which redirected the rope down the pole. At the bottom of the pole was another sheave that redirected the rope to the towball on a pickup truck. Once the rope was pulled by the truck, the line would come loose on the rope end of the grip. I would unpin the wire from the insulator.

So I got a loose end of wire, uncoiling of a mack and to add to that I would attach a helper block with a grip from the wire to the new pole. When pulled, the helper block would take the line up to the new pole. In linework they call this a 'cluster f@#&'. I'm doing what seems like a million things at once while always keeping my eye on this dangerous rattle snake that could bite me with 14,400 volts.
Once the wire was released from the old pole and pulled up to the new pole, I woulkd pin the wire to the new insulator. At one point my foreman mumbled, in response to a question of mine, "You just want to do it your way because you think you are so smart." Little did he know that I was in a mini panic with all that was going on. I snapped back, "No I don't think I know everything! If you just tell me what to do I'll do it!"

The few houses on that transformer finally got their power back after about six hours. My feet, which on a normal winter day in Kremmling were pretty cold, were sweating. My brain was probably sweating out my nose.

Of course I could have said, "No!" But for one I was an apprentice and an apprentice just does what he is told. The other thing was that when an apprentice says no there are repercussions. I was also raised to be a team member and put the team before me, just like my sister going in to work to help a coworker. Last but not least it is ingrained in me, being of Samoan descent, to be obedient.

There were many other times when I could have died but it seems like these three stand out to me as times when I did something scary and then let down my guard and had a near miss. These times that stand out as an exit sign in neon lights, where I could have seen the warning and escaped my life changing event.  The last one I shared was the scary part before my accident. After that day, I let down my guard a little bit and instead of a near miss, it was a hit.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Bad Omens: Part 2 of When Limbs Break a Tree Calls on It's Roots for Strength.

After being moved from Denver, I began to pray for three major things besides safety. The first was that my employer would let me go to my family reunion in Samoa. Second, my mother seemed closer and closer to dying so I prayed to be home when she passed. Lastly, because of all the moving around i hadn't been able to serve in my church so I prayed that I would be provided a job that would facilitate me serving my church. In fact I pretty much prayed that I would become financially independent that way I could spend all my time serving the lord.

Kremmling is a small town that lies in the mountains of Colorado, along the upper Colorado River. According to the 2000 census the population was 1,578. I can't imagine it has grown that much since then. The town has one super market, one hardware store, and a couple of gas stations.

Fortunately for me, one of my best line buddies, Keith, made friends with the owner of the hardware store's daughter. She rented me a room for $400 a month. The deal included all the small town hospitality I could imagine, so I was getting a pretty good deal.

As per normal (new man on the linecrew) procedure, I met the crew at the "show up". The "show up" was a place that is designated for crews to meet before the start of work. Usually line building material is stored there. This "show up" was actually located at the power company.

My foreman smoked a lot and talked slow and slurred but was very smart when it came to linework. He would say his opinion on how the work should be done but ultimately let the workers have the last say. His way usually was the better way and he would let you know through his mumbling, though from the bucket, the mumbling couldn't be heard. It seemed his method was to let the those in the air learn by doing. The only time he resorted to screaming was when something was going to put you in danger. Disappointment was expressed a simple shaking of the head.

The lineman on the crew was from southern Colorado. He talked frequently about leaving the crew, dragging up, to take a job closer to his wife because his relationship was on the rocks. For a lineman he was very patient and often would take the blame for my mistakes. Never once do I remember him blaming anyone for a mistake.

We had another hot apprentice, an apprentice qualified to work on energized lines. He was from Montana and engaged to be married and talked about his fiancé a lot. The other thing he talked about was his fifth wheel, or camper.

Everyone on the crew besides the foreman had at least one thing in common, we all wanted to get out of that town. Frequently they mentioned the other two linemen that left. One went back to Denver so he could spend more time with his kids and the other 'drug up' to take another job. The foreman couldn't work in Denver because he had been banned from Excel's, the power company in Denver, property.

The whole crew would leave town for their homes every weekend except the other apprentice who lived so far away that the expenses would outweigh the benefits. My linebuddy Keith would often ask when I would stay and fish with him on the weekend. The desire to play basketball at home in West Valley, Utah every weekend was addicting though and my desire to fish was nonexistent. I was at the peak of my game and the joy I found from being able to control a game was unmatched by anything at the time. In the back of my mind was a fear of never being able to play again.

Winter began to set in. Soon the lineman 'drug up' leaving us with a crew of three, one foreman and two hot apprentices. There were several incidents that could have been seen as signs from a higher power to quit the trade. I was enjoying life so much that I didn't think anything of them.

Besides this ever present fear way in the back of the mind of never being able basketball again, there was the knife incident.

On low voltage wire (120v-480v), there are three legs or wires. One of the legs is the neutral and the two other legs are energized. Each of the energized legs is coated with an insulating plastic. If the two legs touch it completes a circuit and electricity flows but there may be heat, melting metal and a numerous amount of things that happened when this flow is not controlled. At times it becomes necessary to strip the wire and connect new circuits.

This particular day, it was necessary to connect a circuit. The other apprentice and I were up about twenty five feet in the bucket. I was stripping one of the wires, with my blade stripping away from the body, when suddenly there was a loud bang, light, heat and smoke. My blade had went into the insulation of both legs at the same time. A chunk of the blade melted and because it was my foreman's knife, I owed my foreman a new knife.

There were the several highway slide-off incidents. The fastest and shortest route from Salt Lake to Kremmling is US Route 40. On that road, just after a town called Steamboat Springs, lies Rabbit Ears Pass. At an elevation of 9426 feet, it receives a lot of snow and can be closed at times.
Rabbit Ears Pass on one of my trips.
In fact I remember once approaching the pass in the dark of night. Snow was coming down sideways. I drove right by the tire chain-up area, thinking to myself, "I should put the chains on." Then I thought, "Nah it's too cold and wet outside." I remember looking at the dark road and thinking I had just began a journey on the Pass of Caradhras, from the movie and book The Lord of the Rings. My grip on the wheel tightened, knuckles white as the snow and palms sweating. 

There are two summits on the pass. I had made it over both of them and was headed down hill. My patience grew thin from driving 20 mph and I began a gradual let down of my guard. I coasted a little faster and pushed the brakes less. My speed increased to about 25 mph but a truck was riding my tail. I made the decision to pull to one side and let him pass. While slightly pulling to the right, I lost control of the car and slammed into the embankment.

I started to rock the car by putting it reverse and forward repeatedly. No dice, my car was stuck. I got a crazy idea that I could throw the tire chains on the tires while the car was in gear and hopefully it would get traction and move. With the car in reverse and the tires spinning, I jumped out and closed the door behind me. Unfortunately for me, the car door automatically locks when the car is in gear and the door is closed. 

There I stood, with snow flakes hitting my face, in a hooded sweatshirt, staring at this amazingly unfortunate scene. Suddenly, news stories of people burried in snow storms flashed through my mind. Adrenaline kicked in as I became irrationally delusional that this could be a life or death situation, when in fact it was highly unlikely that I would have died. I looked at the small triangle window, called the rear quarter glass (I had to google the name), and began to formulate a plan of action that included kicking in the quarter glass. Fully believing and visualizing the quarter glass breaking, I backed up and took two steps and kicked as hard as I could. 


The window remained in tact. My sweatshirt was beginning to become moist and cold. I slowed down and became rational. My mind reflected on the many times I had broke into my own car. I needed a long piece of wire. My eyes focused on the antenna and my mind thought of an old tv show called McGyver.

In McGyver the protagonist always comes up with a nifty way, usually involving chewing gum, to escape a near death and capture the antagonist. A plow came and stopped, the driver got out the truck and told me he was going to call the police and a tow truck to help. He stood there for a while, watching me trying to McGyver the truck. Unlike the tv show, this process must have been boring because the plow driver told me that he was going to go sit in his truck.

Eventually, I got that door opened and got pulled out of the jam. There were a couple more slide offs and other near misses but after each experience my resolve became greater and greater to become a lineman. Perhaps it was me being hard-headed. In fact, I know it was me being hard-headed as I remember my cousin from Hawaii urging me to quit the line trade and me insisting that a Matagi (my family name) is not a quitter!

Looking back at all those experiences, I laugh ,literally, out loud. As a child, we learned to laugh a lot after good times and bad. The important thing, I think, is not to laugh during the bad times but after, open that big Ol' bottle of laughter because like they say it's the best medicine.