Sunday, June 17, 2012

When Limbs Break a Tree Calls on It's Roots for Strength. Part 1

Sometime in 2008-2009, my extended family was planning a family reunion for all the children of Fatu and Puapuaga Matagi to be held in April of 2011. The reunion was an all expenses paid trip to Samoa for each of the children of Fatu and Puapuaga, my Uncles and Auntys. A generous Aunty and Uncle would sponsor the trip.

Fortunately for me there were clauses in the rules of the invitees. One of the clauses was that the spouses, if not willing or able to come, could be substituted. Another clause was that if the sibling was unable to attend, another person could be substituted. Like Charlie, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, my sister, Selesitila, and I fell upon the "Golden Ticket." I was excited about this trip.

I prayed that somehow I could get time off for it and thought out a way that I would be able to go. This plan involved me becoming a journeyman lineman by April 2010. An apprentice is pretty much owned by the apprenticeship. I was taught a good one doesn't take time off for anything. Meanwhile a journeyman owns his destiny.

As a seventh step apprentice, I had taken the Journeyman's exam and failed twice. The written exam had been a piece of cake for me but the pole yard test, a test of putting knowledge into practical use while climbing an actual pole, had turned out to be rather difficult for me. Although it is difficult, it is absolutely necessary to be tested for the safety of self and coworkers.

One problem was my lack of actual "hot time," working on energized power lines. At the time I took my first stab at the test, I had 157 hot hours out of 700 needed to become a journeyman. The more "quality" hours an apprentice generally had the more likely an apprentice was to pass the test.

I belonged to the Mountain States Line Construction Joint Apprenticeship and Training program (MSLCAT). They, MSLCAT, are over five states: Montana, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and Utah. We, the apprentices, would receive assignments to anywhere in these states. If you lived in Utah, you could be assigned to Colorado Springs, Helena, Casper, or Timbuktu as long as Timbuktu fell in the five states. If you were what they called a "golden boy," you might magically be assigned to work in your hometown.

The line trade was a tricky thing for me because I didn't seem to fit in very well. I wasn't a "golden boy," I didn't buy beers for the foreman, nor was I good at brown-nosing so I didn't work much in Utah. When I did I usually worked with the 'misfit' crews aka the 'b' teams. The cliques seemed to be stronger in Utah and if you made one mistake, you could find yourself on the short list to be laid off.

Other than not working much near home, I didn't mind working with the 'b' teams because for one I have been on 'b' teams all my life. I was on the little league football team from nine all the way up to sixteen years old. In high school I would hang out at lunch with the 'b' team. I preferred in College to hang with the 'misfits.'

The second reason I didn't mind the 'b' team was that I always enjoyed being an underdog. I think I take it personally, when I am assigned to a 'b' team, to make that team compete with the 'a' teams of the world! Nothing delights me more than the underdog stories, teams and people coming out on top.

The problem with the 'b' teams is, during my apprenticeship, was that the 'hot time' was rare. When there are economic hard times, the power company in Utah pulls its distribution work, work done on the voltages coming from substations to the transformers that feed customers, from subcontractors in, to it's own employees and starts putting subcontractors on the building transmission lines, lines that transmit extremely high voltages from power sources to substations, and substations.

In short, I was 'b' teamer relinquished to building substations for most my apprenticeship. I failed my second test in Utah and the dream of passing the Journeyman's test seemed to be slipping through my fingers. At the time, I was working in Wyoming on a transmission line, of course I was on the 'b' team, and we would lay out materials, distribute the poles and components to each structure,  all day. There wasn't much learning going on. I almost felt like I was learning to be a trucker with all the semi driving I had been doing.

MSLCAT finally transferred me to Denver to get some hot time. The miracle of all miracles was that I was on the 'a' team. I learned a lot more than I had ever learned in my apprenticeship. My foreman was awesome and my lineman, a person certified to work on high voltage power lines, was green but good as well.

While in Denver, I asked my Uncle and Aunt, the same ones who were financing the Samoa trip, if I could live with them in their house in Boulder. Life was good, everything but the test was going as planned.

I reached about 400 hot hours and had been going to the Colorado classes. Although not required to attend, I wanted to pass the test so dearly that I was attending classes to get more familiar with the yard where the pole yard test would be and ask the instructors questions.

Testing time came. Again, I failed. I came back to my Uncle and Aunty's house and told them. I remember that my Uncle asked, "So what will happen to you now?" I remember I responded, nearly crying, "Either I'm gonna get kicked out of the apprenticeship or I'm not going to be able to attend the reunion because I'm not a journeyman."

I called my instructor and e-mailed the director that night because I felt that I had been failed unfairly. They had said I should have reported my pole partner for using a tool incorrectly and not using a rubber blanket on the arm. I had been taught that on a certain voltage, a blanket would not be necessary and using a tool incorrectly to me was not a matter of life and death and I was supposed to report my pole partner in matters of life and death. They both fought for me.

I began to think of the alternatives. I wrote a message to my brother and cousin who had been in the trade, asking each for advice. MSLCAT called me and asked me to appear before the disciplinary board, as they have done for all people who fail the test three times. The board decided I could stay in the apprenticeship and would not rescind the grade on my poleyard test. I would not be able to test again until I got all my hot hours.

I returned to work relieved that I was still in the apprenticeship. Soon after my foreman was informing me I had been transferred. To this day, I wonder if that was a disciplinary transfer. I found it funny that I was being transferred to the mountains, while everyone was trying to get out of there. The transfer happened too close to my protesting the test for me to not question it.....

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