Behind every successful lineman is a mother who is waiting, worrying and cheering for her power line hero. Take Sallie Slattery, with not one but two sons who work as apprentice linemen. She said her youngest was born to be a lineman.
“I remember when my son Brian was seven years old,” she recalled. “I looked outside, and he was climbing a palm tree to hang Christmas lights.”
Another mom, Rachel Muñoz, has four sons who all work for Salt River Project. Two of her boys are in the line division. Looking back on their childhood, she can see they were a perfect fit for the trade.
“They always loved being outdoors, enjoyed camping and hunting, and played a lot of sports,” she said. “They were always responsible and watched out for each other. I felt confident that they would always do the right thing. Also, in order to be a lineman, you have to think about other people. My sons are very caring and have big hearts.”
When her sons told her they wanted to be linemen, Muñoz said she was supportive and patient. She advises other parents to do the same.
“The four years of training are hard,” she noted. “They go through a lot to become linemen. They need family support. Be proud of them and remind them to always hold high standards and be respectful of those around you because it’s a tough environment.”
Line work tends to run in families, and the love of the trade gets passed down from one generation to the next. For example, Debbie Berenbach’s husband, Mark, recently retired as a lineman from Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Two of her four sons also work in the trade, Jason as a journeyman lineman and Brandon as a station mechanic. Initially, Berenbach wanted both of her sons to go to college and follow a different career path than her husband.
“I heard a lot of stories and saw a friend get injured, and I never wanted my boys to ever get hurt,” she explained. “I wanted them to go to college. They knew, however, how much their dad enjoyed his job in the line trade.”
Her son, Jason, earned his college degree in business, but the line trade attracted him like a magnet. After he graduated, he entered the apprenticeship program at his dad’s utility. She said when he was young, she would take him up in the bucket truck at the International Lineman’s Rodeo.
“Jason was never a daredevil; he was always very cautious and loved to do things with ropes and tying knots,” she said. “When he went in the same direction that his dad went in, I was totally proud.”
Dee Cooke, whose son Sean has been a lineman for the past nine years, also is married to a lineman and her other son works for PAR Electric in California.
“We had them in the bucket truck when they were four and six years old,” she said. “The youngest one didn’t like it, but the oldest one loved it.”
When they were boys, they enjoyed the outdoors and going camping. Today, with both of them in the line trade, they are out in the field and not behind a desk. With their line of work, she said not a moment goes by when she is not thinking about their safety and well being.
“It is a constant worry,” she said. “As long as I know that they are safe and that they are not doing something they shouldn’t be doing, I know they will be fine.”
In other families, the mom can blaze the trail for her sons in the line trade. Case in point: Muñoz was the first member of her family to work for Salt River Project (SRP), followed by her husband and then her four sons. She started as a temporary clerk in generation drafting, and then secured a permanent job in building services, where she was among the first females to work in the shop and field as a trades helper. Muñoz went to school and eventually was promoted to an electronics technician. In total, she worked 35 years as an SRP employee.
Three years after she joined SRP, her husband, Joe, began working as a trades helper with SRP’s water division. He eventually followed his wife’s lead and transitioned to become an operator in the line division. Her son J.D. continued the family tradition by becoming a journeyman lineman; her son Orlando entered the apprenticeship program and became a journeyman in the construction and maintenance department; her son Javier was hired as a designer and, later, as an analyst; her youngest son, Alex, is now halfway through the line apprenticeship program.
“My husband and I both loved our jobs, and the rest of our family saw that passion and took interest in SRP and the different trades it has to offer,” she said. “I retired in 2013, but there was a void. My second family wasn’t around, and I had a hard time being away from my coworkers and supervisor. We have a very tight bond. They brought me back as a contractor because they needed me, and I also needed them.”
Although her husband passed away 10 years ago, she said he would be very proud of all four of their sons. While he worked at SRP, he was able to work on one project in particular with two of his boys: Javier served as the designer, J.D. worked as a helper, and Joe was an operator.
Muñoz’s two sons who work in the line trade are nine years apart. Alex, her youngest son, wanted to become a lineman after being impressed by the intensity of the training and inspired by the close bond among coworkers. When his father passed away, he witnessed firsthand, when a helping hand is needed, linemen and SRP employees support each other in every way imaginable.
Annette Barber from Harrisonville, Missouri, U.S., has a son and a grandson who both work as linemen. Her son, Brett, did not learn about the line trade until he got married. His father-in-law worked as a lineman, and he decided to follow the same career path.
“When he and Glenda were dating, her dad was a lineman, and he got interested in that kind of work,” she said. “I was so scared because it was so dangerous. Right away, I started praying about it and said, “God, if this is what you want him to do for a profession, it’s OK with me. Let it happen if it is your will. If not, then put roadblocks up.”
During the job application process, doors swung wide open. For example, when he went into his interview, he was ranked in first place, giving his mom confirmation he had made the right decision to apply for a job as an apprentice at Local 53.
“It was really neat that they felt that confident in him that they put him in first place,” she said.
Barber said she’s proud her son has been able to work as a lineman for PAR Electric and now Kansas City Power and Light, and earn a high enough income his wife, Glenda, can stay home to raise their children.
While Brett did not become interested in the line trade until right after high school, Barber said looking back, he had many qualities perfect for a lineman. He loved the outdoors, never wanted to have a job inside, and was very athletic and energetic. When her 22-year-old grandson, Blake, was born, however, Barber knew he was going to become a lineman from the beginning. For example, when he was 10 years old, he learned how to strap his boot jacks on and climb poles like his daddy.
“I knew it all along from the time he was a little bitty guy,” she said. “He started as soon as he was able to climb poles, and there was no doubt in my mind that he would become a lineman.”
After their sons or daughters decide to pursue a career in the line trade, mothers often get nervous — especially when it comes to watching their children climb poles and work at dizzying heights. For example, Muñoz said when her son Alex had to climb a 70-ft pole for his exam, she was excited but nervous.
“My son climbed to the top, and when he came down, he called me, and said, ‘Mom, I did it! Can you believe I did it?” she said. “I asked him if he realized what day it was. It was the anniversary of his dad’s death. I cried because when Alex was at the top of the pole, he said he felt like he was closer to his dad and could reach out to touch him. I was very proud of him, and I know his dad was too.”
Muñoz also said she had a hard time sitting still at home when her youngest son competed in the International Lineman’s Rodeo in 2014.
“I wanted to find out how he was doing, and if he was OK,” she said. “It was tense and challenging, but that’s what they like — they like the challenge.”
Mothers of linemen not only worry about their sons and daughters when they are working in the field or competing in rodeos, but also when they are away on storm duty. For example, when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012, two of Muñoz’s sons were called to respond. When they returned home safely, just in time for Thanksgiving Day, she said she was truly thankful.
“I was so happy to see them,” she said. “At SRP, we do not have the Delta system like they do in New York. I feared for my boys because they were dealing with an unfamiliar system in a crisis situation. There was a lot against them.”
Because her sons worked such long hours during the storm, she kept in regular communication with other moms of linemen.
“As moms or spouses would receive new information, they would update it on Facebook, so we all knew what was going on,” Muñoz said.
When Berenbach’s husband and son were gone for two weeks to help the Long Island Power Authority following Superstorm Sandy, Berenbach said she participated in a phone tree to learn what was going on.
“One wife would call another wife to keep each other informed,” she said.
She remembered when her husband, Mark, was working on restoring power following an earthquake, and she did not hear from him for 11 days.
“You learn to say a prayer for those boys,” she said. “You just want a phone call to make sure they are OK and didn’t fall asleep on the road.”
Barber said it is so much easier nowadays to communicate with her son and grandson when they are out on storms. During Katrina, there were no working cell phone towers, but, during recent storms, she has been able to text them. While they often cannot take a phone call because of their intense work schedule, they can text her back, letting her know where they are working and that they are OK.
“Cell phones are great,” she said. “When Blake goes out, I know I’ll be able to catch up with him. I don’t want to bother him when he’s working, but I’ll send him a text, and he’ll respond with his location. It was so hard in the days before when you never knew where they were or whether or not they were OK.”
Barber often does not hear a lot of the storm stories until her son and grandson arrive back home.
“Sometimes when they tell me what happened, I say, “Man, I’m glad I didn’t know that,’” she said. “When they’re gone, you don’t really know what’s going on. During Katrina, they really didn’t have anywhere to stay or anything, and a lot of things I didn’t know until they got home.”
Barber said she’ll never forget the first time her son ever went out on a storm.
“I thought, “Oh man, this is very scary,’” she said. “It was one where he was gone for a little while, but I started praying about it, and I felt the peace. I knew he was in the Lord’s hands, and it was a good experience. I know their jobs are very dangerous and that when they are out on storms, all they do is work hard, eat and sleep, and sometimes they don’t sleep very much, which always worries me a bit.”
One storm that particularly worried Barber was Hurricane Katrina, when her son traveled from Missouri to Louisiana to help restore power.
“Just seeing what other people are having to go through really changes a person and, by seeing some real devastation, it gives you a different perspective,” she said.
Because of the dangerous nature of line work, linemen can get injured in the field. When tragedy strikes, moms are always there to help them heal, regain their strength and climb poles once again.
For example, not long ago, Berenbach’s son, Jason, and four of his coworkers came in contact with energized lines. While three of his friends lost their hands or feet, Jason was severely burned but, luckily, did not have any injury to his internal organs.
“It was almost harder to be a mother of a lineman than a wife — especially when Jason got hurt,” she said. “Life stopped when it happened. It gives you a different perspective. People don’t realize how incredibly dangerous it is. They are out there every day and put their life in God’s hands for the public.”
At the 2014 International Lineman’s Rodeo, Berenbach said it was so nice to see 29-year-old Jason on a pole again. After his accident, he was told he had to be out of line work for six months to a year and relax.
“He was back on the job 31 days later,” she said. “He was also jumping on the trampoline on the roof hanging Christmas lights. I panicked because I hate heights, but his attitude with the accident was that he needed to get back up. He couldn’t dwell on the past; he needed to move forward, and that’s what I needed to do, too.”
Berenbach, who now has three grandsons, said she would not be surprised if they also follow in their grandfather’s and father’s footsteps by becoming third-generation linemen.
“When I see my three grandsons, I think about their poor mamas,” she said. “While it’s a long time until they may become linemen, I still worry about them.”