Yet during all this, a few good men are thankful just for the chance to be a part of it all ... even while balancing from the blowing bucket of a massive utility truck whose retractable lift is reaching for the clouds by day, and the stars by night.
They are members of two Cleveland Utilities crews who recently returned home from two weeks of exhausting storm recovery in the hurricane-ravaged Northeast.
In response to emergency pleas for assistance in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, CU sent three trucks, three linemen and two line foremen to three ransacked towns in Delaware and New Jersey. Their stories were told in Monday’s edition of the Cleveland Daily Banner through the voices of three of the workers. Two could not sit in on a group interview because of work and vacation conflicts.
Making the “storm break” run for CU were John McClain and Travis Ownby, line foremen; and Ernie Cannon, Steve Kiser and Max McCann, linemen. McClain, Ownby and Kiser openly discussed their experiences in a recent sit-down with the Banner from inside a CU conference room whose walls and floor were cluttered with maps, designs and blueprints.
Collectively, the five employees have given CU about 105 years of service in their careers.
To the man, each worker admitted his surprise at the level of hospitality, and thankfulness, given them by the communities of Dover, Del., Milltown, N.J., and Chatham, N.J., and by the residents of each. In Monday’s opening installment, they told of homeowners in neighborhood after neighborhood consistently emerging from their houses at the sight of the Cleveland Utilities trucks — especially in Milltown Borough and Chatham Township where the damage was much more severe.
Most came out bearing gifts of appreciation like hot coffee, donuts, bottled water and even Halloween candy. The majority assumed the visiting crews hailed from Ohio, but were quickly informed by host utility workers that the out-of-state volunteers were Tennesseans.
The gratitude shown by Delaware and New Jersey homeowners was sincere because all had endured several days without electrical service, and these out-of-towners had come to help turn their lights back on.
“It was interesting for me to go up to that part of the country and to get to know these people,” McClain said. “I really had a misconception of what Jersey people were like. I found them to be very grateful. They opened up to all of us. They really made you feel good about helping them.”
In spite of the urgency in their labors, CU workers politely made time — perhaps a part of their Southern upbringing — to get to know some of the neighborhood residents whose lives they were impacting.
“Each case of trouble we went on somebody came outside, and you got to learn a little about that person, and they got to learn a little about you,” McClain recalled. “I remember one call, this lady was three days late having her baby. By the time we got the repairs made, her husband was a nervous wreck. She turned to us, smiled and said, ‘Well, I guess I can go ahead and have the baby now.’”
As grateful as the frustrated residents of Milltown and Chatham were to have their power restored, and as thankful as they were to the Cleveland Utilities crews for traveling such a long distance to help, the feeling was mutual among all five Cleveland linemen.
Each also was grateful for other reasons.
“I’m just thankful to have my health and that I had the ability to go and help those folks,” Kiser said.
His appreciation extended to his employer as well as his Creator.
“I thank God for the safety He gave all of us,” Kiser stressed. “It was a privilege and an opportunity for us to go and help ... but God took care of us and He brought us back to our families. So far as I know, there wasn’t a lineman fatality from Sandy.”
Ownby is thankful for the same reasons and now he is even more appreciative of his family back home.
“The family ... you appreciate them more after being away from them,” he said.
McClain pointed to yet another reason for being thankful. During the fatiguing two weeks, the CU crews and their traveling Tennessee partners from the Murfreesboro Electric Department worked well together.
“Given the fact that we worked 16-hour days, I felt like everybody ... including the Murfreesboro group, all 11 of us, got along really well,” McClain said. “I never saw any tensions or hard feelings toward anybody. Sometimes people have a tendency to get tired and cranky, but everybody seemed like they were high-spirited.”
The trio agreed they felt a pride while working the beleaguered Northeast. They felt like they not only were representing Cleveland Utilities, but the state of Tennessee and the South. But they realize their trip was made possible by their employer’s willingness to return a major favor — the one following April 27, 2011, when more than 30 outside electric crews converged on Cleveland to help CU rebuild its devastated power grid.
“I’m thankful for working for a company that offers help when it’s needed,” Kiser said. “If I was on the outside looking in, I would want people helping me.”
He added, “It’s a privilege to know that we’ve got a company that will allow us to be a part of this ... that we can go and try to help change somebody’s life.”
“I’d hate to have to know we’d face what we did on April 27, 2011, without somebody coming to help us,” he said. “There’s a certain adrenalin rush in turning the power back on when people have been out for an extended period of time.”
Once their work got under way in Dover, and then Milltown and Chatham, the CU crews realized their company was progressive in the tools it provides its workers, the safety training it requires and the equipment it furnishes.
Ownby said he came to realize quickly that CU crews had superior equipment and tools compared to those used by some smaller utility districts in the Northeast.
Kiser saw the differences as well.
“We got lots of compliments on our tools and the things that we had to work with that made our jobs safer,” he said.
“In this kind of work, you’re grateful to have good equipment to work with when you’re out of town,” McClain stressed.
“Absolutely,” Ownby agreed.
Utility companies often get ideas from one another, McClain noted. “We always take ideas from other companies, and see if we can gain a benefit from it,” he said. “We may or may not [be able to do so].”
And vice-versa. Response crews working the Sandy disaster in the same towns as Cleveland Utilities likely took home some ideas from the Tennesseans.
McClain, Kiser and Ownby agreed they were honored to help in the Northeast, but they also recognized their work could not have been done as efficiently without support from hometown utility leaders, law enforcement and the cooperation of the local townfolk.
“Most of the time that we were working we had police come in and watch traffic for us,” McClain recalled. “They were always escorting us around ... they were trying to keep us moving through traffic to get us through [congested] areas to best utilize our time that we had up there.”
He added, “And most of the people [other motorists] were OK with it. As time moves on, people were ready to just get on with their lives.”
McClain reminisced to a comment about New Jersey traffic that Kiser made.
“One morning, as Steve said, it looked like the Red Sea had parted as we followed a police car through traffic,” McClain said with a laugh. “It would probably have taken us an hour to get through there on our own, but we came through it in about five minutes.”
He added, “When you’re moving seven pieces of heavy equipment and 11 people behind it ... people will move over,” and especially when the local motorists realize these are their newfound best friends.
Once their names return to the top of the Cleveland Utilities Electric Division rotation list for “storm break” work — even if it takes them as far away as the frozen North — will these three make the sacrifice of time away from their families and the familiar comforts of home?
“I’m in,” Ownby declared.
“I’ll go help,” Kiser stressed.
“That’s what I’d do,” McClain assured. “I’m one of the few people who can honestly say I love what I do for a living. That makes it a lot easier. It makes life a lot happier, too.”
Some believe happiness is a mindset.
Others say it’s a matter of perspective.
For several million shivering Americans in the Northeast, it’s little more than having their lights back on.
And for that, they’re probably mighty thankful.
On this Thanksgiving Day, the residents of Dover, Milltown and Chatham are especially so.
They’ll never forget the devastation of Superstorm Sandy nor the unwelcome snows of Winter Storm Athena that followed closely behind.
But also tucked away in their memories, and nestled in a warm corner of their hearts, will be the smiles of 11 new friends — most of whom spoke with a soothing country twang, and all from a place called Tennessee.