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Hard Wired

Inside Meridian's electric rodeo


"I always tell them, 'Eddie Van Halen didn't just pick up a guitar the first time and play 'Eruption,'" Jacob Phelps says. "It just didn't work that way."

Around Phelps, his disciples, beefy young men in steel-toed boots fitted with sharpened spikes on the side, sweat and spit and strut around in a large pit full of wood chips and three telephone poles. Their families look on from a nearby patch of sod laid just a couple of days earlier. The families stay on the grass, because Phelps has already told them, "There is a falling hazard. Just be aware that there are some things that can hit you in the head if you get too close." At the edge of the sod, Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" blares from a large pair of speakers, just a few feet from where an elderly woman climbs into a safety harness while she waits to take a ride in a bucket truck. The screeching guitar solo doesn't seem to bother her, at least not any more than the previous AC/DC tune did.

To add to the carnival atmosphere, one of Phelps' fellow instructors grabs a megaphone and yells out at the audience, "Folks, there's food right around the corner. Hot dogs! Hamburgers!"

"Caviar!" Phelps chimes in.

Welcome to Graduation Day at Northwest Lineman's College, Idaho's only accredited lineman's school. Phelps' caviar joke is a perfect encapsulation of the triumphant vibe of the event, because while this is definitely not a caviar crowd, the young men who are finishing the intensive four-month program are quick to say that this graduation represents the big "It." Their ship has come in. They're writing their own ticket, and it's been punched—pick your proverb. Even before the ceremony, most of them have already signed on with companies who will pay them around $30 an hour or more to start, and the newly well-heeled graduates are celebrating in the best way they know how: By having a lineman's rodeo.

The rodeo has been part of the Lineman College's graduation ceremony since the school opened in 1993, says the school's senior vice president, Alan Drew. Back then, the school was located in a lumberyard in downtown Meridian, after being started by a former Idaho Power lineman looking for a shorter, more intense alternative to the certification courses offered at public universities. The first year, they turned out a single class of 23 students. The current class contains 67, and it's the first of four that will graduate this year. As if anyone needed more proof of the centrality of electrical power in American life, Drew said most of the students have been recruited by multiple companies.

"It's really just a matter of narrowing it down," says 32-year-old Shane Williamson, who had been commuting from Weiser every day to attend the over 500 hours of classes required by the college. Williamson says he's staying in Idaho and will work on power lines in Pocatello with his accreditation. Others in the class come from the Midwest and the deep South—one graduate is even from Africa—and they'll work in development-frenzied locales nationwide. But first, they have to get through the rodeo.

The rodeo encompasses four events, three taking place on 35-foot wooden poles and the fourth—a blindfolded knot-tying contest—on an aluminum tube mounted right in front of the audience. In each event, the lowest time has historically earned an individual—or a team—a belt buckle at the graduation ceremony. On the right pole, students use pole straps and climbing spikes—known as "gaffs"—to climb 35 feet up and perch in wait while two team members on the ground send up a cross arm attached to a cable. The student then bolts the cross arm in place, sticks a porcelain insulator on each end, unbolts the cross arm and sends it down to the ground before lurching down the pole himself in a few big—and for family members, nerve-wracking—steps. The time limit, from leaving the ground to stepping back on it, is seven minutes.

On the middle pole, two students simultaneously install cross arms in a complicated hanging dance that also carries a seven-minute time limit. But the crowd pleaser is undoubtedly on the right pole: The pole-top rescue, where students take turns "saving" Rescue Randy, a dummy in an orange jumpsuit who simulates a "victim." Victim of what? Don't ask. Just climb up, lower him to the ground—gently, now—and do it all in less than two minutes.

"It's not too much like how it would be when the real deal goes down," says Tieg Radke, a 21-year-old graduate from Twin Falls as he steers the crane bucket to 65 feet over the action. That's lucky for Randy, who has a couple of rough landings on this day as students try to break the vaunted one-minute mark.

The first few rows of audience members flinch when the cross arm or the dummy careens down the cable to the ground, but the competitors are steady. According to Coleby Thorpe, a native Alaskan who is graduating from the school and promptly heading to Virginia to work for a utility company, "air-mailing" the cross arm is his favorite part of the routine—especially since he remembers how difficult it was the first time he tried it.

"Everything was bass-ackwards," he recalls. "I almost got knocked down." His time that first go-round was a disappointing 11 minutes, he recalls. He's since brought it down by half, and is in the honorable six-minute range during the rodeo. However, Thorpe says he did take one tumble—a 35-footer—earlier in the session. When I hold his lineman's belt, packed with a hammer, rulers, gloves, nuts and bolts, a mysterious tool called a "moneymaker" and more varieties of wrenches than I knew existed, it's not hard to imagine why. (Confession: I actually lost my balance when he put the immense heap of leather and metal around my noodle of an arm.)

Of course, the college's senior vice president is quick to point out that such accidents are rare and no one has been seriously injured at the college. In Thorpe's case, there appears to be no damage done.

"This job is definitely full of thrills," he says in perhaps the understatement of the semester. "It's definitely the right choice for me."