Inside looking out: A guy at the end of the bar
“Waylon’s my name,” he said. “Like Waylon Jennings.”
Six words spoken in a Southern drawl and I knew my first question was easy to ask.
“Where you from?
“I’m from Georgia.”
We sat at Boulder View Tavern in Lake Harmony and chatted for an hour, and in that short amount of time, I learned about Waylon’s life, his love and even his fears. A man on a bar stool opens his soul to a total stranger, and drinking becomes the excuse for an honest eye-to-eye conversation.
This 26-year-old from outside Atlanta owns a 3,500-square-foot house on 10 acres of land, and when he told me he pays a little under $600 a year in taxes, I nearly dropped my rum and Coke.
He has been a contracted lineman for Con Edison for the past eight years. The company sends him all over the country to repair major power outages on 200-foot-tall electric towers.
“Nobody does what I do for more than 10 years,” he said. “It’s too dangerous. I already have known one guy who died on the job.”
Due to the extreme height of the towers, Waylon is flown by a helicopter and then dropped down on a cable harness to do the repair work.
“Up in Maine, I’m working 200 feet off the ground in negative temperatures and a bald eagle lands on the other side of the tower. He was beautiful, but he scared the (expletive) out of me. I shouted at him to fly away and he squawked back. This went on for 10 minutes before he flapped his wings and left.”
Waylon explained that his fear of dying on the job is not just from the danger of electrocution.
“Linemen share stories about their fear of helicopters,” he said. “There was a job in Texas. After the pilot dropped down two linemen on their cables, the blades hit the tower and the sparks lit the copter on fire. Both linemen who were dangling in midair cut themselves loose and fell 100 feet to the ground. One, who I had met once, died instantly, and the other walked away with nothing. The pilot died, too, when the copter crashed.”
Waylon is as safety conscious as he can possibly be and has refused to work on towers that he believes are too dangerous because of weather conditions or the lack of experience of a helicopter pilot.
“Every time I go in a copter, my life is in the hands of a guy I don’t even know. His job is as dangerous as mine.”
As this young man chases the dollar bill through some 20 states across America, he told me there is a price to pay for the good money he makes.
“My wife got too lonely because I was never home and she found some other guy, so we’re divorced now,” he said before taking a long sip of his drink. “I still love her, but what are you gonna do? We have a 3-year-old daughter. I get to see her for nine days in a row when I get breaks in my travel.”
Waylon has found out that danger at the tower is not only a risk that pertains to his job. During one of his trips last January, he was standing at the luggage rack in the Fort Lauderdale Airport. He heard a “pop pop” sound behind him, and when he turned around, there was a man shooting a handgun.
“He fired again, and he shot the man standing next to me in the head. You can watch all the movies ever made where people get shot in the head, but it doesn’t prepare you for what I saw that day and what I still see in my mind in every airport I go.”
Panic struck everyone. Waylon ran through the first exit door he could find.
“I got outside and I was running along these railroad tracks when I realized I was being chased by a bunch of policemen. I stopped and they knocked me down and cuffed me. They thought I was the shooter. I spent the next day in jail and then they released me.”
The gunman killed five people that day and wounded six. Waylon was fine with his being detained by the police. He was just glad he wasn’t another victim.
I shared some of my life stories with him at the bar before we decided to leave. With a firm handshake and a friendly smile, Waylon wished me good luck and I did likewise. As he drove from the parking lot, he beeped his horn and I gave him a wave.
Most friendships are built over time and through the many experiences we have with others. Yet there is something inexplicable that can happen between two people who connect on a very personal level, knowing that this encounter is the first time and also the last time they will ever see each other. Waylon and I shared stories as if we had known each other for years probably for that reason. Our stories, told too many times to people we see often, were new and fresh to each other. They were born again on our bar stools, and so were we.
I believe we both left the bar that night feeling a little better about ourselves than before we went in.
Whether it’s in Georgia, Pennsylvania or wherever, and no matter the age or what we do for a living, our human condition is the same with everyone. We feel a need to show our empathy and compassion for each other.
The entire human race lives inside you and me. When I look into the eyes of a stranger, I see myself in the reflection, and wouldn’t this be a better world if we could understand how alike we all are.
Rich Strack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.