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History & Highjinks

We continue our conversation with John Hulbert, Pacific Bell retiree and lifelong Anderson Valley resident. Recently, my brother Scott, who is also a PacBell retiree, my mother Fran and I had the pleasure of meeting John and chatting with him over breakfast about the two men’s quixotic careers and about John’s memories and stories of phone service since its inception in the Valley. Again, as in the first two parts of this series, the tales will be mainly told in John’s own words, with which I have taken a few liberties — may John forgive me!

John kept shaking his head, incredulous at how things have changed over the years. “See,” he said, “the guys today, half of them don’t even know how to climb a pole. They use the bucket, the cherry-picker, instead. If you are well-trained at climbing, it’s safer than the bucket on the ladder truck.”

“Especially,” Scott said, “if you’re on a grade or if the hydraulics give out.” 

John continued. “Some of the first line trucks we had were a combination of electric and hydraulic. Electricity would run it up. Had to pull them forward, in and out, with a crank. Up electric and down hydraulic. There were generators on the trucks. Once, I was just outside of Boonville in the cherry-picker, going up. The electricity shorted out and I just kept going up. I couldn’t stop it and I knew it would have gone higher than I could stand so I just slid all the way down that ladder. Got down and it was still going up! When I got to the bottom I turned the safety valve on that terminal to release the hydraulics. A near miss! Now, if I’d been up there with my hooks, I would not have had any problem at all.

“When linemen first started training, they took time out for one week of first aid, then one week of climbing. You’d go back on the job and, of course, you’re still spooky. So I’d get them up the pole. When you first are learning to climb, you have to hang onto that pole because you’re afraid to let go and lean back, right? I’d take my straps and lightly rap them on the knuckles to tease them into letting go. It was a rough way to do it, but they learned to trust that belt.”

“The phone company had three arms of wire coming in from Cloverdale and they went clear to Fort Bragg. Some of them went down to the coast to Point Arena, Elk. Some of those high crosses used to scare the pants off me. We used to have to ride chair car across chasms to position open wire. Like across Mendocino Bay. In order to position brackets out there, you’d have those chair cars go out and pull those wires down and put that transition in and move on to the next one — ride the strand. Chair car had a steel post off of center that sat kind of in back with two wheels which scooted you along. In fact, I saved my chair car. I’ve still got it at the house.” 

“Bet you kept your hooks!” Scott said.

“I did,” John replied, “Up until about a week ago. The tree trimmers were going through here and I knew I wasn’t going to use them anymore so I gave ’em to them. Yeah, hooks and belt.” 

Scott interjected, “Yeah, necessities!”

John added, “The phone company supplied them, but once they moved to automation, they’d get rid of them, so I just saved mine.”

Scott asked, “How many glass insulators do you have?” 

John told us, “When we ripped out those toll lines between Ukiah and Mountain House, I got cases of those, purple ones, beautiful! There was no demand for them. I boxed them up and when somebody’d come by, “I'd just give them away. I’ve got maybe five left.”

More changes, this time in the manner of speech, or phone company patois. The changing of some slang John suggested was all for the better. For instance, a coil of rolled wire, when they first came out, was called a “niggerhead”; now its known as a “pickupper.”

They almost got in trouble in Point Arena one day when the boss shouted to the crew, “Hang those guys!” The nearby gaggle of sidewalk supervisors became visibly alarmed, looking around for a lynching. Little did the civilians know the reference was to a “down guy,” a support wire that goes from the pole to that anchor that keeps the pole from tipping.

Poles were made of different wood through the years and received various treatments to protect them from wear, woodpeckers and weathering. “Some were made of sawn redwood, some of western cedar; square oak poles were the first. At one time, the poles were treated with propane. You could drill a hole through the pole, light a match and it would shoot a flame through the pole. The company didn’t realize for a long time how dangerous propane-treated poles were; they could have started forest fires! Until the boss saw us fooling around, saw the flash, heard the whoosh. He hollered ‘Damn, what’d you just do?” We told him, ‘Lit the pole on fire.” He called the supe, they investigated and quit using propane. Creosote was probably the best and most long-lasting treatment, except for its toxic properties. I’m not sure,” said John, “what they use anymore.”

“The company was, nonetheless, a stickler for safety,” John emphasized, “One of your main objects was survival.”

I asked John, “You took a lot of risks?”

He replied, “It’s a dangerous job, but if it’s done right it’s not dangerous. Each little crew had their own motto. Ours was ‘Do it right the first time’.”

John returned to the past: “When the phone company pulled the wires in long ago, they weren’t pulled in by hand. When they came out from Mountain House this way, they’d come through and locate people who had mules and horses they could rent. Then they’d pull those lines in with rented horses or mules or whatever they could find. Maintenance was always a problem with most of those lines because whoever bought right-of-way wasn’t always along the main road but up in the mountainous country.”

Again, John stressed, the most expensive thing they had to do was maintenance. “Brush, trees, squirrels, kids shootin’… I’ve pulled darts out of those cables. BB gun damage… Sometimes we found arrows stuck in the cables. We never knew if they did it intentionally, or if they were aiming at a hawk.”

“A guy used to go out ever New Year’s Eve and shoot his shotgun up in the air, and every New Year’s Eve, the phones would go off in that area; no one could figure out why. After the third time we repaired the shotgun blast in the cable, well, we could see where it came from. We kept telling’ him: Knock if off! The guy would say, ‘Oh, I didn’t do that.’ So the boss went up there next New Year’s Eve and caught him at it. The one he always shot was one of the main cables; they were expensive to repair.”

John had noticed a lot of people in the Valley’s hills have radio phones. Scott says they have a helluva a time getting them up through the forests and maintaining them, what with obstacles like fallen trees and wild pigs. 

“People used to call me for help on those things,” John said. “I couldn’t physically go out and do it but I would explain to them on the phone what they could do. I told them, if you find any dumbbells at garage sales or flea markets, just any kind of a dumbbell, it would be worth the investment to buy every one of ’em to test their radio phones.”

In answer to my query, John explained that a dumbbell is actually a handset with a dial on it. You put clips here, pressure there, and you can read where the trouble is. Scott wondered why the gadgets are called dumbbells. John reminded him that the original ones, with little knobs on each end, looked like a dumbbell. Scott commented, “I always thought it was named for the guy using it!”

“I wish,” John said, “they’d kept better records of things. When I retired, I just destroyed all my records ’cause they were private; gate combinations and things like that I was privy to. Unless I had gotten permission to keep the records from everyone involved… couldn’t do that so I just put it all in the fireplace — Privacy in Communications Act! By law, you could not overhear a conversation and then relay to anyone what you heard or take advantage of it. Such as a stock market tip; if you heard stock prices were going up, you couldn’t run out and invest.”

“Reports to the Sheriff’s Department would scare the stuff out of me but I couldn’t pass the info on. I knew where half the drug dealers in the County were. And up on that boom truck, you could look down into people’s pot farms — you’d just have to keep quiet!”

Scott told of once finding a bookie joint behind the false back bar of a tavern in the City when he worked there. He could not tell a soul.

“Yeah,” John agreed. “Secrecy in Communications. It was drilled into you from Day One. Federal law, federal control. That’s why if someone destroys a cable the government could come in and arrest them. We would try to keep it low profile.”

“You wouldn’t want people to know what you’re talking about anymore than I would, and that’s the way it should be kept. We just have to make sure they continue to enforce it.”

Scott told John that when he was still working for PacBell out of Fort Bragg, they still had the little rail car laying in the yard there so that they could shoot trouble going down the Skunk Train railbed to Willits. 

John told us, “I still have the train schedule and the key to that; you had to have a key for switching. If you only had two guys you were kind of hurt moving the rail car so we usually took four guys to lift it up and set it off the track to let the train pass. We always knew approximately what time the train would be coming through. There were two tunnels on that track between Fort Bragg and Willits. It was quite a distance from one end to the other of each tunnel. When you’d get to the center where it turns a corner, it was black. All you had was a little flashlight type of headlight on there.

“When we were young, a bunch of us clowns hooked up a little wire to a piece of asphalt and attached it to the choke. Now, the foreman was a super-strict guy; he was a ‘Don’t go around that bush, go through it’ type of person. We got him in the middle of the tunnel where it was pitch dark and we choked that thing out ’til it stopped. He panicked. He was beside himself, also wondering when the train would come. So we pulled it back out. He got it started again and we’d choke it up again — drove him nuts!”

“Then we had a Jeep, maybe the same crew, same foreman. We used to commute from Ukiah to Point Arena. We’d leave Monday morning and be back in Ukiah on Friday night. Well, coming back on Friday we got this idea… It was a little Jeep stationwagon with four or five of us in it. We found a hole in the floor of the Jeep and dropped a piece of wire down there with flashing attacked to its end. There we were, going down the road in the dark. The boss always drove, he wouldn't let any of us drive! One of us would drop the wire and that thing would hit the tailpipe with an awful clatter. Oh my God! The boss wold roar. What is it, boss? Then we’d drop the flashing down again. We drove him nuts on that one, too. We’d simply pull out the wire if he stopped to check — he could never find anything wrong.

“Another night, we rigged a wire through the hollow structural pipes of the Jeep. When we pulled on it, the horn would honk. Well, the boss was driving along behind another car and we let rip with the horn: Beep, beep, beep! We kept it up; the boss was beside himself with embarrassment. Finally, the elderly gentleman in the car ahead pulled off the road and let us pass. The boss yelled at him, wildly gesturing, ‘There’s a short in the horn!’ and sheepishly pulled his head back in the window. We continued on down the road… Beep, beep, beep. By the time we got to town, there was no trace of trouble with the horn; we had yanked the wire. He could just never figure out what caused it.”

John got up to leave and as we were shaking hands, he joked, “My cattle are gettin’ hungry. That’s what a farmer said to me once and I asked him ‘How many cattle have ya got?’ ‘Oh,’ the farmer replied, ‘I got one.’ He had one cattle!” 

John laughed as he disappeared out the front door into the still chill morning, which for us John had by now managed to fill with warmth. It didn’t surprise us to learn that John was largely responsible years ago for raising funds to buy an engine and the “jaws of life” for our local Volunteer fire and rescue units. 

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