Morning on the interstate. I’m passing a caravan of large white bucket trucks. There must be a hundred of them. Maybe more. These are utility line workers, heading for the Carolinas.
Tropical Storm Isaias is brewing in the Atlantic. It will make landfall tomorrow morning. These trucks are heading for ground zero, and there isn’t even a ground zero yet.
The trucks’ running lights are flashing. Their hydraulic lift buckets wobble from highway speed.
These men in neon vests prepare for weeks of sleepless nights, mechanical failures, possible accidents, wet weather, convenience-store suppers, cheap hotels, and video calls home.
I honk my horn. I wave at one driver. We are both driving at a high speed. The lineman waves back.
And the convoy of trucks never stops coming. After only a few minutes on this highway I’ve counted almost 60 trucks. I finally quit because I lose count.
I live on the Gulf Coast. Hurricanes are part of our life. When Opal hit, for instance, it crippled us. But it took only 24 hours for hordes of electrical lineworkers to arrive in town so we could all run our air conditioners again and watch daytime television.
They came from far-off places like Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. My aunt was so grateful to linemen working on her street that she made sandwiches each morning for them.
She delivered food every day until they left town. She knew all the guys’ names. She could tell you all about their kids.
And I’ll never forget when Hurricane Ivan smashed into our area.
I was a newlywed, living in a one-bedroom apartment. Our building had no storm shutters. All we could do was cover our windows in duct tape to prevent shattering.
Friends lost homes, cars, animals, trees. Ivan pommeled us like we’d insulted his mother.
The next morning, our world was flooded, but not with water; with bucket trucks. Men in hardhats arrived from all over the country to bring us back to life again.
So that’s why I’m honking my horn and waving.
I pass another parade of utility vehicles on the highway. They have license plates from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas.
Half the world is quarantined, a virus is running rampant, and these men are speeding into a storm, ready to face perdition.
Lineworkers have one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Out of every 100,000 workers, 30 to 50 die. Some are victims of explosions. Others lose limbs or get burned. Electrical work is not for sissies.
My friend Chad’s father is a retired lineman. Chad said he grew up going to too many funerals. He was always wondering if the next memorial service would be for his father.
As it happens, I was once invited to a utility line worker’s funeral a few years ago. The mother of the deceased invited me and asked me to write something about the service.
I couldn’t do it. I still can’t. It was a man’s life. My ten-cent words would have only cheapened it. You’ve never seen so many roughened outdoorsmen in neckties.
When Hurricane Michael hit, the eye of the storm made landfall 30 miles from my front door, decimating Mexico Beach, leveling Panama City, and ruining our old stomping grounds.
Suddenly, Panama City was all over national news. The same Panama City where we bought groceries and stocked up on school supplies. The same town where we all went on dates.
I once took Mary Herrington to ride roller coasters at Miracle Strip Amusement Park. She got food poisoning from a cheap hot dog and ruined the interior of my ‘86 Ford Ranger. I was sixteen. Mary never returned my calls.
The night Michael ruined the world I was out of town. The next morning, I sped home as fast as I could. The only problem was: everyone else did, too. I was stuck in a traffic jam stretching from Tennessee to the Panhandle. We sat for six hours.
About midday I saw orange flashing lights in my rear view mirror. A long line of bucket trucks cut between crowded lanes of traffic. Diesels rumbling. Cars pulled to the shoulder to let them pass.
It was a sight that moved me deeply. Because this wasn’t happening on headline news, or in some remote city. These men were heading toward our home. To help our families. Our friends. Us.
I remember passing one particular truck in standstill traffic that afternoon. The driver was young, his window rolled down. He was sunburned and lean as a two-by-four. Music blared on his stereo. He spit into a Mountain Dew bottle.
I rolled down my window and asked where he was from.
“New Jersey,” he said.
New Jersey. Man alive. I didn’t even know that was a real place.
So I shouted back to him: “Thank you!”
And I meant it.
The young man just gave me a thumbs-up and a smile, then cranked up his rock music.
When the first traces of electrical power returned to Panama City, post Michael, after months of hard labor, the applause could be heard from three counties away.
Now I’m at a red light.
I pull alongside one of the electrical trucks. I roll down my window and honk my horn.
The driver rolls down his window. His diesel engine is rumbling too loud for him to hear what I’m shouting to him.
I just hope he can read my lips.