Major says that today, after his shift ended, he “rested” but didn’t fall asleep. He knows how to pace himself. “Nate here,” he points at Fairman, “is a new journeyman,” a lineman-to-be, who’s “conditioning himself to work these long hours.” If guys get tired, they tell the super. No problem. “But I’ve never seen in 20 years,” Major says, “anybody pull themselves completely out.” Part of the code. Be there for your buddies.
The five-man crew, in three noisy, massive trucks, one with a crane, caravan south on I-5 to the site. They caution-tape the transformer and a relay station across the street, where the line runs underground. The relay station, under metal plates, has a “feed” coming in and a “load” going out. They measure the voltage at the old transformer, then de-energize, or turn off, the hookups at the relay station using a “shotgun” or “hot stick” — a fiberglass pole. The few lights in the medical offices flick off. To guard against undetected voltage, the crew grounds the relay station to make sure it’s dead. Next, after checking there’s no voltage at the old transformer, they de-cable it, and Rivera, commanding a 50-foot boom, lifts the old transformer off and lowers the new one in its place. A concrete platform is also changed out. (In the midst of all this, the sprinkler system starts and sprays the crew.) Finally, the men re-cable the transformer and re-energize the relay station. All these “un”s and “re”s are shouted in a lineman jargon of commands and numbers and acronyms within a well-lighted and safety-conscious three hours.
In terms of lasting, the crew sings the same song. They don’t necessarily like night work; it throws them off; they miss their families. At home, the phone rings consistently: “call-outs” come, and any normal sleep cycle is shot.
The secret to lasting, they say, is that the job and the crew changes daily. Willie Major will work all night, then work above ground, on the poles, all day. “Just that difference alone will keep me awake. It’s never monotonous.” I ask him about finding time to spend the vast sums he’s making. “The wife and I are into our savings mode,” which finances their five-week Las Vegas vacations. But he knows his limits. “If I haven’t paid the sleep gods their due respect, I’ll shut myself down.”
Between shifts, Ismael Blas says he “just rests, watches a movie.” He may doze, but he knows the phone’s going to ring, or he’s due at 9:00 p.m. Working outdoors is key for Blas. “If you sit and look at a screen for six hours, it’ll wear you out.”
The final hurdle for the journeyman, after years of schooling and apprenticeship, arrives just prior to graduation, when the man’s family is called in for a final “topping out.” The family is reminded that the lineman is always on call. He might go in on Monday and not come home until Thursday. Before he signs up, he can back out if either he or the wife says no. No disgrace.
Bidding post-midnight goodbye to Taylor, I learn why he, awake-wise, is on top of the heap. Up since 5:00 a.m., he’s supervising another job at 1:00 a.m. He’ll get home around 6:00, just as his wife, a nurse, leaves for her 12-hour shift and just as their nine-month-old is waking up, the onset of Taylor’s (other) day shift. “That’s affected my sleep more than my job,” he says with a doleful laugh. In its wake, I think I see a suppressed yawn. “It’s built-in,” he continues, realizing he’ll be up 38 hours straight. “If you’re a lineman, you’re used to very little sleep.”
Sundown on the U.S.–Mexico Border
Halfway up one of the foothills of the San Ysidro Mountains and roughly two miles east of the Otay Mesa border crossing sits a Jeep Wrangler and a thermal imaging night scope, both pointed toward the U.S.–Mexico border. Under a darkening, foggy sky, I’ve been driven up here by a Border Patrol agent to meet two National Guardsmen on swing shift. The pair maneuver a small, tripod-mounted camera, unassuming yet formidable. Its hawk-eye’s view encompasses several miles of border fence and what’s been (until lately) a torrent of nighttime entries by illegals from Mexico. The National Guard has been at this and three other locations in the nearby hills, 24/7, since last August. It’s part of a federally funded “force multiplier” as the Border Patrol hires more agents and shuts down nearly every unlawful way in.
I’m inside the Jeep’s cab, doors open, leaning forward with the steeply tilted terrain. A cold spring wind rifles through the cab. Of the pair of guardsmen, one is younger, the other a bit older, their duty coated in helmet, camouflage clothing, and individual body armor, all in that overwashed green-and-white.
We’re surveying the vast border region below us by eye and on a computer screen, the eye of the infrared camera. “It can be pitch black out here,” says the younger soldier, “and we can watch [on the screen] the body heat” of a person or vehicle moving beside or getting through the fences. On the computer a joystick moves the live image side to side, pulls back, and goes in close.
We’ve all seen these x-ray–like scope images courtesy of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars: a warehouse in the scope bull’s eye, a countdown, an explosion. The night image has two moods: white hot and black hot. White hot means heat sources — “the heat of the body goes out your head” — show up in light grays, while black hot means the heat sources show up in dark grays. By day, “intruders” who get through and hide behind a bush or in a gulch are unseen by the scope. At night, they’re easily spotted, which, unluckily for them, is when the majority try and get over.
In the dark, the younger soldier explains, “we see real large heat spots right along the fence.” People are burning garbage or just congregating. Once a person crosses, his crouching-and-running posture, clearly visible on the scope, gives him away. One conveyance they see in the dark is the ultralight: a winged glider with a motor, a fan at its back, and a seated flier, which launches from Tijuana and swoops over the fence to a rough landing. “A lawn chair with wings,” the older soldier says. Night flyers bring drugs, drop their load, and head back — in two minutes flat. Agents in Jeeps and vans, positioned all across Otay Mesa, move lightning-quick for the capture.