back to the Black Table

My father’s job isn’t inherently dangerous, but it can be. He works on electric power substations, essentially troubleshooting, making sure the citizens of Central and Southern Illinois can continue to run their treadmills, toasters and plug-in vibrators. These substations are the large confluences of metal you see on many roadsides, seemingly innocous but, when you really think about, potential deathtraps. A bunch of metal through which miles and miles of electricity are housed. And when they break down, either because of storm or some kind of wiring mixup, someone has to come and fix them. That’s what my dad does.

Last week, my boss gave me some good news: I was being sent to Las Vegas for a business trip. Every year, some big shot brokerage firm hosts a conference in Sin City, and thousands of brokers -- the beat I cover for my


magazine -- show up to drink, party, gamble and, uh, sure, go to some seminars. My job was to show up, make as many contacts for sources as possible, write about the conference’s goings-on and try not to come back with a $7,000 expense hole. My father caught wind that I was going. He loves Las Vegas. In heaven, my father will have his own personal poker machine that dispenses quarters for eternity. He hasn’t had the chance to go to Vegas in almost six years, and he asked if he could come along and stay in my room. I will have much work to do, but my father requires little babysitting. His Vegas Vacation is a bottomless cup of quarters and a barstool. I told him it was fine; as long as he let me write my stories and do my schmoozing, we’d be fine. Besides, nothing assures you’ll stay out of trouble in Las Vegas than knowing, eventually, your father will be in your room, waiting to shake his head disapprovingly.

I told him I’d talk to my boss and make my flight and hotel reservations, and then let him know my details so he could make his own arrangements. After my boss made the entirely appropriate cracks about taking my father with me on my first business trip, I called Dad, on his cell phone. It was a Friday afternoon. He sounded flustered.

"Hey, listen, I’m gonna have to call you back," he said. "Some guy got burnt on the line today. I have to go clean up the mess." Burnt is the lingo among troubleshooters for having millions of watts of electricity pumped into you. It happens to someone every five years or so. It can happen for a variety of reasons, but, usually, it’s flat human error. An inexperienced troubleshooter, standing in the wrong place, touching the wrong live wire ... and just like that ... you’re on fire. It’s not just cops and firefighters who have dangerous jobs.

And some guy got burnt. Dad heard about it on the CB, and the dispatcher sent him to Pana, about 45 miles outside of Mattoon. He wasn’t sure how the guy was -- usually, people who take a million-watt hit don’t last long -- but there was no time for such thoughts. He had a job to do; the Pana substation would be a morass, everything out of order, everything screwed up. Burning flesh doesn’t make for an efficient source of power. Dad had to get everything up and running.

I told him I’d be in Vegas from Wednesday to Saturday, May 28-31, and that we’d talk more about it over the weekend. He said bye and shut off his cellphone.

Meanwhile, back in Mattoon, unbeknowst to either of us, my mom received a call from a woman who files papers in the emergency room at the hospital where my mom works as a nurse. "Sally, do you know where Bryan is working today?" As far as my mom knew, Dad was staying in town, likely working in the office today. She told the woman so. "Any chance he might be working in Pana?" Mom told him that yes, sometimes he did work on the Pana substation. "We’ve got a guy coming in here in a couple hours who got electrocuted in Pana today. I just thought you might know if Bryan was working out of there." Mom told her she didn’t know for sure. She didn’t.

She hung up the phone and sighed. When one of those workers is burnt every five years or so, it’s a reminder that the workday drudgery, for Dad, sometimes could be fatal. You never know when that call might be for you. Mom picked up the phone and dialed Dad’s desk. No answer. She tried his cellphone. No answer. She paged him. No response. She called one of his co-workers. He said he hadn’t heard anything, and wasn’t sure where Bryan was.

My mom was offered a new job by the hospital last week. The money would actually be slightly less, but the hours were most desirable: They were normal. My mother, like many nurses, works a lot of weekends and 12-hour shifts, and they keep her away from home at the strangest times. Dad will come home from work at 5 and go to bed at 10, after the Cardinals game, and try not to wake up when Mom comes home around midnight. My parents sometimes go a couple of weeks with not much more than a "hello" and "what time you gonna be home tonight?" between them. But Mom still wasn’t sure about that job; other than the hours, she liked the job she had, and the work she did.

She wasn’t thinking about that now, however. She was just trying to get a hold of my father. She didn’t have the dispatcher’s number, so she called the general operator, who was not helpful. My mother emphasized the importance of the situation. The woman told her she didn’t have to get so "huffy." Mom said there were few times in life when she was "huffy," but she felt comfortable making this one of them. The operator still couldn’t connect her.

I was going to call my mother that afternoon to make sure she would be home on Mother’s Day, but I was busy with my own job and thought she might not be home anyway. She didn’t think to call New York. Why would she?

Eventually, Dad called home to see if we were out of beer. By that time, my mother had been sitting at home for hours, fretting and praying. She told him to go ahead and grab some beer, please.

On Mother’s Day, I called home from Philadelphia, where I was visiting my uncles and grandmother. Mom and I chatted for about 15 minutes, and I asked her if she’d come to a decision about her job offer. "I think I’m gonna take it," she said. "I spent hours trying to find your father on Friday, and it made me realize that maybe we should be spending more time together. This’ll be the first time we’ve worked the same hours since we’ve been married. It’ll be nice to have each other around."

When my father initially told me he was going to Las Vegas, I was worried. My first business trip, in Las Vegas of all places, and I’d have my dad hanging around. I don’t feel that way now. I’ll be busy all weekend ... but I’m sure I’ll find time for Dad. I don’t get to see him nearly often enough.



Life as a Loser runs every week. Join the Life as a Loser discussion group at: