DECATUR – Starting in pole position takes on a whole new meaning when you are an Ameren Illinois lineman heading out to the rodeo.
That's rodeo as in the International Lineman's Rodeo, happening Friday and Saturday in Bonner Springs, Kan. More than 200 lineman teams from utilities all over the nation and world will converge for a series of exercises designed to find out who has got the power when it comes to job skills.
Rodeo challenges include speed-climbing a 40-foot pole and then descending with enough finesse that a raw egg – held in the lineman's mouth – remains unbroken.
And then there is the simulated rescue of a hurt lineman that involves securing and lowering a dummy to the ground after making the wires safe, also while perched at the top of that 40-foot pole.
Ameren Illinois is sending multiple teams of 24 journeyman linemen and 14 apprentices to the rodeo, and they were practicing their skills Tuesday at the utility's training center in Decatur.
Zach Beaty, a lineman out of LaSalle, ended up letting his rescue dummy descend earthward a little too rapidly but pointed out nothing is easy under the critical eye of your smiling colleagues.
Beaty, however, already feels like a winner. He said he's doing his dream job, and he loves it most when battling frigid temperatures and howling winds to get the lights back on.
“It's such a good feeling to help people who have been freezing in their houses,” said Beaty, 33.
What's at stake in the rodeo are trophies, plaques and priceless bragging rights for the winners, but it's also a demonstration and perfection of skills with a deadly serious undercurrent.
The Ameren teams, for example, include Decatur linemen Don Putnam and Josh Simpson, who got to play both parts in a real rescue drama. In 2014, Simpson accidentally bumped a line, and the jolt of current left him hanging, unconscious, in his climbing straps at the top of a pole. Putnam helped rescue his friend and lower him to the ground.
“There is a special bond between the linemen who work together,” said Putnam, 34. “He makes sure that I go home to my family and I make sure he goes home to his.”