Heroic work under a hot sun
Toughness, courage, responsibility – those are the virtues that set some people apart from the crowd. They’re most often invoked when speaking of men and women who serve in the armed forces.
But there are everyday heroes among us.
On a day not long ago, with the sky cloudless, the sun a blinding disc of fire and the temperature in the upper 90s, two huge trucks appeared at the curb in front of our house and five young men climbed out.
They’d come to clear branches from the power lines that run the length of the block between our rear yard and our neighbor’s. A worse day for such work hardly could be imagined.
Fifty-some years ago, my job during a college summer was as a “grunt” – a ground man – on a tree crew. I hadn’t the skills for climbing, and in any case acrophobia prevented it. So my duty was to drag and load brush.
It was heavy work, and the season was warm, as Midwestern summers usually are. But nothing like this summer’s blistering heat. And there were occasional cooling showers, which afforded a little downtime.
On this recent morning, the growl of chain saws was heard, and a heap of shorn limbs and foliage began building at the curb.
In the neighborhood just five houses to the west, across the state line in Kansas, the power lines are buried, so this kind of maintenance isn’t needed. But here it’s essential.
Not many weeks ago, a night windstorm brought down a limb on a wire or transformer somewhere on our grid. The alarm system gave a little squeak, the TV screen went black and we were reduced to getting around by flashlight.
Within an hour or so, power was restored, so it was only a brief inconvenience. But the outcome can be far worse. In sustained outages, life-sustaining medical devices can fail. Heating or cooling is lost. Stocks of perishables in home freezers can spoil.
Those are the sorts of misfortunes that, on such a day of brutal heat, the tree crew had come to prevent.
From the window where I write – with the air conditioner humming, the refrigerator and ice water just 23 steps away – I could see the men working, steadily and without complaint, as the sun crept toward its zenith and the heat worsened.
For maybe 30 minutes shortly after noon, they sat together in the slight shade of a crabapple tree to eat their lunches, then returned directly to the task.
“Are you all right?” I said to one of them. “Do you have enough water?”
“Two big jugs,” he replied. “We’re OK.”
But we all know that people can die working outdoors in conditions like this.
It wasn’t until late afternoon, the very hottest hour of the day, that they finished clearing the line. Finally they ran the mountain of trimmings through the chipper, loaded their gear and left.
That was on a day in the 90s.
This past Tuesday, when the area’s record high temperatures ranged from 107 to 111 degrees, I drove some city streets to see what activity I might find.
What I found were more tree crews cutting, some street workers pouring cement, others laying asphalt heated to 150 degrees and mail carriers walking their routes. And if I’d looked long enough, I expect I’d have seen men on roofs, nailing down new shingles on the outside chance it might sometime, some year, rain again.
These are the people who, even in such wretched conditions, while we peer out from our cool cocoons and complain about the weather, pay the price to keep us comfortable and safe.
Along with firefighters and other first responders, they are the real heroes.