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Thursday, March 23, 2006 04:34 am

A lineman for the city

He’s just one of the hundreds of working stiffs, patching Springfield back together

The call came while Mike Hickey was still huddled in the basement with his wife and their three kids. A journeyman communications technician for City Water, Light & Power, Hickey was summoned to the shop to begin mending the city’s fiberoptic-cable system. The first inkling he had of the magnitude of the disaster came as he was driving into town, less than an hour after two tornadoes tore through. “It was totally dark in Springfield,” he says. He worked until 4:30 the next morning and went home for a nap but was back at the communications shop by 8 a.m. for 15-hour shift. Tuesday was a relatively short 12-hour day. By Wednesday, however, Hickey — along with about 200 CWLP field personnel — were on a grueling regimen of 16-hour shifts that began at 5 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m. That schedule left little time for errands, household chores, family, sleep. “I found out there’s really not much you can do in eight hours,” Hickey says — kiss the kids goodnight, grab a bit to eat, soak in the tub, get a little shut-eye. “Under normal circumstances, six hours of sleep is OK,” Hickey says, “but when you’re working 16 hours, it just doesn’t seem to be enough, for some reason.” Would you believe me if I told you that he’s not complaining? I mean, there’s not even a trace of “poor me” in Hickey’s voice when I catch him on the phone between his late dinner and the bathtub. On the contrary, he sounds happy, upbeat, and almost tipsy — though it’s from extreme fatigue rather than alcohol. “I get very talkety when I get tired,” Hickey says. He pauses. “Is ‘talkety’ a word?” I’ve known Hickey for several years (our kids are friends), and this is the first conversation we’ve ever had about his work. That’s partly because we normally have more urgent topics to discuss — such as how the heck you get 12-year-old boys to put down their Nintendo or 5-year-old boys to brush their teeth — and partly because Hickey does the kind of work that we all take for granted. “We install anything that has to do with two things talking to each other — radios, phones, computer networks,” he says, reaching for terms I might comprehend. “After the tornado, we had to replace all the fiber that went down.” CWLP fiber supplies communication capabilities for District 186 schools and for Memorial Hospital, St. John’s Hospital, and the Springfield Clinic. Restoring communication for such important customers was satisfying, Hickey says, but he got an even better assignment over the weekend. The communications shop was sent into residential neighborhoods to “put up service” wherever it had been downed by the storm. “You know that cable that comes out of your house and goes to a pole? We were making sure everybody’s service was up so when their electricity got turned on, they could actually receive it,” he says. The way Hickey tells it, this experience was probably as close as he’ll ever get to being a rock star. “Guys pulled up and gave us water and Mountain Dew. One lady gave us brownies,” he says. “It just really freaked me out.” People who had been without electricity for almost a week didn’t question what had taken so long; they were happy to see guys in work boots and hard hats and a few days’ growth of whiskers. “So few people were actually mad at us,” Hickey marvels. “Even though they hadn’t had power in six days, they were, like, ‘Hey, you guys are working your butts off!’ ”  The workers are paid well — double their usual hourly scale for those 16 hours on duty and regular scale for the eight in between, says CWLP spokesperson Amber Sabin. But that news didn’t reach the workers until Thursday — four days into the cleanup. “It wasn’t the pay that made us work hard,” Hickey says. It’s true. He tells me about his dad, who was a CWLP worker during the big ice storm of 1978. “They worked 20-hour shifts for 15 days straight,” Hickey says. Some crews worked continually for 40 or 50 hours, sleeping in their trucks. Here’s the thing: There’s nothing unique about Mike Hickey. He’s just the one mope I knew I could get on the phone during these few precious hours he has off. There are hundreds of workers just like him, and they have saved us all.
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