Cheating Death to Make Phones Ring

Lester Harris, a repairman for Southwestern Bell, had a job that has to be just one twitch short of crazy. Seems like hunters and people with more bullets than brains like to use the telephone cable across the Diversion Channel for target practice.

When I did this story for The Missourian August 16, 1965, Jack Hogan, outside plant foreman for SW Bell, said that the cable had been put out of service 36 times in the previous three of four years. Some times only a couple of wires would be clipped, but on one occasion, the airport and the FAA Flight Service Station were knocked out for more than two hours, something that made the FBI cranky.

Lester Harris gets the call

When the phones go dead, Lester Harris is the guy they’d call out.

He had some high-tech equipment that would help pinpoint a break by detecting leaks in the pressurized cable.

But, shootings had been so common on this stretch of cable that he generally relied on a low-tech solution: he’d walk up and down the area until he spotted some fresh shell casings. The break wouldn’t be far away.

Causing damage to the circuits feeding the airport could net the shooter a $10,000 find and up to 10 years in federal prison.

“We don’t want to see anyone get in trouble, but when they start shooting at the cable running service to the airport, they’re endangering lives and there’s nothing funny about that.

Is the break near a pole?

If the break is near a pole, the repair can be made fairly simply working with a climbing belt and spikes.

Break out the cable buggy

If the break is away from a pole, then it’s time to break out the cable buggy. Think of a child’s swing suspended by two short chains attached to little pulley-like wheels. The telephone cable is suspended from a wire cable. The cable buggy rides on that wire cable and Lester rides on the “swing.”

Climbing aboard the buggy

Let’s put this in some kind of perspective: the reason Lester is there is because someone has been shooting at the telephone cable. Phone wire is softer and more delicate than the wire support cable, but who is to say that some stray bullets haven’t nicked some of THOSE wire strands, too, weakening it?

“I’d be a goner”

Soon, Lester is suspended 60 feet above the dark and muddy Diversion Channel on from a small wire cable that may or may not be damaged by gunfire.  “If I would slip off the board with all my equipment on and fall into the channel, I’d be a goner,” he said.

Splicing the line isn’t too bad in the summer, he said. Getting called out at 2 .m. to repair a shotgun-riddled cable in the middle of an ice storm is another story, though. On another night, when the river was high and the wind was blowing, he got “seasick” riding the buggy.

“People just don’t think,” he said. They just don’t realize the damage they can do by shooting at a cable.”

27 Replies to “Cheating Death to Make Phones Ring”

  1. I knew Lester Harris from car racing back in the 60s. Real nice guy and always ready to help a kid like I was back then. I never knew what he did for a living.Seems fitting for Lester.

  2. I also knew Lester as a kid. He and my dad Tom Mize were really good buds whether it be car racing or boating. He was one crazy fella back then!

  3. I posted this link to a telecommunications list I’m still on. Here’s the first of two comments I received:

    Lester was no doubt a tribute to what we all used to know as service at all cost. The use of the strand trolley was not that uncommon in the days of paper and lead cable. While it does seem like a one is hanging by a thread they wee pretty safe. I have many pictures of former Bell System Employees using the trolleys to restore service. You are correct about a rifle bullet nicking the strand but there were limits as to the size of the strand one could place the trolley on. never used one only seen pictures and heard about them.

    My father spent 25 semi-happy years working for what was then Michigan Bell. I learned much from him and his cronies as pertains to not only the technical issues of the then current telephone system but the integrity to do a good job, to fight for the right to keep the network up and running properly.

    It is what directed me to a career in telephony although dad was never a pusher as to what you should do with your life.

    I recall him telling me about spending a night, the first night, in Maine in 1954, after Mother Nature had wreaked havoc. He was one of 300 telephone men and some 200 vehicles which were sent from the Detroit area to assist with many of their brothers and sisters.

    He had to sleep in the truck because this was November and all the motels and hotels were closed for the season so he and number of others billeted in Belfast Ma slept in their trucks with the motors running to keep warm.

    10 days later he came home to find a 1.5 year old son who wanted nothing to do with the strange man who had grown a beard. So I have been told.

    Those telephone men and women exemplified the true work ethic which helped to make this country great and the telephone system as good as it was and second to none other in the world.

    Thank you for posting that article as Lester reminds me a lot of dad and I miss him a lot!

  4. Comment two from the telecom list:

    Thank you for posting those stories. As I pass my quarter of a century in this business, I am often asked to train, to evaluate and find folks with the right stuff to play a significant role in today’s technology. While I can effectively instruct on protocols, bits and bytes, and how to do this or that, what I cannot seem to get across to most people is the one thing I have that is worth the most. Time on the job. Sometimes you just can’t convey experience. How do you teach the frustration you feel at 3 am in the morning when you’ve been working the same issue for the past 15 hours?

    I can write a book on the Nortel Flexible Orbiting Prevention Timer. What is does, why it does it, and many other things. Why? Because I fought with it for 10 hours one night, but I had to get the trouble I was working fixed. There simply was no other option. Just the other day, I was able to pass that knowledge along to someone else that stumbled on the problem. They are on this list, and they are laughing right now, rubbing that sore spot on their forehead where they hit themselves when they got the “AHA!” moment.

    There was a time that I could read and decode DCH messaging in my head. Why, because I looked at it every day for years. It’s called OJT, and you can’t teach it to someone, they just have to experience it themselves and learn from their mistakes. Sometimes I’m still the smartest guy in the room, but that’s happening less an less as the next generation of telephone technicians take the reins.

    The good ones, well, they appreciate stories like this thread, and understand the value of experience, years of service, and doing the right thing. It’s our job to keep that spirit alive. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Lester is my uncle and he was a hoot to be around. I remember being in his garage while he worked on his old stock cars, that he raced at the Arena on Saturday nights.

  6. Ken,
    Thank you for the feature of my father, Lester Harris. He is tickled pink. He is now telling the story of how his dad fired him from the Pure Ice Co. he then went to Bell South. As my cousin Kenny D. said dad is a true hoot.
    Thank you,

    1. I’m glad he’s still around to enjoy the story.

      I ended up as a telecommunications manger at my last newspaper. It was a fun and challenging job. Maybe your dad sprinkled some telephone dust on me in 1965 and it took about 25 years to take hold.

  7. Lester Harris is my grandpa. I live next to him and when I came home today he was telling me all about this. He always told me stories of him working for Southwestern Bell but never saw pictures of it until today. Thanks for posting these pictures!!

  8. I worked for and retired from Southwestern Bell after 27 years. I never had the pleasure of knowing your dad, Sandy, but I have the utmost respect for him. I know many telephone men who have had to work in terrible conditions to make sure we all have our telephone service. I am sure you and your family are very proud of him, as you should be. It is so nice to have people recognized for their hard work and dedication to their job. Thank, Ken for sharing.

  9. I have been in the industry for 35 plus years and have rode the “cable buggy”/”cable car” many times. And so has my son who is a lineman also. I’m glad that there are stories of system people that cared about the outside plant and service to the customer.

    1. I enjoy experiencing what my subject experience, but I didn’t volunteer for a ride on the buggy. It’s like when a 90-year-old crop duster wanted to strap me to the wing of his plane when my remote trigger didn’t work. “I flew wingwalkers,” he said.

      For a couple of heartbeats, I thought, “That’d be a great story to tell my grandkids, but, then I thought, I’d really like to be around to HAVE grandkids.”

  10. Lester L Harris is my Dad. Thanks for showing these pics once again. Dad was delighted the last time these were shown. I’ll call him tomorrow and tell him, he is on Facebook again!!!!

  11. Ken, thank you once again for showing these pics of my Dad. He was so delighted when I told him about being on facebook. My father has been very ill this past year. I’ll call him tomorrow and let him know you post these pics again. It will make his day. Thanks again!!!

    1. Sandy, tell your dad I was just talking about those photos with a Missourian reporter who is doing a story about my exhibit in Altenburg.

      I told her that one of the things I find most rewarding is when someone like you writes that you’ve spotted your dad or someone like him in my photos.

      I told her that I spent a lifetime thinking my job was to make people tolerate me long enough that I could steal their souls. Now I recognize that I only borrowed them for awhile and now I’m returning them.

      (By the way, if you didn’t see your earlier comments, press Ctrl-F5 and that’ll refresh your browser to bring in the new stuff.)

  12. O.K. Ken, I just sent a message a few minutes ago about my dad and for some reason it didn’t post so I’ll try again. I wanted to thank you once again for sharing these pics. My Dad was delighted to find out he was on facebook before. I’ll call him tomorrow and let him know he is on facebook once again. Ken, my Dad has been very ill this past year. He could use all the prayers people want to send his way.

  13. Worked with Lester many years @ SWBT. My capacity was as a LD telephone operator 4 years and 26 years in the business office. He certainly was unafraid to do this to repair any thing and everything.

  14. One has to remember that Lester had not only find the problem, but also had to decide what tools, and equipment he needed to fix the problem. Although I spent 44 years in the industry, I never rode the line. Hats off my friend, I do understand the mindset and the need to restore service, no matter what the weather.

    1. Not to mention that he’s swinging out there because somebody shot at the cable (and the wire that’s holding him up). Lester’s a guy who earned every penny of what he was paid.

  15. Dad’s lineman days were in New Madrid county. He was promoted to switchman and came into the Cape office. He always preferred working outside. It was someone who thrived in the outdoors. He was a lineman before hydraulic lifts that they use today. He climbed poles with spikes strapped onto his boots. He was very fit and lean in those days. He repaired and installed phones by climbing poles and crawling under houses. Not a job for the squeamish.

  16. I work in GNAC ( Global Network Assignment Center) formerly MLAC (Mechanized Loop Assignment Center). We work with the outside plant techs to assign cable pairs and oe’s. I love seeing/hearing stories of how our brothers and sisters built and maintained our outside plant. Sadly many experienced people in all departments are retiring or being surplussed with downsizing. So much knowledge in problems occurring once a year or every 5 years just walking out the door. We should have a network of previous techs to call on for odd problems we face. We take calls for 22 states and face challenges daily that would benefit from those techs experience.

  17. Lester Harris was my neighbor. His home and his family was my second home. I loved the Harris’s and I hope they loved me. I watched Lester working on his stock cars. Build a room in the attic for his two sons. I would go visit him at the Veterans Home in Cape. I enjoyed my visits with Lester. Rest in Peace Lester Harris!

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