C-C-C-Cold Enough For You?

by Michael Hughes, executive director Speak Easy, a Canadian organization for people who stutter, and editor of their monthly magazine, Speaking Out

"Send up the Hydropress with the 5/8" dies, Mike." Lorne shouted down to me from his precarious perch almost 30 feet up the power pole.

It was 2:30 a.m. in the middle of a bitter February night. Our region had been hit by a fierce sleet storm that had played havoc with the electrical power distribution system. The sleet had quickly built up into layers of ice that coated the power lines and the nearby trees. Branches draped themselves onto primary circuits, causing electrical flashovers that shorted out the system. So severe was the storm that conductors sagged to the ground mid-span, dragged down under the accumulation of heavy ice build-up.

Every available employee of the power utility had been called out to assist in restoring critical power supplies. Although my normal duties with the utility were as an engineering technologist, those skills were not required here. Now they merely needed laborers to help the linemen in the important task of restoring electrical power to the area. Our roles had become reversed, Lorne's practical skills as a lineman put him into the position of authority as we struggled to clear the system of storm damage.

The wind was cruel, quickly freezing the light rain that continued to fall. Tools, conductors, jackets, gloves - everything was coated with a slippery sheen of ice. After trying unsuccessfully through my gloves to lash the Hydropress to the groundline Lorne had lowered, I dropped the gloves at my feet and tied the knot bare-handed. Immediately both my hands and the gloves stiffened in the sub-freezing temperatures, making it hard to get the gloves back on.

"You'd better call Dispatch and tell them we want to re-energize this line," Lorne called down from above as he repositioned himself under the sideline disconnect switch. System Dispatch had to check the location of other emergency crews to ensure that no one else was working on the same circuit; safety is given the highest priority on electrical distribution lines. There is no margin for error - you make a mistake only once.

I had been shivering uncontrollably, my body was not used to being subjected to such extreme conditions. As Lorne completed the splicing of the damaged conductors, I had been eagerly anticipating the opportunity to return to the warmth of the line truck. However, Lorne's words had a chilling effect. As cold as the environment had been, it didn't come close to approaching the cold grip of fear that clenched my heart.

Lorne wanted me to call Dispatch on the mobile radio - THE RADIO! As bad as my stutter got during the course of a normal day, it was magnified by a thousand whenever my job required me to talk over the short-wave radio. I could almost see every one of the many people listening to their mobile radios, and I was sure that each was just waiting for me to start my stupid stuttering. I knew my job inside out, but when I tried to explain anything it sounded as if my mouth was inside out. Talking in person was hard, talking on the telephone was difficult, talking on the radio was next to impossible!

However, it had to be done. I climbed behind the wheel of the line truck and slid the radio microphone from its slot. Taking three deep breaths in an effort to calm my nerves, I depressed the transmit button and called Jim at System Dispatch. The moment I opened my mouth and attempted to speak, I got an unexpected surprise. Although I knew that there would be trouble with my stuttering when I started to speak, I was unprepared for the fact that my face, mouth, lips, and throat were frozen! They wouldn't work - just would not work!

It wasn't fear, it was the cold. Although we had been out of the truck for only about fifteen minutes, the combination of cold temperatures and freezing wind had done their worst. I was making sounds, but my mouth was moving in slow motion. The muscles just could not move at normal speed. The noises coming out of my mouth were similar to the sounds made by a tape-player whose batteries have seriously weakened.

I felt mortified. It was bad enough to stutter - but to stutter in slow motion? What next? I could quickly visualize the fun other employees were going to have with this. As part of the daily work routine, we kidded one another without fail. I enjoyed the good-natured banter and usually gave as good as I got, but this episode was going to give anybody listening a good chance to kid me. Oh well, hopefully it would eventually die a decent death.

In just a couple of minutes, although it felt like hours, the dispatcher cleared us for action and Lorne closed the sideline cutout. The line buzzed for a moment and we both waited for the fuse to blow, which would indicate another fault further up the line. However, after the initial surge, the buzz changed to a faint hum and we knew the line was holding for now. Lorne joined me in the truck and we patrolled the rest of our area to ensure that no other customers were out of power.

Since our area seemed to be back to normal, we decided to drop into the dispatch centre and see if we were needed elsewhere. The warm air being blasted out by the truck's heater was a welcomed relief from the frozen night. By the time we got to the centre, my face had thawed out enough to allow me to stutter normally.

As we approached the command centre, Jim swiveled around in his chair and a big smile spread across his face.

"C-C-C-Cold enough for you?" he laughed. "Boy, do I know what that's like! Sometimes you get so cold, so awful cold, that your mouth just won't work. How're you feeling now, Mike?"

I laughed and told him that I thought I might live, as long as I didn't have to go back out into the cold that night. As I turned and left the control centre, inspiration struck me. Jim hadn't mentioned my stutter. He had been listening all night to radio messages by others who were just as cold as I had been. Jim clearly knew that the cold had frozen my mouth, not fear. Once again I had been taught that others did not attach as much importance to my stuttering as I did.

added with permission, December 4, 1999