There are summers when august is a very strange month. August can be full of the dog days, days so hot or days when the unusual happens. Usually august passed without a rainy day numbered among its allotted thirty one days. I suppose I should have sense to doom to come since the day started out cloudy and cool. When I arrived at the yard, there was still no sign of rain and no real expectation for any. I would be working with two guys I knew well, Mike and Gene. We three had developed a very good rapport over the last two years and worked very well together. With cable splicers you either worked alone of together, depending on the job at hand. Today we would be working in a large load manhole. The normal size of your everyday manhole was eight feet long by six feet wide and six feet high. The opening was usually a single nect about two to three feet high. You’ll find most of these manholes in the street but some are located below sidewalks and even in parking lots. The manhole we would be working in had two openings (the manhole lids weight 232 pounds) and its dimensions were eight feet in height by twelve feet in width and twenty feet long. The reason for its size is that racks are mounted to hold the loading capacitors that increase the range of the electrical signal of each pair of copper wires in a telephone cable. The cable we were going to work on was 2400 pair cable. The wire gauge was 26 and the insulation was paper. These cables could have as many as three thousand pairs of wire and be as large as three inches in diameter.
As usual, we head out for the donut shop to pick up coffee and crullers, then head for the work site. when we arrive we park the vans according to best practices, one in front of the first manhole cover, one in back of the second, and the third van to the side where a sidewalk would normally have been but now was only dirt. The drizzle is starting as we put out the men working signs and the orange safety cones, then we congregate in one van to drink our coffee and eat our crullers. This is the way we start our day’s work. The three of us work so well together that we can do more in less time so that we have that extra break time. by the time we finish our morning repast the drizzle has turned to light rain. That means we will use a manhole ring along with our manhole guards and the plastic tents that cover them. It’s all a bit of extra work but no problem. We have both holes set up and the air blowers and vent hoses hooked up and airing out the manhole. We have already tested to possible methane gas that will sometimes collect in these manholes. That can be a killer. Last big scare I had was the year before when a manhole I was to work in was next to a gasoline station that still had the metal tanks in the ground. One of the tanks had sprung a leak and the gasoline migrated into one of the cables. Gasoline will penetrate the thick plastic coating and then start wetting the paper insulation, thus shorting out the pairs. Our gas detector elements are destroyed by the gasoline, so if you miss the needle spike you’ll never know there is a problem. That repair job was nerve racking because you could faintly smell the gasoline.
I know, this sounds all do boring. It was, just another ordinary day as far as we were concerned. Go down, open up the new cable the line crew pulled in and set it up for the two distribution cables. No big deal, done this a hundred times, boring. The manhole was dry as a bone and we had no inkling of any trouble to come. Why should we? The rain was still light, no sign of water anywhere. so we broke for lunch. Now we are only suppose to take half an hour for lunch. Hey, we are good, we can take an extra fifteen minutes, no problem. We work faster than most others and with better quality, and that’s a fact, Jack. So we get back to the entrance of the manhole and Mike is the first one to start down. He throws ope the plastic covers and starts an animated rant about how the hole is full of water. I mean, Mike is dancing dancing like his feet are on fire. “No, really guys. The water is up to the lip. I ain’t lying.” Gene and I are thinking this is a hoax and we both are going, “Sure, Mike, yeah, like that could really happen.” “No, guys, I’m not kidding. Come take a look for yourselves.” So I walk over and I take a look. “Hmm, that does look like water. Hey gene, want to see something funny?” Now Gene comes over and says,”I guess you’re right Mike.” Now Mike is starting to get all panicky, “What are we going to to guys?” I reply, “Get out the pumps, what else?” Every van has a two inch submersible pump that works off the batteries. So we each place our pumps in the hole with the hoses going into the street and start our vans. Last thing you want is to have your battery die from over use.
Meanwhile several cars are coming by and people are rolling down their windows. “My phone doesn’t work, did you do something?” Well, yeah, I think we might have something to do with that. The only day in rained all summer and five central offices go off the air due to water soaked cables. That is a rarity, but it happens. So a line foreman is driving by and we flag him down and tell tell him what we’ve got. Twenty minutes later a fire truck, a pumper, shows up and they start using their four inch pumps to drain out hole. It was in their interest since we knocker their service our. the get relieved an hour later when several line trucks show up with more four inch pumps. Now long about four that afternoon the water was low enough for us to reenter the manhole and fish around for the exposed cable and the water logged equipment. We lost some electronic gear down there. The water is still waste deep and cold. Meanwhile the cable is shocking the shit out of us because there are Western Union teletype circuits putting out 120 volts DC with a couple amps of current. God, don’t you know that feels good…not. We’ve rigged up some supports and start opening the cable back to the point where the paper is dry and we can cut the wet stuff off. Man, that was a mess. Finally the construction garage manager shows up and she invites us into her sedan to get warm and tell her what has happened. She was one of the first women second level managers in outside construction. In the front seat with her is another construction garage manager, Harvey Klider. He is going on that we should be suspended because we weren’t eating lunch in the manhole. Nancy tells him to shut up. The she tells us the the Gas company was working about a mile up the road, which is about a hundred feet higher in elevation. They broke a water main and all that water was rushing through the empty cable ducts. That’s why those four inch pumps weren’t working as fast as they should have, they were pumping the water of three manholes above us. We three had the distinction of being the first guys in the garage of swimming in a manhole. Meanwhile that cable was the source of a lot of trouble until it was replaced two years later.