When I was a kid I used to carry around this awful image in my head—a picture of three men tangled awkwardly in high-tension wires, fifty feet in the air, their lifeless bodies crisping in the midday sun.
A BRONX TALE
A BRONX TALE
The horror they endured was shared with me by my father, an electrical engineer who worked, among other places, at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, helping with the installation of a new power plant in the 1950s. Carl Frehley was a man of his times. He worked long hours, multiple jobs, did the best he could to provide a home for his wife and kids. Sometimes, on Sunday afternoons after church, he'd pile the whole family into a car and we'd drive north through the Bronx, into Westchester County, and eventually find ourselves on the banks of the Hudson River. Dad would take us on a tour of the West Point campus and grounds, introduce us to people, even take us into the control room of the electrical plant. I'm still not sure how he pulled that one off—getting security clearance for his whole family—but he did.
Dad would walk around, pointing out various sights, explaining the rhythm of his day and the work that he did, sometimes talking in the language of an engineer, a language that might as well have been Latin to me. Work was important, and I guess in some way he just wanted his kids to understand that; he wanted us to see this other part of his life.
One day, as we headed back to the car, my father paused and looked up at the electrical wires above, a net of steel and cable stretching across the autumn sky.
"You know, Paul," he said, "every day at work, we have a little contest before lunch."
I had no idea what he was talking about.
A contest? Before lunch?
Sounded like something we might have done at Grace Lutheran, where I went to elementary school in the Bronx.
"We draw straws to see who has to go out and pick up sandwiches for the whole crew. If you get the shortest straw, you're the delivery boy."
That was the beginning. From there, my father went on to tell us the story of the day he drew the short straw. While he was out picking up sandwiches, there was a terrible accident back on the job. Someone had accidentally thrown a switch, restoring power to an area where three men were working. Tragically, all three men were electrocuted instantly. When my father returned, he couldn't believe his eyes. The bodies of his coworkers were being peeled off the high-tension wires.
"Right up there," he said quietly, looking overhead. "That's where it happened."
He paused, put a hand on my shoulder.
"If I hadn't drawn the short straw that day, I'd have been up there in those wires, and I wouldn't be here right now."
I looked at the wires, then at my father. He smiled.
"Sometimes you get lucky."
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