By M. Scott Morris
TUPELO – Once upon a time in Northeast Mississippi – and it wasn’t that long ago – people celebrated the moment their homes first got electricity.
“Baldwyn, Frog Level, those places up there. When you put in a line, I actually saw them jump up and down about it. They were so happy,” said Tom Swindol, 85, of Tupelo, a retired Tennessee Valley Authority lineman who started with the agency in 1950.
Swindol and his friend and former co-worker, 82-year-old Tupelo resident Herb Angle, witnessed many changes over the years, as electricity went from a luxury to a necessity.
“In those days, they didn’t get too much upset about outages until it was off maybe eight to 10 hours,” Angle said. “It’s not that way now.”
“No,” said Swindol, shaking his head.
Swindol got his first exposure to electrical work while serving in the Navy at Pearl Harbor. When he got out, he was part of a four-year apprenticeship program at Tombigbee Electric Cooperative.
He made 45 cents an hour to start at Tombigbee, and that increased to 50 cents when he began climbing utility poles. Sometime later, a minimum wage law guaranteed him 62.5 cents an hour
“I told people it was 60 cents an hour,” Swindol said. “I didn’t mention that 2 and a half cents.”
Angle enlisted in the Army at age 14.
“It was either that or hoe cotton and pick it,” he said. “I got my sister to sign that I was 17. I was serving in Germany during the occupation before I turned 17. I left there and went to Korea.
“Uncle Sam didn’t check up on you too much back then,” he continued. “All they wanted were bodies.”
After leaving the military, he spent five years in Memphis learning to be an electrician.
By the time Angle signed on with TVA, Swindol was already working there. Swindol said he was attracted by the $1 and a quarter an hour TVA was paying. But the agency expected hard work in exchange for its money.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes,” Swindol said.
“Oh, God, yeah,” Angle said.
“Unbelievable when you look back on it,” Swindol said.
There were no chain saws in the early days. Two men worked a saw to cut down trees and make room for new poles that fit into holes dug without the aid of a drill.
“With those saws, you’d sit down to eat your lunch and snakes would be all around you,” Swindol said. “Take a power saw and crank it up, and that snake ain’t going to be bothering you. He’s leaving.”
Hard hats weren’t required when Swindol and Angle joined TVA, and there were no bucket trucks to lift a man up an 85-feet-tall creosote pole. Men climbed with hooks on their boots and safety belts around their waists, and those safety belts weren’t used during the entire climb.
“If you had used your safety belt from the bottom up, they would have laughed at you,” Swindol said.
“When I heard he’d come off that pole, I knew he was dead,” Angle said. “He was on a pole across from the substation at Savings Oil. It was cold that morning.”
“Bad cold,” Swindol said.
“Around the base of it, the City of Tupelo had put a bunch of concrete,” Angle said. “When he fell, he hit the only place he could have hit without concrete. The only place.”
“That whole thing was a freak thing. It was 15 degrees that morning,” Swindol said. “When I first started the climb there wasn’t any ice. About 35 or 40 feet and the north side was ice. I was on the south side. My hands just slipped off.”
Swindol broke no bones but spent about three weeks in the hospital, and was out of work six months.
Angle’s son wasn’t as lucky.
“That boy of mine got into some 13,800 voltage,” Angle said. “It burned one arm and when it hit him, it blew him 50 feet away and set him on fire. This girl who was working with him, she lay down on him and put him out. You couldn’t tell who he was for a year. He gets around good now.”
After he got hurt, Angle’s son couldn’t work for TVA, and that’s a sticking point for Angle and Swindol.
“I made a living for my family a long time at TVA,” Swindol said. “When I retired, they said you have 30 minutes to talk. It’s supposed to be a joke, but I took my time. I told them that when somebody got hurt he was just like a broken-handled shovel. They left him in the corner and forgot about him. They didn’t like hearing that.”
“But it was true,” Angle said.
The good times
The job also had its positive moments, like when power was brought to a new community.
“They’d give us dinner on the grounds. They’d say, ‘Don’t bring your lunch tomorrow. We’re going to feed you,’” Swindol said. “There was enough to feed an army.”
“It was,” Angle said.
“Every community would do it,” Swindol said. “People in one would hear about it and wanted to do it, too.”
Early customers wanted lights and a way to plug up an iron and a refrigerator. Stoves came later and required an upgrade to the power lines at the house.
What about air conditioning?
“We didn’t know what that was,” Angle said with a laugh. “Raised-up window was all we had. It was a different way of living. It was. It sure was.”
Both of the men stay busy in retirement. They belong to American Legion Post 49, and usually enjoy breakfast at the post on Wednesday mornings. They also belong to the same Masonic Lodge.
Angle has a nicely organized shop at his home, where he said he makes “shelves, beehives, things like that and whatnot.”
Swindol said, “I’ve got a flea market business I run in Sherman. I open every Saturday. I usually just sit there and don’t sell a lot, but some days it’s busy.”
The pair get together sometimes and share stories about the old days. Despite a few hard feelings, Swindol and Angle look back on their work at TVA with pride.
“I’d go right back to it, if I could,” Swindol said.
“I would, too,” Angle said.
“I sure would,” Swindol said.