The Electrical Apprentice Story
A true story written 4/2000 and rewritten 02/2016 unedited
In 1959, I had a difficult decision to make, I had to decide if I wanted to return to New Haven State Teachers College and complete my second year there or quit.
I had lost interest in teaching for several reasons. One reason being that I didn’t like the idea of having to go out and teach kids that weren’t interested in being taught.
That meant teaching kids, who were like me, and who wanted to do that?
Another reason was I was just bored with college, it was hard to stay awake in English Literature classes at eight in the morning, and it was just impossible to sit there listening to a professor drone on about some author or another.
I was tired of it all, and at the end of the semester when we were supposed to write a biography on an author, I picked Mark Twain, and I copied his biography word for word out of an encyclopedia.
When I received it back from the Professor, I had received a “D” and he had corrected and edited the language used in the encyclopedia.
I started to think that I liked working at my part time job better than I liked going to college, so when my guidance counselor told me that not everyone was cut out for college, I took that as my exit. I could quit and get the hell out of there, I was sure I would be happier doing something else.
When I told my Father that I was thinking of dropping out of College, naturally he was upset, Dad was an accomplished journeyman electrician and he also taught school a few nights a week for the Electricians Union # 90 in New Haven.
I told dad that I was thinking of becoming an electrician like him, I said that I could probably earn more money than I could ever make being a teacher. My Father didn’t disagree with me, but told me that with a college degree I wouldn’t always be locked into just being an electrician, I knew he was right, so I promised him that I would just take some time off and eventually return to college.
Back in 1959, you couldn’t get a good trade job unless you were a member of a local union, but becoming a member of a union was nearly impossible unless you had pull, like someone on the inside to help you get in. Fortunately my father had the ability to get me in as an apprentice.
If you had asked me before, I never in a million years thought I would become an electrician. I knew from watching him that my father thoroughly enjoyed what he did, and I saw how he was constantly in demand day and night by people needing help with one electrical problem or another.
Our phone at home seemed to never stop ringing, always with people requesting my dad’s assistance. My father never refused to help anyone, and I knew dad didn’t help people for the money, because I don’t recall his ever charging any poor or elderly people for anything.
My dad just liked the satisfaction of helping people, and I thought I could do the same.
When I was younger, I remember that on many evenings dad would drag me to someone’s damp and moldy basement to hold a flashlight for him as he repaired their electrical problem. Naturally I would never hold the flashlight good enough to suit him as I was more focused on following spiders and bugs, so I don’t think my father ever expected that I would be interested in doing electrical work like he did.
So once my father realized that I was serious, about taking time off from college, he agreed that he would assist me in temporarily working in the electrical trade, but he made me promise it was always with the idea that I would be returning someday to college, and that was the deal we made.
Once my father got me into the local Electricians Union, he called an old friend working for large New Haven electrical contractor to see if they needed to hire any apprentice electricians. As soon as they heard that I was his son, they immediately hired me, thinking that I must be an electrical expert. In New Haven, when it came to residential or commercial electricity, my dad was the best there was in town.
So that’s how I got started in the electrical trade working as an electricians apprentice for the tidy sum of $1.37 an hour.
At first it was a little scary for me, because everyone I met, knew my father and they respected him, so they all naturally assumed that I knew what I was doing, which couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
The whole electrician apprentice thing got off on the wrong foot, as the very first job that they sent me to, I was working on the new addition to New Haven State Teachers College, the very college that I had just quit.
So here I was, standing up on scaffolding installing new fluorescent light fixtures while all my old school buddies walked below me yelling and waving to me. It certainly was strange feeling.
I found that I got along good with all my fellow electricians, and they started calling me “Step ladder”, because I was 6 foot 2 inches tall and I didn’t need to carry a step ladder to install the fluorescent bulbs in the new school class room fixtures.
Now the electrical foreman at the new addition knew my father very well, as they had both worked together in the past, so he naturally thought I must be an expert, just like my dad was. One day he gave me a huge box of electrical two way and three way electrical switches and told me to install them in every class room on the new first floor. I was too embarrassed to say I didn’t know how, I had never installed one of those switches before in my life, so I just took the box from him like I really knew what I was going to do.
I went into the first new classroom and looked the situation over. There were rows and rows of new fluorescent fixtures on the ceiling, and all the switches I was supposed to install were very special and very complicated. They had to make the lights go on and off from different ends of the room, also they had to be able to turn on and off certain rows of lights. I had never seen anything like it in my entire life, and I was truly stumped.
I was sweating profusely, and I was too embarrassed to ask anyone how to do it. How could Jake’s son not know how to install around 30 three way switches? I could just hear all the electricians laughing at me.
Well after making quite a few mistakes, I started reading the instructions. I was sure grateful for my college education, and after a few bad connections and quite a few short circuits, the job was done, I couldn’t believe it myself, and to this day, I will never know if they gave me that project just to see what would happen.
After a few weeks on the job, I was got the feeling that as an apprentice, I got to do all the jobs that no one else wanted to do. On the one hand, that was OK with me but let me tell you how it nearly killed me.
One of the jobs I had was the pulling of hundreds of feet of electrical wire through the conduit piping that was in the walls of all the classrooms.
All buildings have a main high voltage room, that’s where the high voltage current comes into the building from the main electric pole outside on the street. You had to be real careful in the high voltage room for obvious reasons, because if you touched anything you could easily be electrocuted.
Well, the old timer electrician I was working for, asked me to push a metal “Snake” into a conduit going to the high voltage room. A snake is a long metal wire that you push into electrical conduit and then you pull it back after electrical wires were attached to it.
The old timer told me to push the snake into the pipe and he would go to the high voltage room to stop the snake from hitting the live electricity there.
Well after I had pushed in about a hundred feet of steel snake the old timer came in the room with a cup of coffee in his hand. He had forgotten I was pushing the snake in. He dropped the cup of coffee and ran to the high voltage room. It was a close call for me as the metal snake I was pushing went everywhere in the high voltage room, but never hit the high voltage current, and I wasn’t electrocuted.
When my dad heard what had happened, he understandably was upset, as I could have been killed, so he made a phone call.
I was then transferred to a different job and I think the old timer was officially retired.
My new job was at a construction site for a new sixteen story condominium building called
“University Towers”, it was being built in down town New Haven, which was my hometown.
By the time I arrived there, they were just working on the third floor, and there were thirteen more floors to go.
This type of construction was a totally new experience for me, and a whole different aspect as to what an apprentice electrician on commercial construction project does.
All electrical wiring in a new building has to run through metal tubing called conduit, and conduit comes in all sizes, from ½ inch diameter all the way up to 6 inches. However the most popular sizes used are ½ inch, ¾ inch, 1 inch, and 1-1/4 quarter inch, they are the popular sizes that must go into the concrete floors and walls before the concrete is poured.
My job, along with another apprentice electrician was to pre-bend bundles of conduit pipe.
It was backbreaking work, but for the electricians working on new hotels floor, called the “slab”, the work went quicker and easier for them as they didn’t have to bend the conduit. A crane lifted up the 100 pound bundles of pre-bent conduit pipes that we made, to where the electricians needed them.
When I first arrived there was another apprentice already bending the conduit, so together we were able to bend enough conduit so as not to cause a slowdown for the electricians working on the new floor. We worked like a couple of crazy men bending conduit from 8 AM to 5 PM, every day. It was the hardest labor intensive job I had ever done. But after a while, the other apprentice stopped coming in. I heard that he was transferred to another job, so now I was doing it all by myself.
As I bent the bundled of conduit I would see people in suits walking around and checking what we were doing. I recognized one fellow to be a big shot from the company I was working for, and I saw him watching me. As I had his attention, I introduced myself and said that I had been working for the company for over six months and had never received the first raise. I told him that all I was getting was $1.37 an hour.
He said, “Don’t worry kid, I have been watching you.” you are doing a great job, let me see what I can do about it”. That was wonderful, after hearing that, I knew I had been speaking to the right guy.
When Friday came, I was so excited to receive my pay envelope, I couldn’t wait to open it, I closed my eyes, and then I looked. My pay had been increased by ½ cent per hour. That meant I got an additional 20 cents each week. I couldn’t believe that was what the company thought of me, and here I was, only one apprentice supporting all the electricians building University Towers.
The next Monday, the workers were getting ready to pour the slab of the apartment buildings fourteenth floor. They announced that the lifting crane that hoisted my bundles of conduit was broken.
As each bundle of conduit weighed over 100 pounds, I lifted one up onto my shoulder and started walking up the new metal stairways that had just been put in the building. I knew I would have to walk up the entire 14 flours. By the time I reached the 12th floor there were no more metal stairs, only wooden temporary ladders that had been installed by the carpenters. So I bent over and carried the 100 pound bundle up the last three stories. I did it bent over with my free hand balancing myself holding on to the ladder.
When I reached the top I dropped the bundle of conduit off my shoulder and I found that I couldn’t stand up straight anymore, I was bent way over, and my back hurt awful.
Hunched over, I slowly made it to the first floor and notified the foreman, and he said I needed to see a workman’s compensation doctor.
I crossed the street bent over and tried to get in my car, I couldn’t.
After about a ½ hour I backed my way into the driver’s seat and drove to the doctor’s office.
At the doctor’s office, the nurse asked me to have a seat, here I was hunched over, so I told her I could sit.
Eventually the doctor saw me and suggested that I was faking the back pain to get out of work. He taped me up and I went home and rested up just enough to quit my job.
My father was right, a college education sure started to look a lot better to me.