Brave and burly, the hardhatted lineman is an icon of MLGW, risking life and limb to keep the power on in all kinds of foul weather.
Politicians argue about who should be the president of MLGW and how the president and board should be chosen. Customers gripe about surprise increases in their bills and long waits on the phone. The media question whether more outside workers should have been brought in last summer to fix the damage from the big windstorm. But linemen are almost unanimously praised.
For Glenn Higgs, who underwent a terrifying near-death experience while working as a 31-year-old journeyman lineman for MLGW in 1992, it's not quite that simple. The job that almost killed him still fascinates him, but his old employer doesn't want him back.
Able-bodied and fully recovered, and with a tattered union card still in his wallet, Higgs finds himself blackballed by the company he left in 1996 with nearly $750,000 in his pockets from the settlement of a lawsuit stemming from his accident.
"I'd just like to practice my trade," says Higgs, a husky, redheaded man with a goatee. "I figure I've still got a good 15 years or so left in me."
Higgs offers a unique perspective on a company that inspires conflicting emotions in a lot of people. By his own appraisal, Higgs could be one hard-headed hardhat. The Craigmont High School graduate relished the macho image of the lineman and the satisfaction he got from doing a tough job that most people can't do.
"We were not choir boys," he says. "We spoke our minds. We were union. We were taught not to take any shit off of anyone. I'm sure I wasn't the most pleasant someone to work around, but my overall record was good."
On April 28, 1992, his crew was working near Shelby Forest on a routine job called an overbuild, which involves stringing new lines over existing ones to keep power running without disruption. It was, Higgs remembers, a beautifully clear spring day.
Higgs was helping pull a dead wire banjo-tight over a hot wire. He was standing on something called a tensioneer machine when it malfunctioned and the dead wire dropped down to a hot circuit, sending 12,000 volts through his body.
"I'm on the machine with smoke coming off of me thinking I've got to get off this thing or I'll be dead," he recalls.
He tumbled to the ground but remained hot-wired by a 12-foot radio cord on his shirt. An apprentice named Tommy Hughes grabbed a fiberglass "hot stick" and pulled the cord off. The crew found him flopping like a fish.
He was flown by chopper to the burn center at The Med, where he had 13 skin grafts and underwent "debridement" -- a lineman's nightmare that involves immersion in a hot tub while dead skin is picked off. He had a hole the size of a dinner plate in his chest and stomach and gruesome burns on his hands and arms. His left buttock was burned off.
Two years later, he went back to work, calling himself a "half-assed lineman." MLGW joined his lawsuit against a company called Tension Stringing Equipment, which settled out of court for $1.25 million. Court records and Higgs' attorney, Will Heaton, confirm the story. After MLGW and Heaton took their shares, Higgs had roughly $750,000.
He worked two more years, struggling through a divorce and reconciliation, then quit and moved with his wife and children to Florida to work on a charter fishing boat. When his wife's mother got cancer, they returned to Memphis in 2000.
Higgs asked for his old job but was told no thanks, then no way. A union lawyer confirmed to Higgs that MLGW did not have to hire him. He could not even get work from MLGW subcontractors during emergencies. He says two of his three supervisors gave him positive recommendations, but one wrote that he "causes disruptions on the truck and has physical limitations."
"I begged them to let me come back last summer during the storm, but they said no," he says. Instead he has found part-time jobs working as a utility lineman in South Carolina, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Jackson, Tennessee. The pay averages about $27 an hour, but the work is sporadic and Higgs is restless.
He's been keeping up with the news about MLGW's bond deals and the mayor's charges of mismanagement and overspending and wonders "why I am being crucified."
"I risked my life for this company, and they effectively blackballed me out of my trade," he says. "I'm 43 years old, and I want to go back to work. I don't want to sit on my ass. My wife thinks I'm insane, but I'm an adrenaline junkie. It's a fascinating trade."