Paying tribute to fallen members of the cooperative family is like writing a love letter to your sweetheart who is far away. It should have the right tone, the right words and touch on all the right things.
There’s no one better at that than local writer Sean Dietrich. He is a columnist, novelist, and podcast/radio show host, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, The Tallahassee Democrat, Good Grit, South Magazine, Alabama Living, the Birmingham News, Thom Magazine, The Mobile Press Register, he has authored seven books, and is the creator of the Sean of the South blog and radio show.
In the following, Sean tells the story of three good linemen who were tragically taken away much too soon.
Just outside Chipley, Florida, three wooden crosses stand beside the highway at the intersection of Highway 77 and Talton Drive. I pulled over to look at them.
Neon-colored vests hang from a pinewood crossarm, which resembles an electrical utility pole.
Beneath the crosses are hardhats, American flags, and handwritten notes. The roadside monument was built to honor three line workers killed in a hit-and-run accident in Washington County.
You might’ve read about it. It happened months ago when a vehicle left the road and struck workers who were restoring power to an area affected by Hurricane Michael.
I am interrupted by the sound of tires on gravel.
A truck pulls beside me. The driver kills his engine and rolls his window down. I see a man with tanned cheeks and lines on his face.
He doesn’t introduce himself, he only says:
“Them lineman were working seventeen-hour days. They came from all over the nation after the storm, worked like dogs. They were good, good men.”
Line workers like these men invade disaster zones like armies. They work from dawn to dusk. They survive on light sleep, caffeine, and text messages from their children.
“I’ll tell ya,” the man says, “losing one of our own was harder on folks in Chipley than the storm was.”
Chipley is a town with a main street so short you could roll a bowling ball through it without much effort. The community is so tight it holds water.
When I was sixteen, I once dated a girl who lived in Chipley, she pronounced it “CHEE-yip-lee.” She was from a family who still shelled peas on the porch before supper.
After the hurricane, utility workers came by the hundreds, they blanketed Northwest Florida. In this part of the world, you couldn’t drive 10 feet without seeing cherry-pickers beside utility poles, and men working 40 feet above the earth.
My new friend pinches the bridge of his nose. His eyes turn red.
I ask if he knew the victims.
“Knew one of’em,” he says. “Was my best friend’s daddy, Bo. He was a good, good man.”
Bo Ussery was your quintessential lineman. Tough and dedicated. He was 60 years old, and preparing for retirement.
“He was one in a million,” the man goes on. “I never knew him to smoke, drink, or dip. Like I said, a good, good man.”
When the hurricane came through the area, Bo’s property sustained some damage, just like other places in the county. Still, Bo paid little attention to his own damage. Instead, he left home to do his duty.
Also killed in the accident was George Cesil. He was a 51-year-old foreman from North Carolina, who liked fishing, dogs, and cowboy hats. He was supposed to leave on Saturday to go home and see his family.
The other victim, Ryan Barrett, was 22 years old, baby-faced, and energetic—also from North Carolina. Ryan’s family said he was excited to help people in the Florida Panhandle regain power.
“The funeral was incredible,” my friend in the truck says. “Like nothing you never seen before.”
Line workers flooded the town by the multitudes. They swarmed around Chipley like the heavenly host, wearing hardhats.
“When we left the church, man, all you saw was them bucket trucks, parked on every street, baskets raised up in the air, guys standing by their bumpers, wearing uniforms.”
It was a send off that will go down in town history. The day a million and one trucks extended their hydraulic arms, some with American flags flying high, in honor of the fallen.
And the only evidence remaining of that momentous occasion are these wooden crosses.
Our conversation ends. My new friend has to get back to work. Friday is still young, it’s a few hours until quitting time.
We shake hands. He wipes his face. He starts his truck.
“I really appreciate folks like you,” he says. “I appreciate everybody who stops by these crosses to remember these good, good men.”
After he leaves, I am left standing beside a lonesome monument, built for three humble Americans who embodied everything I love about my people.
I never knew these men, but I know what they stood for, and so do you.
The hands beneath their leather gloves belonged to their hearts. And their hearts belonged to their children, their wives, and their homes.
They represent the kind I come from, whose collars are blue. They were everything magnificent about our society. In fact, they were the ones who built it. One utility pole at a time.
The pine crosses aren’t here to remind people of the accident on Highway 77. They are here because the world deserves to know about Bo, George, and Ryan. They were more than line workers.
They were good, good men.