Family, Fraternity at Lineman’s Rodeo

Competitors take the annual Gaff-n-Go Lineman’s Rodeo as seriously as their real-life work

DOSWELL, Va.—For Bryce Clark, this really was his first rodeo. For his father, it was just another day at the office.

Eleven-month-old Bryce watched, more or less, as his dad Brad Clark worked with fellow Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative linemen to change a broken crossarm wavering 25 feet above the ground on a simulated live circuit.

With the child and mom Heather standing nearby, the electricity was not actually flowing, of course. Still, Bryce got his first taste of what his father does for a living during the competition at the 15th annual Gaff-n-Go Lineman’s Rodeo.

“We always enjoy coming to this every year, but this year it’s even more special because he gets to watch his dad for the first time,” Heather said.

There was a family atmosphere as more than 150 competitors scaled utility poles, reattached fallen wires and wiped the considerable sweat from their brows during the May 19-20 event at Meadow Event Park north of Richmond, Virginia.

The Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative team of Chadd Harding, Mitch DeJarnette and Brad Clark (on ground) compete on Saturday morning at the lineman's rodeo in the Dead-End Crossarm Changeout. The team came in second place with a time of 10:00.28 and 100 of 100 points. (Photo By: Denny Gainer)
The Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative team of Chadd Harding, Mitch DeJarnette and Brad Clark (on ground) compete in the crossarm change out at the Gaff-n-Go Lineman’s Rodeo. (Photo By: Denny Gainer)

“It gives family members, friends and colleagues a chance to see these linemen in action,” said Richard G. Johnstone Jr., president and CEO of the Virginia, Maryland and Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives, which hosts the rodeo. “It just keeps getting bigger and better.”

Family ties, lineman-style, also represent a key to success in the Gaff-n-Go rodeo, which sends its top finishers to compete in the International Lineman’s Rodeo & Expo, held in October in Bonner Springs, Kansas. Clark is among several Mecklenburg Electric linemen who have made strong showings in Kansas in the past.

“It’s in my blood. I love it. It means everything to me and all these guys; it’s a big family,” said Mitch DeJarnette, who joined Chadd Harding and Clark on one of the co-op’s two journeyman teams. “Anywhere you go, you meet someone who’s a lineman, you connect pretty quick.”

John C. Lee Jr., president and CEO of Chase City-based Mecklenburg Electric, and chairman of the rodeo committee, seconded the idea of family among linemen at his co-op.

“The best linemen we have at Mecklenburg, and those everywhere else for that matter, are not driven to excel at what they do by the money or benefits. It’s about the honor and duty of going out there and getting the lights back on, knowing that in every dark home, there is a family counting on them to make life better … the great ones are acutely aware of the tremendous responsibility placed on them,” Lee said.

“They’re here at the rodeo because they are confident in their skills, but at the same time are open to learning from their peers and improving, and mostly because they take tremendous pride in their work.”

More than 150 electric utility linemen compete in the annual Gaff-n-Go rodeo at the Meadow Event Park in Doswell, Virginia. (Photo By: Denny Gainer)

Among the events at the Gaff-n-Go, the crossarm change out was particularly trying. DeJarnette, Harding and Clark were in heavy gear with cover ups and hot-line protection on a day when temperatures soared into the 90s. They also found event organizers oversupplied them with wire, meaning they had to spend valuable seconds rolling up the excess.

Looking on from the ground, Jason McKinney, their coach, said the extra wire was the kind of development that shows why linemen need to be prepared for the unexpected.

“When you leave the ground you’ve got to have a plan. Everybody’s got to know what the next guy is doing and be on board with each other,” said McKinney, a rodeo participant since 2008 who also has been to the big competition in Kansas. “You make one misstep there, even in a rodeo, and you’ve had a bad day.”

He said that’s particularly important when rodeos include mystery events that remain undisclosed until kick off, though the Gaff-n-Go did not have one this year.

Brad Clark of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative and his wife Heather are with son Bryce during the annual Gaff-n-Go Lineman’s Rodeo, which drew about 150 competitors to a site north of Richmond, Virginia. (Photo By: Denny Gainer)
The birth of 11-month-old Bryce Clark kept his father Brad Clark of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative away from the 2016 rodeo. This year, Bryce is all smiles with dad and mom Heather. (Photo By: Denny Gainer)

“The obstacle course pole, you may have a 30-second difference between us and the winning team. Same thing in the hurt man rescue—maybe 30 seconds. So if you lose time in those other events, you’re talking about maybe a minute. But if you come up with the best plan in the mystery event, you may gain five minutes.”

At the end of the rodeo, DeJarnette, Harding and Clark did their co-op proud by placing second among 18 teams in the journeyman division, earning a spot in the internationals.

Clark, who missed the 2016 Gaff-n-Go because Bryce was being born, said it was nice to have his home family witness his work family.

“Of course,” he added of Bryce, “he didn’t have a clue about what was going on.”

Steven Johnson is a staff writer at NRECA.