A Rigger's Rigger by Richard Dillman

In the days of radio when men were men, days not too long past, forests of telephone poles held spiderwebs of antennas against the sky, usually at the very edge of great oceans. Such a place was the RCA transmitting station in Bolinas, CA.

When I first started visiting there in the early 70s, trans-Pacific telephone circuits were still carried on HF radio. Rhombic and fishbone antennas covered acres of land, each aimed at a particular spot on the Pacific rim. My favorites were the ones held aloft by stacked telephone poles; two 90 footers placed one upon the other and held by a network of guy wires. These laceworks of antennas, feed lines and guy wires were larger and more complex than the biggest full-rigged sailing ship. And, like those ships, it took a special breed of man to keep them all aloft in the face of Pacific storms, salt spray and the ravages of time.

When we think of these installations, we usually think of the radio operators. I often think of the Chief Rigger, within whose domain the maintenance of these antenna fields fell. I met the Chief Rigger at the station in those days. His name was Jim (Jimmy) Bourne. He appeared to be in his early 60s, barrel chested with big, working man's hands and spectacles that somehow seemed too small for his large, open face.

It was Jim who kept the poles straight, the guys tight and the antennas aloft, no matter the weather or the time of night. And he did it as a matter of course, as a part of the job he had agreed to do. He was the type of man who is a hero but does not know it.

I've kept that picture of Jim Bourne in my mind since then, as an example of the best of a breed of men now almost vanished. But I wondered at the time if anyone else recognized him for who he was.

A few years after meeting Jim I was in Bolinas again visiting an amateur and fellow Radio Officer who lived near the transmitting station. As we chatted about radio and radiomen I noticed in the garage adjacent to his shack a large leather climbing belt of the kind Jim Bourne used. But this one was clean and new. I noticed too that this climbing belt had a brass plaque riveted to it. I drew closer to read it.

The inscription was simple. It gave me chills to read it then, as it still does now:

"To Jim Bourne - A Rigger's Rigger, A Man's Man"

Clearly, the belt had been presented to Jim upon his retirement by peers who recognized him, as I did, to be man worthy of honor. I didn't have the heart to ask my friend how it came to pass that he had Jim's belt. But I do know that one of the best epitaphs a man could hope for was engraved on that brass plaque.

When I wrote the piece above I assumed Jimmy Bourne had passed away. I was wrong, and that assumption kept me from meeting Jimmy again and talking with him at length about his life as a rigger at KPH. The notice of his actual passing appeared in the Point Reyes Light:

"He was in charge of maintenance for all the RCA towers - the tallest one was 300 ft. tall. He loved that job, loved climbing and spending time in the air," his granddaughter said. "He retired after 34 years."

Ed Brennan, his former boss, had the climbing belt mentioned in my story made for Jimmy upon his retirement.