I had opened my big mouth, and now here I was standing at the base of this ancient steel radio tower. Both Monty and I were wearing hard hats. Mine was more for show, but Monty’s was a prudent precaution; even a bolt dropped from five stories up could do a lot of damage to an unprotected head. Also, we needed to look official. This radio tower wasn’t ours. It belonged to the state police and accommodated one of their many radio repeaters. One of our members, now retired, had been the officer in charge of the radio systems throughout the state. He arranged it so we could install our equipment alongside the police equipment.
There was some public benefit to this, because we provided emergency communications. But so far as I knew, official permission for this arrangement had never been given. “It’s a lot easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission,” our benefactor had admonished when questioned. Given our clandestine tenancy at the radio site, Monty and I needed to look like we belonged there. In hard-hats we hoped to look like a couple of contractors if anyone noticed us.
Well, there was no point in further delay: time to go to work. The tower consisted of four vertical legs anchored about 20 feet apart in massive concrete footings. The space between the legs diminished toward the top, giving the look of a scrawny, rusty Eiffel Tower. A web of steel cross braces linked the legs together, making them rigid and negating the need for the guy cables required for support of other towers.
The October wind blowing from the northwest was biting cold at the top of New Jersey’s second Watchung Mountain range. I wore my climbing belt and an assortment of tools in a leather tool holster. As I stared up from the bottom of the old 60-foot radio tower I recalled the radio club meeting a couple of weeks earlier that had led to this moment. Joe, the chairman of the club technical committee, had reported that the antenna for our radio repeater system had a loose connection, probably caused by water seeping into the fittings at the base of the antenna and corroding the metal contacts. As a professional radio repairman Joe had seen this type of problem many times in the past. “The fix,” he had said, “is simple; you just unscrew the fitting, burnish the metal contacts, spray on some contact cleaner, and reassemble the connector -- a ten or fifteen-minute job. And I have some weatherproof duct seal putty to keep it dry forever once the job is completed.” The only hitch was that the antenna and connector were about fifty feet in the air. The club didn’t have the money for a professional steeple jack. “Lots of you younger guys climb to work on your home antennas, how about it?” There was a long, tense silence while he scanned the room. “I’d do it myself, but my knees ain’t so good any more.” Joe was energetic and fit at seventy-something but really too old to be climbing six stories into the air.
Fearing that Joe might ask them directly, everyone had become preoccupied with his manicure or something in his lap to avoid meeting Joe’s eyes. Clearly nobody had been eager to climb.
How hard could this be? I had thought. As a firefighter I’ve climbed 100 foot ladders that bounced and swayed with each movement. A nice, solid radio tower should be a snap. I raised my hand. “I’ll do it,” I said. “But I’ll need a helper on the ground.” There was an audible sigh of relief as the others relaxed. My friend Monty leaned close and said, “If you’re crazy enough to do this, I guess I can help, but no way am I doing any climbing!”
Beginning the climb posed a difficulty I hadn’t anticipated. The taper of the tower meant that the legs leaned inward near the ground, becoming more vertical as the tower narrowed. To ascend the first twenty feet I was forced to lean backward, as if climbing the underside of a ladder. Would my feet slip leaving me dangling by my fingers twenty feet above the ground? The prospect encouraged me to move slowly, securely wedging the sole of my boot in the “V” formed between the steel web struts and the tower leg. Concentrating on carefully placing each foot and securely gripping a strut with both hands before moving the other foot, I didn’t give much attention to the tower itself until I reached the forty foot level, still ten feet below the defective radio antenna. Here the tower legs were vertical and the tower interior had narrowed to a square just over three feet on a side. I was now caged by the four legs and the webbing between them. Pausing to rest, I attached my safety belt and leaned back. There was a slight, but very noticeable movement of the structure with each gust of wind. I could hear metal joints creaking through the steel tower leg close to my left ear. Unlike modern welded towers, this tower was held together with rivets, some of which had rusted or loosened over the years.
As I beat my still gloved hands together to warm them, fear gripped me. “Is this normal? Should this thing be moving like this? I wonder how old it is? Sure could use some paint! Does anyone ever inspect these things? How deep does the rust go?”
I imagined the headline: “Local fireman killed in tower collapse. Authorities say he was trespassing…” Just then the wind changed and the tower groaned and I felt it shift under my feet. “sh*t! What have I gotten myself into?” My mind was wild with dark imaginings about the rusted joints and the prospect of my weight being that one last insult to bring down the neglected structure in a tangle of steel, my poor flesh caged in the tangled wreckage. The metal hummed and vibrated as the wind threaded through the steelwork.
“I should just climb back down and give up this crazy project. No one else was willing to do it, and if I chicken out, who could criticize?”
On the verge of retreating, I felt the wind grow still. From somewhere in my mind a phantom voice declared, “Son, you don’t get to choose when or where you die, so do what you came to do and be peaceful about it!” My fears evaporated and I was suffused with a great calm. At the sound of a distant train whistle, I looked out through the webbing of steel and, for the first time since leaving the ground, noticed the panorama of autumn beauty below me. I was above the treetops on the highest peak. The surrounding hills and mountains, rising 350 feet from the Raritan River Valley below, were dappled in reds and yellows and browns, lighted in places by rays of sunlight penetrating tall grey cumulous clouds. I could see forty miles to the horizon in the clear crisp air. At the edge of the world to the east were the towers of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, closer by were the rooftops and smokestacks of industrial buildings along the railroad lines. Cars crawled like ants along a highway in the distance. Below me the roofs and yards of private homes were visible through the trees. Directly below, Monty leaned against the tower, only the top of his yellow helmet visible, a puff of smoke from his cigarette dispersed in the breeze. He was oblivious to my inner drama and the breathtaking view that held me spellbound.
I climbed the remaining ten feet to the antenna and called down to Monty to move clear lest I drop something and bean him. The repair posed little difficulty and in minutes I was sealing it with the gob of sticky black duct putty that I had kept warm and pliable under my jacket.
The job complete, I lingered a moment longer. The tower moved and creaked gently with the shifting wind, as it doubtless had for more than fifty years since it was first erected. It had stood there through hurricanes, lightening strikes, and all the relentless abuse nature can deliver. No doubt it would still be there long after I was gone. A couple of big, fragile snowflakes tumbled lazily and then darted off, caught by the quickening breeze. There was peacefulness in this high vantage point: a restful beauty, a sense of being close to God.
“HEY! You okay up there?” Monty called. “I’m freezing my ass off!”
“Yeah, I’m coming down now,” I shouted. The train whistled again in the distance, and there were more snowflakes dancing in the breeze. Bright rays of sun pierced the overcast making iridescent columns through clouds of snow falling to the north and west. What a blessing to be here and experience this,” I thought.
“Coffee’s on me! Let’s go,” Monty hollered, stamping the cold from his feet while beating his gloved hands together, eager to be somewhere more agreeable.
Slowly, with a combination of caution and reluctance to give up my perch, I made my decent. On the ground, Monty hustled me off, hastened by his eagerness for the comfort and security of the local diner now that our illicit repair mission was a success.