The photo is from 1978. My son, his truck. Behind him, my truck.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Heroism of Ladders

Wednesday, August 11, 1993

The contractor was driving the family van with his wife and three kids.  Carrier boxes on the rooftop were whistling, crammed with camping gear.

The Interstate was brutal through Seattle and stayed bad through Olympia.  Farther south it was less hectic, a four lane highway.  After a gas stop, the contractor accelerated to what seemed to be the consensus cruising speed of 70 miles per hour, a strain for the old van.  

Ahead in a gap of traffic he saw a ladder fall off a pickup, which never stopped. 

The car in front of the van swerved, crowding into the left lane.  The contractor swerved to the right onto the shoulder, stopped, turned on blinkers.  More cars coming.  He got out, a dangerous move.  

"Please be careful," came a voice from the van.  The sun was bright and there was a dusty highway smell.

Dashing into the road, he picked up the six-foot sturdy aluminum stepladder and set it against a chain link fence.

Was he genetically programmed for this?  Or was he trained?  Was it just that he couldn't stand to see a good ladder wrecked?  Without hesitation he'd put himself at risk. 

He turned off the blinkers, pulled back onto the highway, made it through Portland listening to Beatles tapes.  We do indeed live in a yellow submarine. 

For his own contracting business at home the contractor had graduated to fiberglass ladders — for safety — three of them with different lengths.

That night in central Oregon the family pitched their tents among Winnebagos at Schwartz Campground.  It was a friendly place, mostly RVs in a field next to a dam and an artificial lake.  The old folks were out on lawn chairs under the Milky Way watching a meteor shower.  With each meteorite, everybody let out a cheer. 

The family built a campfire of store-bought wood and lay on their backs under the spectacular sky, watching not with cheers but with wonder, something akin to worship, feeling like tiny pieces of an awesome natural design.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Crucifixion by Ladder

(After posting 288 true* stories to the blog, this one is fiction.  It's from the first chapter of my novel Clear Heart.  I'm including it here because it fits with the ladder theme and because if you've read the previous four ladder entries plus an earlier entry called Impaled — all of which truly happened to me — you will know the origins of this fictional event as well.)

. . .

Somehow, each new day, year after year, the plywood seemed heavier while the quality seemed crappier—just like my body, Wally was thinking. 

Awkwardly balanced on the ladder, Wally pushed a raggedy four-by-eight-foot panel up toward the roof. Sweat trickled along the hairs of Wally’s armpits and dripped to the second-story subfloor fourteen feet below. He supported the plywood with the top of his belly, a splinter digging into his flesh, as he shifted his grip.

Standing above Wally, straddling two roof trusses, Juke was ready. While Juke took hold of the top of the panel and lifted from above, Wally pushed the plywood from below.

Laying the plywood over the trusses, squinting a practiced eye, Juke lined up the edge and set to work with the nailgun. Phap phap phap.

Wally slid the next sheet of 19/32 CDX ply up the ladder. 

With a final phap phap from the nailgun, Juke leaned down and grasped the top of the next sheet of plywood with his fingers.  He lifted.

And at that moment on that hillside where the frame of a house was rising among live oaks and wild oats with a red-tailed hawk soaring above, the world stirred. On this calm day, with neither Juke nor Wally noticing, clouds had formed. The oak branches bent. The oats flattened. The hawk shot out of sight.

Juke was just turning sideways when the wind hit. Suddenly, from out of nowhere a bolt of air was pulling the plywood—and Juke along with it—like a big, stiff kite.

Down below, meanwhile, Wally still had a hand on the plywood in addition to supporting it with his belly and, for one brief moment, no grip on the ladder. The updraft whipped the plywood out of his fingers and knocked his body off balance. Instinctively, Wally shifted his weight.

The ladder shifted, reacting to Wally’s sudden move.

Up above, Juke realized that if he didn’t let go he would be lifted to hang-glide into the sky under a four-by-eight panel of plywood. So he let go. The rough edge of the sheet ripped the tips of his fingers and sailed away. Juke fell back against the nailgun, which started to slide down the slope of the roof decking. Juke, with raw, bleeding fingertips, reached for the nailgun and at the same time saw that Wally had lost his balance on the ladder just below.

Their eyes locked.

Wally was fourteen feet up a ladder that was moving to the right while his body was twisting to the left. Juke lunged for Wally’s hand just as Wally, whose body had now spiraled a hundred and eighty degrees, was desperately reaching over and behind his head to grab the king post of the truss. Juke had the nailer in his grip. All three—nailgun, Wally’s hand, king post—met at the same moment.


For Wally, it was a moment of absolute clarity. He felt—and even smelled—the puff of compressed air, stale from a hundred feet of hose, that had driven the nail through his wrist. He felt Juke’s hand grabbing his own free left hand, the one that wasn’t nailed to the post. He heard the sliding of the ladder and then the clatter as it hit the floor below. He heard a mighty thud and a splintering of wood as the nailgun, dropped by Juke, struck the floor a moment later. He kicked his feet in a broad arc searching for support even though he knew that nothing was there.

“Jesus fuck!” Juke shouted from above.

And there was a woman. Where she had come from Wally had no idea. Already she was lifting the fallen ladder, but she wasn’t strong and the ladder was heavy.

Inside the nailed wrist, Wally felt two separate bones grinding against the nail. Or maybe the nail had shot right through one bone, splitting it in two. He couldn’t tell. All he knew was that inside his body, bone was in contact with steel, that the bone and nail and flesh were supporting the weight of his body, that the flesh was ripping as he wriggled, that the nail felt solid and unforgiving, that the bone felt as if it was bending and would be torn from its little sockets and pop like a broken spring out of his skin. 

Weird explosive shock waves were racing up the nerves of his arm to overload and confuse his brain. Even more urgent, rising into Wally’s awareness above the flood of pain: He couldn’t breathe. The weight of his body was stretching the muscles across his chest so that only with a supreme effort could he exhale, making quick ineffective puffs. With rapidly de-oxygenating air in his lungs, he was suffocating.

Juke, still holding Wally’s left hand in one of his own, lay down flat on the roof decking and placed his free hand under Wally’s armpit. When he had a solid grip he moved his other hand to Wally’s other armpit, supporting all of Wally’s weight.

With an explosion of fusty air Wally exhaled, coughing, and then sucked a deep gasp of breath.

Juke’s face was now pressed up against Wally’s, cheek to cheek, stubble to stubble, sweat to sweat.

Wally was panting, catching up on oxygen.

Meanwhile, down below, the woman couldn’t lift the ladder. Whoever she was, she’d never before dealt with the unwieldy heft of an OSHA Type A Louisville fiberglass extension ladder.

Juke called down to the woman: “You—uh—you—”

Wally could feel Juke’s jaw moving against his own.

“You gotta—” Juke was trying to tell the woman how to raise the ladder but he was handicapped by his speech impediment—an inability to open his mouth without cursing. Juke’s personal law of carpenter etiquette wouldn’t allow him to swear in the presence of a lady. He might be rough but he was gallant. Or if not gallant, at least fearful: Juke still had nightmares starring angry nuns.

“Walk it up,” Wally said in a voice that sounded strangely high-pitched to his own ears.

The woman, confused, raised her face toward Wally. “What?”

For an instant, Wally stared. Her eyes, even at this distance, the eyes of a puppy, luminous and brown.

Juke, meanwhile, stared as well. He could see right down the front of her jersey. Nice rack.

“Grab one end,” Wally squeaked, trying not to screech, to remain calm, to ignore the electric buzz that was running up his arm. “Place the tip against the wall, and then walk under the ladder, lifting it higher as you go, keeping one end against the wall. Can you do that, please?”

The "please" came out a little higher than Wally had intended. Screechy high.

The woman tried. She raised the ladder half way, sliding it up the studs. A moment of extended arms, trembling. As she tried to shift her grip, she lost it. The side of the ladder bounced against her shoulder and then rattled to the floor.

“I’m sorry,” she said. Briefly she laid a hand on her shoulder, wincing.

“You all right?” Wally said.

“My God. What a thing for you to ask right now.” Already she was trying again. This time she seemed to get a better angle on it, walking the ladder up the frame of two-by-fours without overextending her arms.

With something like a ballet move, Wally was able to arch his potbellied body and swing his legs sideways while the woman slid the ladder until his foot, and then two feet, once again supported his weight.

Juke could now let go of Wally. There were bloody fingerprints on Wally’s arm. Wally’s body was blocking Juke’s access to the ladder. Juke whispered, “Now what, Boss?”

Wally spoke to the woman below. “See that saw? No, behind you. The Milwaukee. There. Yes, that. Can you bring it up the ladder and give it to my partner here? Carry it by the handle so you don’t touch the trigger.” Always Mr. Safety. “Make sure it stays plugged in to the extension cord. Okay?”

Oops. His voice had squeaked again on the "okay."

Juke whispered, “No, Boss. I ain’t cuttin’ your hand off.”

“Cut the post,” Wally said.

And that’s exactly what Juke did.

Wally walked on his own two feet out of the house and straight to his truck, his hair powdered with fresh sawdust, his left hand cradling an eighteen-inch piece of two-by-four Douglas fir that was still nailed to his right wrist, trailing blood…  

 . . .

*True:  Based on fact.  I frequently change names or other details to protect people's identities and avoid lawsuits by billionaires.  Occasionally for ease-of-storytelling I'll combine two characters into one, or I'll compress a time line or use other implements of the trade.  I've been wearing a novelist's tool belt just as long as I've been wearing a carpenter's, so it comes naturally now to reach for the handiest chisel, or pliers, or plot device.  I'll smooth the rough spot out of a messy story just as I'll rub a little sandpaper over a piece of wood.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Loneliness of Ladders

Wednesday, October 14, 1981 
Quoting "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" by William Carlos Williams
    According to Breughel
    when Icarus fell
    it was spring
The electrician was standing at the maximum extension of an aluminum ladder in an automobile body shop.  This was in the industrial section of Sunnyvale, California — a town less lovely than its name.
    a farmer was ploughing
    his field
    the whole pageantry

    of the year was
    awake tingling
It was a steel building with a concrete floor covered by puddles of water.  Men were banging sheet metal.  Brt brt of pneumatic wrenches.  The roar of engines, gas and diesel, the smell of smoky exhaust.  A radio blasting rock and roll. 

The electrician, a beginner, did not have the $300 it would cost to buy a fiberglass extension ladder, though he was hoping to have it soon.  He had set the rubber feet of the aluminum ladder on a tarp as an extra precaution against providing an electrical path while he was working with live wires.  He was not a complete fool, and he knew how to handle live wires — cautiously — replacing ballasts in fluorescent fixtures.  The owner of the body shop did not want any circuits turned off, did not want any interruption to the flow of body jobs.

The electrician could have refused to work with live wires.  In that case, he would not have been hired at all.  Forgive us, somebody, please.  The things we do for money.  The chances we take.  As it happened, electricity was not the problem.
    the edge of the sea
    with itself
Without warning, the ladder dropped.  There was a pipe to grab.  The electrician reached for it — got it — but he had already fallen four feet and the momentum of his body broke his grip.  He was falling toward the concrete floor.
    sweating in the sun
    that melted
    the wings' wax
I'm going to break my leg, he thought.  And there's nothing I can do about it.  That was the electrician's only thought during free fall.  That, and waiting for his leg to break.

He hit the concrete simultaneously with the ladder and somehow — he never figured out how — a rung of the ladder fell on top of one foot and beneath the other.

The painter nearby looked up from his paint gun, pulled down his mask and said, "Hey.  You all right?"

The electrician was standing upright.  Like a gymnast sticking a landing amid the clatter of aluminum on concrete, he had held his balance.

With all the din of a body shop, the other workers hadn't even noticed his fall.

The electrician studied his feet.  At that moment, he wished — aching — to smell a wildflower.  To hear his children laugh.  To touch a woman.

What he smelled was paint.  What he heard was brt brt thud clang.  What he touched — what he felt — was raw banging pain.

The electrician lifted his right foot off the ladder.  He pushed the ladder off his left foot.  He wiggled his toes.  They hurt — bad — but they moved.  Already they were swelling.  He thought of the cost of an x-ray.  A doctor.  No insurance.  No time.  A day's wage, quickly gone.  Family to feed.  At home.  Waiting.  Milk.  Cotton sheets.
    off the coast
    there was

    a splash quite unnoticed
Pain is an electrical impulse.  No more, no less.  That night, his feet would be purple.  "Yeah," the electrician said.  "I'm all right."
    this was
    Icarus drowning
The painter slipped his mask back over his mouth and nose. 

The electrician raised the ladder back into place, setting it at a higher angle this time.  You have to get the proper slant.  He had used this ladder hundreds of times.  Only once before had it slid.  This tarp was too smooth.  Sometimes, precautions cause new hazards.

Slippery base, he thought as he climbed again higher, rising gingerly, rung by rung, to his job. 

("Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" is from Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems by William Carlos Williams, a wonderful book by a wonderful man — doctor, poet, writer — who wrote poems between delivering babies or listening to hearts, a man who understood the nature of work, and the work of nature.  I hope I have honored him here.) 

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Revelation of Ladders

Sunday, December 8, 1980

The father was fourteen feet up the aluminum extension ladder in his own house when he felt himself go.  There was no warning. 

He had the sensation of floating.  One moment he was standing there getting ready to drill; the next he was floating.  Falling.  Flying. 

He dropped the drill and grabbed for a ceiling beam, a four by twelve.  He couldn't reach the top of the beam but somehow managed to grip the bottom.  The wood was smooth except for one notch in the side: a termite hole.  Just the size of a thumb.
    Bless you
    dead termites
He was holding his weight with only his thumb, bent at the knuckle.

The ladder crashed to the floor.  The drill struck the cast iron kitchen sink and broke into six pieces.  The father would be next.

The mother came running.  Lifting almost beyond her strength, she hoisted the ladder and held it while he swung his feet to the side — swung his body, a hundred and sixty pounds — until the feet found the ladder, and he was safe.

When he got to the floor, he was out of breath.  Between gulps of air he said to his wife: "I was hanging by my thumb."

"How could you do that?"

"I couldn't."  He shook his head, amazed.  "But I did."

A child was crying.  The mother went to comfort him.

The father cleaned up the broken pieces of drill.  He could buy a new one.  He lowered the ladder and carried it outside.  Next time, he'd brace it better. 

Sometimes you discover a power that is hidden, dormant, in your body.  Sometimes you amaze yourself.

The thumb was sore for weeks.

Monday, April 2, 2012