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

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.) 


  1. As one who climbs ladders to deal with electricity every day at work, I very much appreciate -- and resonate with -- these meditations on the ladder. They wobble like three-legged dogs, they slip and they slide, but they do enable us to defy gravity -- up to a point, anyway. Beyond that point... well, that's what your ladder posts are all about: what happens when the ladder, or our expedient means of deploying it, betrays our trust.

    It's best not to be in a hurry on a ladder...

  2. Exactly, Michael: Everything takes twice as long on a ladder. So don't rush it. Double-check how it's placed. Then check it again. Then climb.

    And quit when you're tired. Most accidents happen at the end of the day...