Thursday, December 01, 2005


In Which I Embrace My Fear...

No doubt, you're all wondering: Did he fall? Is he writing this from an ICU, wrapped in plaster and tapping out each word with a pencil clenched in his teeth?

Or is he still stuck up on his own roof, looking something like this?


Before I answer that, let me tell you something about ladders. Especially lightweight aluminum extension ladders.

Not only DO they fall, it seems to me they LOVE to fall. Which explains why accidents are the #3 cause of death for men in America, and why, of all possible accidents--and in my family, I have witnessed some doozies--falls are among the top accidents in that category.

And there I was, adding another statistic to the list as the aluminum ladder I was on slipped out from under me and I pitched backwards. With one hand--the hand holding the caulking gun, I had been waving to my kids. Luckily, I still had the other hand holding a ladder rung and baby, I locked that hand tight, like it was an emergency brake on an elevator, or my anal sphincter. Still holding the sliding ladder, I shifted my weight the other way to regain my balance. This only made the ladder tip the other way. Also, seeing as the one hand clutching the one rung was now lubricated by about a gallon of cold sweat, I think it's fair to say my purchase on the ladder was becoming tenuous at best.

There is nothing worse than that top-heavy, vertiginous moment when you know you're just seconds away from a graceless flail into the void. I have experienced it far too many times, and remember each moment like it was yesterday. For example:

Age 3 or 4?: We're at the zoo and my father decides to carry my on his shoulders. I like piggy-back rides, but when he puts me on his shoulders, I freak out. I start clawing at his face for some kind of purchase and end up yanking out a substantial portion of his left eyebrow. In his own pain, my father pulls me and I pitch forward head-first. For one sickening moment it appears he is going to throw me to the ground. But of course he does not. Instead, he turns me right-side up, sets me on the ground and starts yelling at me. Even at that tender age, I have a hard time taking seriously the admonishment of a man with one eyebrow.

Age 6: At the farm of my best friend Chris. He has a great old barn and loves to jump from the rafters down into the pile of old hay below. It can't be a drop of more than 10 feet, but it looks like it's 10 miles down. Even my friend's 4-year-old brother is leaping into the void. I make up my mind to do it, taking a running start, then lose my nerve at the last second and topple over the side of a rafter. Shrieking and scrabbling, I twist and grab the rafter, hanging on for dear life, fingers digging into the wood. My friend's mother has to come out with a ladder and pluck me from my perch. A few minutes later, she also has to pluck about seven splinters from beneath my fingernails (Twenty-some years later, when I stop by the farm to introduce her to my kids, she delights in telling them the story and showing them the rafter, which still features faint grooves made by my desperate fingers. This strikes them as something a cartoon character would do, and so my children think this is one of the funniest stories ever, right up there with the time Daddy Crapped in his Footed Pajamas When He Was Four).

Age 7: My father's in one of his weird moods and he wants me to help him. We have a high ceiling in the garage and several light bulbs are blown. He hands me a new bulb and tells me to climb the stepladder to replace it. I nervously ascend the ladder and he starts haranguing me for being timid about heights. Still, I manage to replace one bulb. Then my father says "Hold on!" and before I can protest, he starts rocking the stepladder, walking it across the floor to the next burned-out bulb. I'm at the very top, shrieking with every rocking step, certain I'm going to topple off. Hearing the commotion, my mom comes into the garage, takes the scene in and barks at my father to let me get off the ladder. They get in a huge argument, which seems to revolve around his methods for teaching his younger son to grow up. It will be years before I climb a stepladder again.

Age 12: My best friend Shawn and I, who run a little private investigation service known as Detectives Inc. (perhaps you've heard of it), are a little short of cases just now, our little Kansas town being a singularly crime-free place. To keep our skills sharp, we have taken to exploring the dozens of abandoned old barns and houses that are an all-too common feature of this part of the state. To be honest, this activity has no bearing whatsoever on honing our deductive skills, but it does help us put a fine edge on our skulking abilities. Most of the properties we explore are surrounded by No Trespassing signs, not because the owners care (most of them being long dead or gone from town), but because the town sheriff thought stapling up the signs was the best way to deter kids from poking around and injuring themselves. Of course, the signs only encouraged us.

I am particularly enthralled with a towering old hulk of a house about a mile north of town. It is a Victorian monstrosity built not by a farmer, we were told, but by someone associated with the railroad that ran right behind the house where I live. To defeat the barbed wire fence that surrounds the property, Shawn and I come in the back, through the woods, across the brook. There, the slowly eroding bank had created a small gap between the ground and the fence that we are able to slip under.

We sneak in through the back door, which has been sealed by only one measly board. The downstairs is empty and well-explored, at least according to kids we know. We want to see the upstairs, but the corridor to the stairwell is blocked with all manner of wood and debris. Taking our time, Shawn and I clamber atop the worst of it and finally reach what I realize now was the back staircase, likely used by servants. It is very narrow and as we walk up, it creaks loudly.

Shawn reaches the top step first and yells. I run up to see what he saw.

Which, I discover a second too late, was absolutely nothing. The second floor landing--indeed the entire second floor--is gone.

We are both teetering on a step in the middle of the air. I almost lose my balance and topple straight off. Shawn grabs my collar, pulls me back and we retreat a step.

Then the creaking we heard gets really loud. There is a snapping of wood and a squealing of rusty nails and the stairs lurch. As one, we both jump back down the stairwell into the debris as the rest of the stairs simply fall away behind us, into the parlor and through that floor, on into the dark, stony cellar. Hacking from the dust, we get out of the house as fast as we can, which isn't very fast. Shawn has stepped on a nail. Shawn's mom is off on a date and unreachable so my dad and I drive him to the nearest hospital--off in Emporia--for a tetanus shot while my mom goes to his house to watch his little brothers and sister, which he would have done that night. I keep expecting us to get in a lot of trouble, but we never do. Implying that Shawn stepped on a nail somewhere in my backyard may have something to do with this.

Age 19: I am at liberty in the world, studying in London, but spending my Thanksgiving break in France. In fact, I have five hours to kill before I catch a train to the little town of St. Vinnemer, where I will be spending the break with Francoise, my French big sister, a woman who lived with my family when she was an exchange student and I was just 6 or 7. I haven't seen her in years and now, it's my turn to visit her family.

But first, Paris beckons. Having cut in front of the lines at the Louvre and the Musee D'Orsay, I'm permitting myself a cheap tourist moment by climbing the Eiffel Tower, where I carve my initials (still visible as of last summer, according to friends who knew where to look) and try to get some exciting footage, seeing as I have lugged along my battered, second-hand--and exceedingly cumbersome--VHS camcorder. At the lower observation deck--I'm using the terms "lower" loosely because it seems to me we're hundreds of feet up--I lean over a railing with my video camera.

Suddenly, the camera feels very heavy and I get a little dizzy. It might be vertigo, or it might just be that fact that, as a poor traveling student, I haven't eaten more than a packet of crisps all day. Before I know what's happening, about 48 hands grab me and haul me back on the platform. A uniformed person, either a cop or a Tower employee, seems to think I was trying to jump and there's a bit of a hubbub before he decides for himself that I really am just a poor, hungry student who leaned over too far.

About then, I realize my video camera is gone from my hands. I'm almost dizzy again with the idea of it having plummeted to the ground below, possibly injuring someone. But just then, a huge woman--and I mean she could have been a sumo wrestler in drag--comes over, clucking at me in French. Of the 48 hands that grabbed me, hers were the two that snagged the camera. When she gives it back to me, along with two chocolate bars she has pulled from her ample handbag, I can't merci mille fois her enough.

Age 22: Helping my Dad build a dormer out on the back of the old house he and my mom bought. Only a few weeks earlier, I had impaled my head on a nail sticking out of the ceiling I had been tearing out to make room for the dormer, so I am being extra careful now to avoid any further injury or trips to the hospital. My job of the past week, however, has consisted of hauling packages of shingles up a ladder, then up the slope of the old roof and handing them off to my dad, who clambers about the frame of the new dormer like a monkey whose wardrobe was sponsored by LL Bean.

On this particular day, my dad's been working on the roof since dawn. It's now about 9 in the morning and my brother and I have only just arrived, he to work on flooring downstairs, me to continue my roofing work. However, I don't realize that, as a bit of a warm-up exercise, my dad began the day by starting to pry loose the shingles on the slope of the old roof. Then left them on the roof and neglected to tell anyone.

So after I deliver to him the first load of new shingles for the dormer, I turn go back along one particular side of the old roof, and readers can guess which side that was. My boot hits the first loose shingle and down I go, flat on my ass. I roll to my hands and knees but it's too late. The force of my impact causes a regular avalanche of loose shingles and I'm riding the top of it. My dad leans over the top of the roof at that moment. "All I seen was assholes and elbows," he recalls later. And then I disappear over the lip of the roof, shingles and all.

Fortunately for me, in preparation for all the roof debris we'd have to haul, my dad has rented an enormous Dumpster, parked in the driveway just 10 feet from the front door. I say "fortunately" because this shortened my air time--and urine loss--considerably. When I hit the end of the roof, I am sledding just fast enough to sail straight into the Dumpster, where I land in about six feet of old-fashioned dusty blown-in insulation. When I finally get a leg over the side and haul myself out, sneezing and sputtering, my dad slumps in visible relief. My smart-ass brother, however, is standing at a porch window like an Olympic judge. He holds up a hastily scrawled sign that reads "8.5." The big turd.

I look up at my Dad, and shout, "That's it. I am NEVER going up on a roof again!"

My Dad just smiles and says, "God loves to make a man break his promises."

"Never again," I insist.

Age 37: Well, what do you know? Here I am, losing my balance on the extension ladder while my children watch in amusement. I believe this is where we came in.

And of course, long-time readers will surely suppose that I did a cannonball into a nearby tree, or an ungainly tuck and roll in order to bound off the roof of my car, looking for all the world like a circus acrobat who'd inhaled too much Reddi-Whip.

But in fact, I jumped up, managing to grasp the gutter at the edge of the roof. I let the caulking gun fall into the gutter so I could grab on with both hands. Naturally, with my weight off it, the ladder stopped sliding, but gee it must have made one hell of a scraping racket inside the house.

Not as big a racket as I made, though, I guarantee you that.

In fact, I'm pretty sure there isn't a single man, woman or child in my neighborhood--and the neighborhood or two beyond it--who is not now aware that I can yell "OH F-U-U-U-U-C-K!!!" as loud as Pavarotti. I screamed at my kids--still watching me from Thomas' room just below--to please, for love of God, puh-lease open a window, but they just yelled and cheered wordlessly. Dad was doing something fun and crazy again.

Blaze the dog simply gave me a smug and mysteriously self-satisfied look.

Finally, after an eternity--had to be at least 4 or 5 seconds--my brother-in-law emerged from the house, holding my nephew, the verbal genius who could pronounce everyone's name except mine. That didn't stop him from recognizing me instantly as I hung high above him.

"Doggie onna woof!" he cried, pointing. Then he added something else. I'm pretty sure it was, "Oh Fuck!"

After moving the little guy to a safe distance--that is, safe enough not to hear my exclamations--my BIL repositioned the base of the ladder while I tried to guide it from above with one of my dangling feet. In the end, I was able to straddle open air, with one foot on the ladder and one on a little gable over my garage. From here, if I leaned to my extreme left, I could just reach the loose flashing. A far more precarious position than I would ever have chosen to be in, I grant you, but far better that flailing through the void of space.

And so, utilizing a style of hammering that would certainly not be endorsed by a carpenter's union, I managed to drive a few nails into the loose flashing and even fixed a shingle that was looking dodgy, seeing as I had NO intention of returning to the roof again any time soon.

The whole process took about 20 minutes, and when I was done, my only issue at hand was whether to lunge back to the ladder and hope it wouldn't fall, or shift over to the gable above the garage, which I was sure to end up straddling, resulting in the kind of crotch-based impact one never looks forward to.

Before I could decide, Thomas' window suddenly cranked open and my genius son yelled, "Hey Dad! Come in this way."

So I went in that way.

And learned as soon as I was on solid footing that my hands and sphincter weren't the only muscles tensed. Now that they could relax, my legs felt like rubber and I had to sit for a moment, propping myself against Thomas' bed. As soon as I did, I could feel the cold sweat soaking through my shirt. Also, I was sort of shaking.

Thomas looked at me seriously. "Are you okay, Dad?" he asked.

"Yep," I said. "I just hate high places." I took a deep breath. "No, that's not right. The truth is, I'm afraid of heights," I admitted sheepishly.

Thomas gaped at me as though I'd just announced that I was made of Play-Doh (I certainly felt that way at the moment).

"You are?!?" he asked. I nodded. "Then why did you go?"

Because I'm a total idiot, I thought, but realizing I was not likely to have such a perfect Teachable Moment cued up for me again, I said, "Because I had to fix the roof. So I made myself do it. It's okay to be afraid, you know. But you have to be the boss of it. Know what I mean?"

Thomas never got to say whether he knew what I meant or not, because at that moment, downstairs, we could hear someone running around, yelling something that sounded an awful lot like "Oh Fuck! Oh Fuck! Oh Fuckfuckfuck!" And my kids ran off to join in the fun.

So much for my Teachable Moment.

I guess all I can do is hope it sank in on some level, and that my anxious son will realize that the more you do the things you're afraid of, the less scary they become.

And if he doesn't, well, I'll have another chance to ram the message home soon.

Because I just realized that I left the frigging caulking gun up in the gutter.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

I've been reading your blog for about two months now, everyday. I love the way you write and the stories you have to tell. Very entertaining!

I never did have to climb up on the roof of my old house...although I did climb a ladder to get rid of a pigeon's nest out of the eaves, standing above the step where you were supposed to stand on more than one occasion.
I always enjoy reading your blog, especially after a crappy night at work like I had last evening. It's always good for some laughs or some warm fuzzies or both, and I thank you.
Laughing my lily white arse off.

Wait a bit before you get the caulking gun.....wait until it has snowed and rained and it's freezing.....I want to hear the neighbors yelling:

Margo: And why is the carpet wet, Todd?
Todd: I don't Know Margo.
Okay you'd think I'd know by now not to drink my coffee while reading your stuff...Bravo for getting out of that situation! Besides, if you didn't teach Andrew to say "Oh, Fuck" I'm sure your BIL might have let it slip eventually anyway. ;)
Oh, I wish you'd posted this a week earlier; I was on the Eiffel Tower a few days ago, and could've given you an update on your initials!
Excellent unexpected use of 'anal sphincter'. Well... not that I can think of a time when you *expect* to hear anal sphincter. I golf clap in your direction.
Strangely enough, my fear of heights is why I decided to learn how to be a roofer...

Yeah, it didn't work so well for me either.
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