Back before the days of OSHA, on a 32-foot extension ladder far, far away, a young man took his first steps up the ladder for a short career as a house painter.
I was in-between jobs, to the point of being desperate for gas money. Not Mad Max desperate, but pretty close. A friend told me of a friend who had his own little painting business and that he was looking for some temporary help during the summertime.The extent of my painting experience at the moment was from my days working at the….nah, I’d never really painted anything before in my life, except for some refrigerator-quality artwork during my single digit years.
There was no pre-employment paperwork to be filled-out or training films to be watched. Just show up, do the work, and there’d be cash paid under the table.
The first day’s job site was an old, three-story house on the Main Street of little New Market, Virginia. The first task at hand was scraping, re-caulking, priming, and painting the window panes on the brick-faced front of the building.
“You’ve done this before, right?”
“Oh yea, no problem”
And up the ladder I went.
It’s exhausting, scraping off old window caulk while your knees are shaking and your mind’s concentration isn’t totally focused on the caulk-at-hand, but rather the hard, unforgiving concrete sidewalk some thirty-feet below. But I was young, somewhat fearless, and determined to impress my new boss (powered by my male ego). As the confidence grew, there were moments when my mind would wander far from my thirty-foot perch, thinking of girls and parties, and everyday unimportant things, only to be snapped back to a panicky reality of fear the moment that the ladder suddenly slid a few inches along the splintery wood after a shift in body weight. During those moments, it’s extremely difficult to focus on the little ant-sized pedestrians walking below you on the sidewalk when your entire gastrointestinal tract is puckered-up from its exit hole to your scalp.
Week two of the job brought good news and bad news. The good news was that there was no ground-level painting to be done because the side of the house had been enclosed with a silly vinyl (never to be painted) siding. The bad news was that the building’s second and third wooden stories could only be reached by accessing the metal rooftops.
Standing on a slanted rooftop and painting a wall from the height of your head down to the soles of your feet is pretty easy. To reach the 8 to10-foot portion of the wall above your head is a different story.
Old metal rooves have a crimped, raised channel that runs vertically from top to bottom. The old school, pre-OSHA method of steadying a ladder on a second story rooftop to reach that 10-foot high section under the eaves is as follows…
Securely attach two 10-inch vise-grips to the roof’s metal channels at least eight-feet apart. Lay a ten-foot section of a two-by-four wooden board above the two pliers. Rest the feet of your ladder above the two-by-four. Ease the top of your ladder towards the house wall. Test the security of your simple scaffolding by hopping up and down on the bottom rung of your ladder a few times. If the vice-grips don’t slip, climb up the ladder and begin to paint.
Hey kids, it’s that safe and simple!
So, the bossman’s painting the left side of the second story wall, which made sense seeing as how he was naturally left-handed. Being right-handed, I had painted myself right up the ladder to the overhanging eave section above the right side of the wall. Always the perfectionist, I struggled and stretched to paint-cover each and every nook and cranny, even the sides of a section with a missing board below the eave. Then, from that hole left by the missing board came an Alfred Hitchcock covey of pigeons, the wind from their wings being the only thing that kept my ladder from leaving the wall.
“Son of a …!!!”
“What’s up?” asks my oblivious partner.
Then he asked the big question of the day.
“Hey, you’re taller than me. Think that you could reach this last little spot out here on the very end?”
Doing what was probably the scariest thing in my life, next to singing a solo in church and later getting married in one, I climbed up that ladder, reached out with my right hand clutching onto a board under the eave, and started slapping around with a wet paint brush with my left hand. The bank clock across the street read 2:38, the cars and pedestrians seemingly came to a halt. With one last little dab of paint applied to that dry spot some thirty-five-feet above the sidewalk below, my task was accomplished and down the ladder I went. Not that my legs remember it.
Painters are funny people. Not totally crazy like roofers or school teachers. After the climb down the ladder that day, bossman was already digging into his Playmate cooler.
“Hey, you wanna beer?”
“Uh, no thanks” I calmly said as I’m thinking to myself “What are you nuts?! Is that supposed to somehow deaden the pain as I fall to a gruesome death while crushing that flower box out front of the building?!!!”
But the painting life was very relaxed compared to my (air-quote) normal restaurant life. Lots of sit-down breaks and a sit-down lunch. No one complained about a forty-minute wait for a table or an undercooked steak when you’re two or three stories above the ground. In fact, no one spoke to you at all at the top of a ladder.
But there was one curious rule in the world of a sole proprietor painting business. If ever, within an imaginary six-foot circle on a rooftop, a single drop of rain did fall, the bossman would always say…
“Well, it looks like it’s going to rain. We better call it a day”
Then we’d meet up at the local social lodge and have a beer or three, wondering what the weather might look like tomorrow.