It’s Monday at 5 am. James is up and making a pot of coffee preparing for his day of tower climbing. Just like he would do for any other job he showers and shaves, gets dressed and kisses his wife goodbye. Though he is an experience tower climber, he knows that mistakes on his part, or on somebody else’s could get him or one of his crew killed. Because of this he always takes an extra few seconds to watch his kids sleep before he rushes out the door.
He started as an electrician’s apprentice when he was 17. After he finished his apprenticeship he applied with a large communication provider that had just moved into the area. He’s been doing this job for 15 years but, he still remembers his first climb. “I was nervous and excited at the same time. There were different rules for safety back then but I remember thinking to myself, it’s only 1000 ft… How bad can it be?”
James, like the other men who had been hired at the same time, had undergone training. They had learned what to do if a storm broke. They had learned what protocols to follow for a hundred potential situations. They had learned the proper way to check their gear and why they should always wear their EF meters, but nothing could have prepared him for his first climb.
The crew did a secondary check on each other’s safety equipment, checking it for frays, knots, anything even the slightest bit abnormal. James went up first, he was a strong man, but hauling up that tool bag for the first time left him feeling like a six year old girl carrying a medicine ball. The wind on the ground had been ten miles per hour. Within the first couple hundred feet the wind picked up to 30mph. He was thankful that he wasn’t allowed to free climb yet. Having those restraints in place helped his nervousness, but it was still an unnerving experience.
His instructor had told them all not to look down once they got up there. At least not until they got used to the feel of the ladder and the equipment. Never one to take advice very well, James looked down. A lesser man would have frozen right then and there. It had happened to too many. He had no idea how many tower climbers never made it past that first day, but he guessed it was quite a few.
James wasn’t petrified when he looked down, in fact, he was exhilarated. The ground crew was nothing more than dots. He shouted down to his climbing partner, Hank. “You ever see anything this amazing?” Of course, Hank was an experienced climber, so this was nothing new to him.
“Don’t burn up all your energy yelling kid, we still have 500 more feet to go!” Hank smirked at him, maybe James’ cockiness reminded Hank of himself, at least when he was younger. James to this day didn’t know. He had never asked Hank and he’d never get the chance to, Hank passed away a few days later from a heart attack.
The temperature dropped dramatically in the next couple hundred feet. The bars he was holding onto felt slick and sticky all at the same time. He could now see his breath even though on the ground he hadn’t needed a coat.
As he and Hank hit the 700 foot mark, James felt like his knees were rubber. They ached already and he started to wonder if this is how they ‘hazed’ the new guys. For the next 300 feet James fought every step. At 900 feet, he thought for sure the tower would never end but, it did. And for all that hard work it had taken, James felt like he had just climbed Everest.
He remembered Hank smiling up at him. “Good job rookie, now lets do this job and climb down. Maybe they’ll let you climb a big one tomorrow.”
At that moment James wondered if he could do this every day. A knot developed in his throat. He had never been so sore, but the adrenaline he felt, the sense of pride, and the view that so few would ever see were definitely appealing. He hoisted the bag and fixed the beacon.
On the climb down he was thankful more than once that Hank was below him. His body was jelly. Looking back James knew that his first day he had given his heart to tower climbing, this fact was the only thing that got him down safely. It would take several more years before he realized it though.
That night the guys bought him a beer and they exchanged stories about close calls, good times and even some bad. Out of the 10 men that had gone through training with him only James, a kid named Ricky from West Virginia and a 25 year old father of three named Markus had made it. Four of the other guys had frozen after 100 feet. One threw up half way up and refused to go any further and the last two never even passed their test.
James found out that night that his girlfriend, now wife, Amy was pregnant. Though he had never hurt so bad in his life, the $45,000 paycheck he could make as a new hire was too appealing. It would provide for the three of them. Plus, he hated to admit it, but it was invigorating and exciting and unlike anything he had ever experienced in his life.
He started off repairing wired towers, but the increase of cell phones, wireless broadcasting and Wi-Fi increased his need to keep up with the times and get further training. Within a couple years he was making over $60,000 a year. The hours were long and sometimes he didn’t get a day off for months it seemed. As he watched his daughter grow he knew he had made the right decision.
Four years after he started his career, a son joined the family. So, every day he climbed and everyday he got better at it. Seven years ago he was given his first team of trainees. He wondered if he had looked so young back then, so much like a kid.
It was an average group size, eight all in all. They were all young men, he had seen very few women join the trade in all his years. He began with introductions a few of them had electrical backgrounds, a couple engineers, but one boy stood out, even that first day. His name was Samuel, not Sam or Sammy as he liked to remind people, but Samuel, like his father had been. Sometimes the guys called him Sammy just to get under his skin.
James had to admit that Samuel reminded him a lot of himself at that age. Samuel had a baby on the way and had been an electrician’s apprentice. It was something more than that though. Samuel wanted to be a good man and do right by his family. He wasn’t the strongest or toughest looking but James wanted this kid to succeed more than he had ever wanted anyone to succeed.
James was nearly heartbroken when testing day came and Samuel got only a 55%, not enough to pass. Doing something he had never done, he went to the supervisor and practically demanded that he be allowed to give Samuel an oral retest. “This kids got potential, he knows his stuff and I’d put my reputation on him being able to pass!” James commanded. So, reluctantly his Supervisor agreed.
A few months later Samuel, who had now gotten used to the fact that everyone was going to call him Sammy whether he liked it or not, was proving to be invaluable. He had no fear of heights and it seemed he could do any repair with his eyes shut.
James and Sammy became close friends. They went fishing and worked on cars together. They had dinner at each others houses, even their wives were friends. James began to look upon Sammy as a son and knew he could trust him with his life. Two years ago on what seemed like an ordinary March day he would discover just how much this was true.
Sammy and James didn’t get to work together very often in the field, they had both been teamed up with other men. On this particular day though, each of their climbing buddies had left for the day. The big boss stepped out of his office and looked at the two men. “I hate to ask this of you so close to quitting time, but we’ve had a lightning strike that took down one of the main towers. Half the town is without cell service and you know how panicky people get without their phones. Last thing we need is a panic spreading. Everyone else has left for the day and there is overtime in it for you. Plus I’d consider it a personal favor.”
The men agreed and suited up. They drove out to the site which looked as unremarkable as many others. James looked at Sammy and told him “Let’s hurry up with this one before it gets dark. Amy’s making my favorite tonight, don’t want her too mad at me.” Both men chuckled as they stepped out of the truck.
James went up first, with his tool bag strapped to his ankle. He got up to about 20 feet then Sammy began to climb. It was getting dark, there were backup lights on the tower but they both knew in less than an hour those lights wouldn’t do them much good. They reached to top of the tower in what must have been record time. They replaced a few wires and even checked the connection to the pods that were supposed to dissipate lightning strikes. One of the connections was rusted through. All in all they were up there a couple hours and it had since become pitch black.
Once the tower was back in operating shape, they started the climb back down. “I think Amy is gonna have my hide!” James shouted down. Sammy looked back up and chuckled. Due to the darkness on the tower neither of them noticed the storm moving in until it was upon them. Without warning the wind blew, shaking the tower. The men picked up their speed but they were getting pelted by rain within minutes.
The rain stung as it flew at them horizontally. James felt it burn in his eyes. Sammy was just feet below him but he couldn’t see his and could barely hear him over the wind gusts. A terrible roar of thunder boomed over head, then there was a flash of blinding light. James felt a burn within his body, the tingle spread through him and he was unable to breath. Then the unthinkable happened and he let go.
A week later James opened his eyes. The room was blindingly bright. It took James a few moments but through watery weak eyes he saw that he was in a hospital room. The first face he saw was that of his wife Amy, the very next face he saw was Sammy. At first their words were mere echoes, but he eventually heard them welcoming him back. Amy wrapped her arms around her husband and told him through weepy eyes and shaky words “We thought we had lost you.” She covered his face in kisses.
Sammy, a man that James had never seen cry, was wiping tears from his eyes as well. “That was the scariest night of my life. I’m glad to have you back… even though you look like a dog’s ass.”
Struggling to talk James asked “What happened? The last thing I remember was a bright light in the sky and now I’m here.”
Sammy’s smile went to a frown. “You were hit directly by a lightning strike. I’ve never seen anything like it. It almost blinded me, but when I saw you start to fall, I reached out, I tried to grab you with one hand and I caught you by the harness. I climbed down the next two hundred feet with your heavy unconscious ass over my shoulder. I called 9-1-1 as soon as we got on the ground.”
James sat up and let out a groan. “You mean to tell me that you hauled me down that tower? You saved my life?”
“Yeah James I did, now you owe me big time.” Sammy said with a proud cockiness in his voice.
It was two more weeks before James was released from the hospital. The lightning had done damage to some of his organs, but he managed to survive and heal completely. He had always been one to quickly recover.
Back at work the guys all gave him a good natured hard time about how he was supposed to fix the lightning pods, not become one. His boss offered him a full-time training position, something that would never require him to climb a tower again, but it wasn’t in James’ nature. A week after returning to work he was climbing again. The first few times he climbed, he had memories, flashes of the climb that had nearly ended his life. Soon though, he was back in the rhythm.
James thought back on this day fondly, he had come close to death and re-emerged. A year after he went back to work, partly thanks to the consistent prompting by his wife, he hung up his harness and picked up a marker, accepting the full-time instructor position that had been offered to him a year before. His last climb had been with Sammy and it had been perfect. They had taken their time and taken in the view.
Now, as James walked into the training room he thought about all his years up in the air. He opened the door to see those who wanted to become the next age of tower climbing professionals. “Good morning everyone, I’m James Wyatt and I’ll be your trainer over these next few weeks.”
The group broke out in gasps and whispers. It seemed that James’ lightning encounter had become somewhat legendary. Most of those he trained asked him about that day and each time he would laugh to himself and say “Some day’s are better than others.” He was actually a great trainer. People requested to be in his class, he had a 83% rate for students passing and going on to become climbers. A few months ago he had even had his first female in class, a feisty tough young woman named Manda.
His position as a trainer had him home for dinner every night, which Amy and the kids loved. But, every time he passed a tower with a company truck parked in front, he thought about his crew and he thought about the freedom he felt only on that tower.