November 19, 2007
On a clear day
I'm afraid of heights. During the climactic scenes in King Kong I was scrunched so far down in my seat at the movie theater that I could barely see the screen between the heads of the couple in front of me. Put me on a high-rise terrace and I'm seized with the giddy fear that I'll irrationally and compulsively fling myself off. I'm not suicidal in the least - but that peculiar siren song has a strange and terrifying allure. Seems our primal fear breaks, for most of us, in one of two directions - heights or enclosures. Treetops or caves. Too much air, or not enough.
"Are you afraid of heights?"
You don't say no to a major client. So Friday night I was handed the key to the crane, after being shown how to operate it, and insisting that I could handle it, no problem. I was on my own.
I spent most of the day Saturday watching the flag outside the condo for signs of a break in the prevailing winds. When it finally sagged against the flagpole, I headed out. The last place I wanted to find myself was in a bucket nine stories in the air in a stiff breeze.
The crane's controls were pretty basic. One key position operated the boom from the ground, another from the bucket. Three joysticks on the control panel got me where I needed to go: one moved the boom from horizontal to vertical, another rotated it, the third extended it to its maximum, and rather reed-like extension, which was, of course, where I had to be to get the shot: a view that will be displayed in the condominium development sales center as a back-lit panorama. Other controls actually drove the crane, on its massive tires, but those I would not be needing. It was already positioned for the shoot, in a driveway next to a curb, at the development site.
Turns out I had to go up three times over Saturday and Sunday to get the right lighting, and the shot, that I wanted. Steeling my nerves once was a challenge. By the third outing I was a basket case.
On the first try I managed to get up high enough to clear the towering australian pines to get a reasonable view of the river. 'That's high enough' I told myself as I remembered the warning You don't want to go up without side braces if there's any wind. I thought of the massive side braces that companies anchored their cranes with before attempting to deliver an air conditioner to the roof of my puny four-story condo building. This crane had no side braces, and would be ascending nine. Now here I was at the end of a chopstick high above mother earth trembling in a breeze that seemed to be gathering momentum. I looked down, and adrenaline surged in a wave as I gazed at the ground that I was trying unsuccessfully to turn into an abstraction far, far below.
Eventually I got up the nerve to let go of the bucket's guard rail and bring the camera to my eye. Thank heaven (which could have read my thoughts at that height) that the camera was set for 1/1000 of a second. I needed to get a 360 degree panoramic series of shots, which meant I had to line up landmarks in the viewfinder, never taking the camera down from my eye, while turning my body completely around, in stages, on a platform with the footprint of a large dishwasher, suspended in the ether, while a freshening wind, and the adrenaline leaking out of my pores, was beginning to make my hair stand on end. The ride down was lovely. With each milimeter of planet earth reacquired my spirits rose.
The second shoot was iffy from the get go. The local weather channel clocked the wind at 14mph, which was nibbling at the edge of go-ahead. But the sky was magnificent and I decided to launch. The entire ascent, including the final, hair-raising extension, was maddeningly slow, as the gears and chains churned away with their grim determination. Halfway up the buffeting started. Nothing catastrophic, but enough to put my nerves on edge. Then as I was nearing what felt like a safe reach above the treeline, the stabilization alarm started beeping. The car was shaking. I cut the motor and the alarm stopped. I grabbed a few quick shots and headed quickly back to earth.
The third and last go was the most promising. Beautiful, cloud-strewn skies and a light breeze. It produced the images you see here. This time I decided to go for broke and push the crane to the max. I had been warned to be prepared for the jolt when it topped out. I wasn't. It hit with a jar that caused my knees to buckle. Holy Mother of Mercy! When the basket stopped shuddering, I slowly regained enough wherewithall to rise out of the crouch I was in and, holding on with one white-knuckled hand, slowly brought the camera to my eye with the other. I seemed to be miles above my previous climbs. I began shooting. Not daring to let go, I had to awkwardly twist halfway around to get the first arc of shots, feeling for the guardrail while changing my hand position, with desperate blind grabs, as I went. Rationality was fled. I somehow managed to ignore the swimming landscape below long enough to get a fix on the quivering horizon in the viewfinder. When I finished shooting, I brought the camera down with a dreadful breathless stealth and managed to slowly, carefully, untwist my legs so that I could face the controls...
Operating the crane required coordinating one's foot on the pedal that cranked up the motor, while moving the joysticks that retracted and pivoted the boom. At this point, and still suspended high in the sky, I looked down at the joysticks and found that their arrows and illustrations were now completely indecipherable. I stared. I puzzled. I almost laughed. Would I ever get down? Would I have to reach into my pocket for my cell phone and dial 911? No I wouldn't. I didn't have the will power to let go of the railing long enough to dig into my pocket. I shoved the joystick in what looked like a likely direction. With an appalling lurch the crane began inching forward. I looked down and its massive tires were slowly crawling toward a curb. Oops. Wrong move. I took my foot off the pedal and everything stopped. While the boom swayed, the motor wound down. The australian pines rustled below. Boats in the far blue river left trails of white. It was odd. The peaceful scene was suspended in a bubble of woozy terror. I looked at the control panel again and this time the elixir of rational thought washed over me like a powerful drug. I pedaled the motor up again, moved the joystick in the "retract" direction and the slow, blessed descent began.
The agency was wowed by the photographs. I was told client would be pleased. Good. Perhaps word will get around that I took the pictures. I'm seriously considering denying it.
Posted by Joe Jubinville
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