Steeplejack

kure_atoll_aerial_1971

Green Island/Kure Atoll and the Coast Guard Station we stayed at. The tower, obsolete, has since been removed to keep birds from flying into it or the guy wires. The buildings are now used by research scientists. The large white area (white coral sand) is the end of the runway where the albatross chicks would gather to practice flight in the C-130 prop wash. Image: Kure Atoll 1

© — My neighbor had a friend come live with him for a while.  His name was Greg Herrgot, he was from Nebraska, and he was a steeplejack.  Steeplejacks work in high places.  They get their name from when the used to work on church steeples.  The crosses that grace steeples are often made of oak, and over the years of weathering, the wood would warp, and the cross would lean sideways.  So, a steeplejack was called out to go up the steeple and replace the cross.

While a senior at San Rafael High School, I went to work for Greg as an apprentice steeplejack.  I had rock climbing experience, and didn’t mind heights; in fact, I rather like heights.  Greg had bad feet, so, he had all the bones in his feet fused, keeping him from climbing the metal towers we worked on.  Greg had already hired another apprentice, Gigi.  Gigi didn’t mind heights, either; he was a former Army Ranger and got his kicks from jumping out of military aircraft.

While still in high school, I worked weekends at Point Reyes National Park in Marin County, north of San Francisco.  RCA had a large piece of property at Point Reyes that housed a tower farm: a large array of towers and antennas.  There were actually two sites at Point Reyes, 30 miles apart, one near Bolinas, and the other near the point of Pt. Reyes; one was for sending signals, and one was for receiving signals.  Originally these sites were used for talking to the Philippines, where messages would then be relayed to other points in Asia.  The high-powered signals were bounced off the ionosphere to get across the Pacific.  Seconds later a response would return, again, bounced off the ionosphere.

These arrays were connected to radios.  Tube radios, like those found in antique shops.  But these radios were huge.  A single radio would be housed in a building of perhaps 500 square feet.  There in the middle was a raised concrete platform, about 18” high.  Connected by thick copper rod were the radio tubes…three to four feet high.  The capacitors were the size of beer kegs.  Tuning these radios meant moving a copper rod across six feet of winding.  When you first walked into these radios, the whole place glowed bright orange.  The Grateful Dead would have given up Gerry’s beard to have an amp that big.  And there was a dozen of these things.  Two-inch copper rods would carry the signals to the antennas, and off to the ionosphere the messages went.

Satellites eventually replaced these beauties.  These poor, dispirited radios were relegated to communicating with ships at sea, taking orders for provisions, and sending them down to the docks in San Francisco and Oakland.  RCA sold half of each property to the Coast Guard, which, with some upgrades, were used for rescue missions far out at sea.  But they were gorgeous, just the same.  Smack dab in the middle of a National Park, they were right on the coast.  What an incredible place to work.

Every weekend I would rise early and drive my red Sunbeam Alpine, top down, to Bolinas.  This took me through the prettiest parts of Marin, past the lakes, through the redwoods, and along Bolinas Ridge.  You’ve seen Bolinas Ridge, in auto commercials.  It winds for miles along the top of a grassy ridge, redwoods on one side, and the Pacific on the other.  Then down the hill, through the hippie-haven of Bolinas, and on to Point Reyes.  Find me a better commute…anybody?

My first job was on a 300-foot guyed tower.  It needed to be repainted, and a new beacon put on top.  This first meant getting a rope to the top so we could haul up paint and the beacon, and riding the boson seats (basically planks) down to paint the tower.  Well, this operation was real old school. Today, OSHA requires that there is a safety system in place everywhere a worker goes so they can never fall.  Not this tower.  It was a 14”x 14”x 14” tower with extra rungs on one side to make a ladder.  So, my boss tied a 1,000-foot length of ¾” polypropylene line to my harness, and sent me up.  (Polypropylene line doesn’t stretch, so it is well suited for tower work.)

It was a foggy day; the fog sat at about 100 feet above the ground.  The tower, International Orange and High-Gloss White, disappeared into the clouds.  Jack and the Beanstalk stuff.  Well, I was the new guy, so I started climbing.  After about 15 minutes, I disappeared into the fog.  I couldn’t see the ground; I could only see about 30 feet down.  And I could only see about 30 feet up.  On I went, upward on 60 feet of tower.  Orange turned to white, and then back to orange.  Admittedly, this is a little weird.  Praying some joker didn’t give my tail a yank.

It started to get brighter and brighter.  And then…out of the fog, I rose.  Another 30 feet and I was at the top.  Around me was a sea of pure white fog.  No wind.  Just me and 30 feet of tower.  And Mt. Tamalpais in the distance, poking her head out of the fog.  I was shedding clothes; what was cold in the fog below, was now warm as the sunlight reflected off the fog.  I received radio instructions for rigging the pulley, and sent the rope back down.  As Greg set the winch at the bottom, the fog dissipated.  Suddenly I could see the whole landscape around me.  I was really, really high up on a really small tower.  Greg’s VW bus was tiny, and itty-bitty men walked around below looking up.  I accidently dropped a wrench, quickly radioed the ground, and watched as the crew ran like hell.

Gigi came up the easy way; he sat in a boson’s seat as Greg winched him up.  Then came the paint.  Five-gallon buckets of orange and white.  We wore car wash mitts, dipped our hands in the paint, and coated everything in sight.  Down we went.  Orange.  White.  Orange.  White.  Until we reached the bottom.  We washed up every day with diesel fuel.  It sounded like a good idea at the time; it doesn’t sound so neat now.

Then back up to replace the beacon.  The FAA had changed regulations on tower beacons, and a brighter beacon was needed.  We removed the old beacon and sent it down.  The up came the shiny, new one.  But before we mounted the beacon, a crazy idea occurred to me.  I wanted to stand on top of the tower.  After all, I was lashed to the tower with my harness, so I wasn’t going far.  I made my move and went to mount the tower.  But my leash proved too short to fully stand.  So, I just took a seat.  300 feet up.  Killer view.  A cup holder would have been nice.

We did some work for the Coast Guard, as well.  This included some minor maintenance to their Point Reyes array, including cleaning the insulators on their towers’ guy wires.  The salt from the ocean spray sticks to the insulators, reducing radio efficiency.  So, we first washed them with a big water truck and a high-powered sprayer.  Then, we needed to put a special grease on the insulators to repel the salt.  This meant getting to the insulators.  This is where things just get freaky.  To do this, you climb to the top of the tower, put a pulley wheel and boson’s seat on the guy wire…and ride it down the wire.  Out into space.  You get to the first insulator, and grease it.  And then on to the next insulator.  Further out into space.  All the way to the bottom.  On all nine guy wires.  I don’t need to do that more than once.

We did several other odd jobs in the Bay Area.  Including running 4” oval coax radio cable up a high-rise for the San Francisco State University’s public radio station.  We lived in South San Francisco…Oyster Point…on an old tugboat wharf, today a biotech mecca.  The smell of creosote still takes me back there.  Gigi and I shared a small Airstream trailer; Greg lived in style with his girlfriend.  Gigi and I painted half the towers on Mt. San Bruno one year, overlooking San Francisco Airport.  It was a cold job.  The summers brought in fog every day, making it not only frigid, but making the tower wet, as well.  It was slippery business.  We had fun, though.  These towers are self-standing, meaning they are wide open down the center, the whole way.  For kicks, we’d climb to the top, run a rope down the middle, and go for a wild rappel 300 feet down.  We’d scream down the first 200 feet, and then pull hard on the rope to get our friction devices to slow us before we hit bottom.  The frayed polypropylene rope would melt in our gloves as we held on tight for dear life.

One of my best experiences was replacing a tower for the Coast Guard on Point Sur.  Point Sur was for many years an active lighthouse; it’s a State Park now.  It was, by the time we got there, abandoned.  It has living quarters, outbuildings, and, of course, a lighthouse.  And we had access to it all.  Just Gigi and me.  The lighthouse was magnificent.  The light was fully intact.  Dozens of carefully curved prisms focused a carbon rod light far out to sea.  It no longer worked, but it was fantastic…just sitting in it on a sunny day…just the same.

The station did still have its foghorn.  It sounded off twice every thirty seconds.  All foghorns have different intervals of sounding off so you can tell which foghorn you are near.  It was unnerving for about three days, and then you didn’t notice it.  Until you got close to it.  Every day we needed to turn off the power to the tower we were replacing.  The switch was in the lighthouse.  The foghorn was 20 feet away from the door to the lighthouse.  Point Sur is basically a big rock.  The whole facility is built on one side of the rock or another.  There are roughly 200 steps between the top of the rock where the tower was and the lighthouse.  The game was to wait until the foghorn went off, run as fast as you could down the stairs, open the lighthouse door with the sticky key and lock, and get the door closed before the foghorn went off again.  You DID NOT want to be outside when the foghorn went off.  There was barely enough time to pull this off; we were a little late once.

We tore down the old tower, one piece at a time, and erected a monopole tower, like a really tall flagpole.  We put in a new grounding system, which all radio towers need.  And had fun.  Just down the road was Fernwood.  Every weekend they had live bluegrass.  And we’d dance with tourists.  The Navy had a submarine listening base right next to Point Sur, so we made friends with sailors.  The locals were pretty cool.

The best was Kure Atoll.  I left high school two weeks early to go on this trip; no prom; no graduation.  And I didn’t care.  Kure is the last island in the Hawaiian chain; on one end is the island of Hawaii, on the other end is Kure.  Kure Atoll is 1,500 miles northwest of Oahu and 50 miles past Midway.  The International Dateline is 100 miles to the west; from the top of the tower, you could see tomorrow.  The atoll is six miles across and is what remains of a sunken volcanic caldera.  Kure is the oldest volcano in the Hawaiian chain; the island of Hawaii is the youngest.  On the leeward side is Green Island.  It’s really just a large sandbar: a ¼ mile wide and a ½ mile long.  Kure Atoll is now a wildlife refuge, and most can’t go there anymore.  Oddly, with no population, it is officially part of the City and County of Honolulu.

When I went there, it was run by the Coast Guard.   (NOAA now manages it.) At the edge and inside of the atoll sits Green Island, which then had a small Coast Guard base, a short runway, and a 660-foot LORAN navigation tower.  Green Island is the home of several hundred thousand ocean birds that come to this island from their home at sea every five to seven years to have their chicks.  There’s a bird nest every few feet, chicks in every nest, sometimes covering large areas you had to walk around.  Frigates with their bright red gullets.  Blue-Footed Boobies.  Boson birds that use their long red tails as lures to bring fish to the surface.

And albatross.  Huge birds.  Eight-foot wingspans.  They spend seven years at sea and then come into land to have their young.  Watching them fly is amazing.  To find food, they fly about a foot over the water, using the back-pressure from the air off their wings to float on.  They then drop one wingtip just barely in the water.  When a fish comes up thinking the wingtip is food, the huge bird does a quick back flip, dives, and comes up with a fish.  They walk around just fine, too.  Landing is a different story.  They spend very little time on land, and they are used to water landings.  So, to depart flight, they come in over land, approaching the nest, beautiful, majestic, like nothing man could ever reproduce to fly.  Then the feet go down, the final approach, the feet touch down…and head-over-heals they go.  Albatross face plants aren’t just common; they’re normal.  Then they quickly stand, shake their feathers smooth, and walk to the nest pretending nothing ever happened, as if no one noticed.

Frigates are less delicate when they feed.  They’re lovely birds.  Jet black.  The males have large gullets under their beaks that inflate, and are bright red; this is to attract the females.  Frigates feed by harassing the albatrosses.  Six or seven frigates will pursue an albatross high in the air.  They dive at the albatross, pecking at it with their beaks.  They will do this for a mile or more.  Eventually, the albatross gets sick and throws up.   The frigates then dive at the regurgitated food, scooping it up in mid-air as the day’s meal.  Gross, but that’s Nature.

We had evenings and Sundays off.  I’d spend every free moment in the water.  These were pristine tropical waters, untouched by man.  The Coast Guard crew refused to go in the water, being afraid of the sharks.  But there were endless miles of shallow reef, where the sharks were small, six to eight feet, and harmless.  White-tip and Black-tip.  I can’t even begin to describe the colors of the fish.  Everything.  Iridescent.  Camouflaged. Stripped. Fluorescent. And in huge masses.  You could be snorkeling in a long, narrow opening, and several thousand fish, all the same, all brightly colored, would swim past, engulfing you.  Parrot fish.  Moray eels.  Surreal urchins and starfish.  And langouste: clawless lobsters.  Three feet long, plus antenna.  I’d go fishing for them, bring them to the cook, and he’d serve them to me for dinner on a bed of rice and vegetables.  Night diving was interesting.

There was inside the reef, which was shallow, and outside the reef, in the open ocean, which got deep fast.  The creatures were different inside and outside.  The fish were bigger outside, much bigger!  I dove down about ten feet one day to look at some pencil urchins.  Suddenly, I noticed a shadow covering me.  I rolled over and saw a ten-foot manta ray sailing by.  These mantas were amazing.  From the tower, you could see schools of them, seven or eight.  They would jump out of the water, catching about four feet of air, and then smoothly dive back into the water.  I took up sailing the Coast Guard’s small Sunfish.  It was a lot of fun.  I dragged it outside the reef one day and was catching a nice breeze.  Below me, I saw a 30-foot monster swimming beneath.  I quietly went ashore; I don’t need to know what that was.

To get to Kure Atoll, you fly to Honolulu, and then take a Coast Guard C-130 to the island.  A C-130 is a common transport plane used by the military.  It’s a STOL…short take-off and landing.  It’s the only thing that can land supplies on the Kure runway.  We were told that only one C-130 had failed to stop before the runway ran out, but they gave us instructions on what to do if the plane ended up in the water, anyway.  C-130s are huge planes, and hold a sizeable payload.  On board with us were supplies for the Coast Guardsmen at Kure.  This plane was so big we played Frisbee inside, in mid-air.

Taking-off: no problem.  Flying: no problem.  Landing: interesting.  First, the Coast Guardsmen on Green Island would drive a pick-up truck around wildly on the runway to chase the birds off, a weekly event; can’t have them getting sucked up into the turbine engines.  Then the plane comes in low, touches down at the very tip of the runway, as the pilot reverses the pitch on the props so they blow air forward, guns the engines full-blast, and hammers the brakes.  This is really, really loud.  And you sit sideways, on the edge of the fuselage, so everyone is leaning toward the nose.  We were greeted with cheers, in part because we all had long hair, which was considered very cool.  The cargo was off-loaded, and the C-130 taxied to the far end of the runway.  The chicks lined up behind the plane.  They would get in the windy prop wash, spread their wings, make a small jump up, fly backward, and do it all again.  Practicing flight.  Too cute.

Kure Atoll is one of the few homes to the Monk Seal.  There are only about 1,200 in existence.  They weigh 600 pounds and are 8 feet long.  It was pupping season while we were there, and you could get pretty close to the little guys, as they had not learned to be afraid of humans.  I was out with the medic one night, just walking around the island.  The medic was the only man on the base that didn’t have to live in the general quarters.  He lived in a hut on the beach.  We were headed to his hut, at night, and I was walking backward on the beach to talk to him.  Suddenly, I fell backward over a log.  I laughed, looked up, and saw this 600-pound log coming my way.  This log was a seal; I had woken him up, and he was pissed.  It’s interesting just how fast you can move backward digging hands and feet into the sand.

The tower we worked on needed new paint, and every single bolt needed to be loosened and re-torqued.  First, the bolts.  We took a wire brush to them all to get the rust off…hundreds of them.  Then we re-torqued them.  This tower was bolted together with 2 ½ inch nuts.  Working with them required a five-foot torque wrench.  The bolts on the inside of the tower were pretty straight forward; loosen them one-by-one; set the torque wrench, and re-tighten them.  The other half of the bolts were on the outside of the tower.  These were more challenging.  Frozen with rust, you would put the wrench on the bolts, put your feet well up the tower while standing on the outside, and pull as hard as you could.  And then, suddenly, they’d pop loose.  You were tied to the tower, so you weren’t going far.  And you learned pretty fast how to keep from slipping loose and crashing.  Then, one-by-one, you’d reverse the wrench, pull as hard as you can, and then, pop, the torque wrench would snap as it hit its assigned setting.  We started at the top, and worked our way down.  By the way, it takes 45 minutes, if you’re in excellent shape, to climb a 660-foot tower. Another lovely commute.

Then the paint.  Orange and white.  This was a 4’x 4’x 4’ guyed tower, so you climbed safely up the middle.  Everything went well down to about 400 feet.  Then I dropped a full, five-gallon bucket of orange paint, inside the tower.  I thought for sure it would hit something and kick out from the tower.  But no.  This bucket of paint went all the way down the middle of the tower, slamming into the insulator at the bottom…and exploding.  Fortunately, I stayed on the tower, and they sent up more paint, while my boss cooled down.  At the end of the day, I had to descend and look at my damage.  Orange paint everywhere.  Most of it we were going to paint over, anyway, but a lot of it covered everything at the bottom in small specks for about 30 yards.  I felt dreadful about the birds; just little specks, but I felt awful just the same.

A couple of more days in the water, and the C-130 returned for us.  Then back to the mainland, and the end of being a steeplejack for me.  My boss returned to Nebraska, and I went home to go to school at College of Marin.  I still want to climb towers, though.  Those 1,500 footers call to me.

Bob Hansen

Copyright – Robert W. Hansen – 2012

Image Attributions: Kure Atoll 1, Albatross chicks, Parrot Fish

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