In the Trenches: The Widowmaker

I remember cranking that hand crank and swinging the old ladder boom from over the front of the truck to over the rear, where I intended to line it up above a hole I had dug and the end of a sign pole I was going to lift and set. But I was looking over my shoulder to where it was going, and not at all at where it was in its swing… until an odd feeling of dread, a really odd feeling, and some unspoken admonition told this careless young sign man to look up… and look up now!

Immediately I stopped my cranking, then clearly saw that the business end of that old ladder boom was about a foot from an un-insulated electric line, a line which very likely carried enough power to fry me on the spot, and I hadn’t even noticed until that second, almost my last second on this earth.

I fussed at myself, and thought hard about what nearly happened… for about two minutes then went back to work. When you’re as dumb as I was in those early days it takes a whole lot to make an impression.

The rusty old cables that manually operated every function of my original old boom truck, had not made an impression on me either. I am sure I pulled it out of retirement and saved it from the scrap heap, sparing the hand fabricated 35-foot ladder boom, and the 1952 Dodge 1.5-ton truck it sat on.

A smarter guy would have checked every moving part on it, replaced every inch of cable, cleaned, greased and serviced it, and made sure that old workhorse could still be trusted. Me?  I just replaced a gas tank that was full of rust, dropped in a new battery, and went to work. After all, at 22 years of age I was Superman. What could possibly go wrong?

Sharon believed I was Superman, too. It was either that or go nuts. But I’m sure my dear mother saw what I was making my living with and prayed that much harder.

I learned a few lessons from that old sign rig, and lived to tell the tale (but I guess you knew that part already). I learned there are consequences for not doing your homework, and the consequence for not replacing the lifting cable, which looked like original equipment, I still remember.

A customer pestered me for two days to come out and lift a brand new commercial A/C compressor to the top of a two story building. Built like a V-8 engine, and weighing over 700 pounds, it was a lot for that little rig. When that lifting cable broke, and it fell 20 feet back into the bed of the truck that brought it, that expensive chunk of cast iron cracked internally. I lost a couple of month’s wages on that occasion… but I knew it could have been worse.

Except for being seriously neglected, my old ladder boom was really amazingly well made. It rotated by a hand cranked worm gear, and the rest of the mechanics involved three cable winches, one for lifting, one for extending the boom, and one which forced upward a heavy duty steel shaft, serving as a hydraulic ram and raising the boom itself. A single handle was moved from one to the other as the function went from raising, extending, lifting and rotating.

But age matters, especially when it comes to rusty, frayed cables. If the cable that lifted that shaft and raised the whole boom happened to fail when I was out on the ladder, well my life wouldn’t be worth much. And eventually it did.

There had been hundreds of opportunities to send Superman flying into the life after this one, but when it finally let go I was sitting way out there in the worst possible place, but levitated only a little above a sloped metal mansard. That old boom, and the moron sitting on it, free fell… about six inches. Any other time, on any other job, and these many “Trenches” columns I’ve written would have come from someone else’s “trenches.”

As you might suppose, there are a couple of morals to the true story I’ve just told, and they’re not hard to figure out. The first one is to always be diligent and responsible, and inspect and service any piece of equipment that holds the ticket to life and death, even if it is just the brakes and tires on your own pickup truck.

And the second one is to do your best to choose your parents well, for I am pretty certain the prayers of my dear sweet mother are about the only reasons I’ve survived to be even a day older and a little bit wiser, and I am awfully thankful for them.


Rick Williams

Rick Williams owns Rick's Sign Company, a commercial sign shop in Longview, Texas. He has been in the sign industry since 1973 and has been a contributing editor to Sign Business, Sign & Digital Graphics, and GRAPHICS PRO since 1986. Contact Rick via email at ricksignco@aol.com.

View all articles by Rick Williams   Visit Website

Related Articles

Back to top button