Laura Montagano served as a Petty Officer, Second Class, Electronics Technician and specialist in surveillance radar and precision approach radar gear, Laura served from 1985 to 1993 in the United States Navy. This aviation-centered field led to assignments on many airfields and occasionally on tender or service ships. Laura loved everything about the field of Aviation which included the joy of learning to become a pilot herself, spending time with Search and Rescue crews off Bermuda and NASA satellite tracking stations that monitored and communicated with Shuttle flights and recoveries. After the Navy, Laura spent 25 years in the engineering field in Jacksonville, Florida and has recently relocated to Wilmington to work in the Office of Student Success and complete the Graphic Design program at CFCC.
I hopped out of the Chevy S10 after the long, two-hour drive to the tower site. It seemed like a very long time alone with my thoughts …anticipating my first solo climb. Even the anticipation of what an enlistment into the Navy might bring years ago had not prepared me for this task. And it was a gritty task on a not-even-sunrise-yet Florida morning. Alone at a remote Earth Station tower… alone. I had played the radio loud trying to drown out my thoughts.
The humidity of the summer in Florida made a mist hang in the air and when you exhaled, it almost looked like a frosty cold breath, but it was 80 degrees even at 5am. The humidity overnight had made everything soaking wet, through and through and my boots squished through the leaves and mud as I took tools and gear out of the bed of the truck and over to the bottom of the 190’ tower. I put a few tools and fittings in a pouch that I clipped to the harness and lanyard belt used for tying off as I climbed up the tower. The sound of the metal fittings on the lanyard and harness seemed to echo in the stillness as they clanged when I walked. In a time way before cell phones were so affordable and available, the only communication we had on a climb was an ancient satellite phone the size of a toaster if something went bad. I hooked that case to a carabiner on the other side of my safety harness.
I glanced up at the microwave dish that was the troublemaker this time. Strong storms over the weekend had likely shifted it off its alignment causing the reception complaint. Each dish, although looking tiny from the ground, was taller than me and the only way to get it to move was to hold onto a bar above it, swing my body and kick it back into the correct position. I glanced up again to check for vultures, osprey and eagles who sometimes made nests at the top of the tower and could be cranky if their nests were approached. No one was around today, just me, the insects and my racing heart. It promised to be a real scorcher because the cicadas were already singing their sweet song of Hades at 6am.
I opened a step ladder up at the base of the tower to get to the first crossbar at the bottom because I was too short to reach the first spot to put your foot on to begin your climb. In the days before Uber-safety existed where everyone is warned repeatedly not to do stupid things, there were no safety restrictions except don’t drink before climbing. There were no safety devices beyond your double lanyard and harness and your hard hat…except maybe your wits.
The double lanyard system was designed so a person could have one side clipped to the tower at all times as they scaled the tower. If you slipped or lost your grip, it would surely be very uncomfortable, possibly bruising you badly as you dangled like a yoyo, but you were more likely to survive a mistake. Mistakes did happen and the community that climbed spread the story quicker than social media can do now. Awful, and permanent, sad news.
The segment of folks that climbed 100% of their time, unlike me who climbed only a couple times a month normally were a rare breed. They looked at climbing a 200 foot tower with no more concern than driving to work in the morning even though there was the very real possibility of a career cut very short. This young and tanned tribe was wild, doing a job most would never consider full time, if ever. They often traveled continually all over the country, migrating to wherever the work was at the time. Increasingly, companies were willing to pay these contractors to do the work instead of dealing with the insurance and risk to their own employees so they became valued specialists. This kind of a living did not mesh well with a stable family life, so it was rare that there was much of normal family life for most climbers leading to late nights of lonely encounters and hung-over climbs at sunrise. The first time I heard about a “bounce,” it devastated me. The next hurt a little less, and I began to convince myself that it really didn’t happen just so I could get out of the pickup truck and put my harness on. I made many friends in this group, but learned not to get too close for obvious reasons and they knew it. I saw a different version of the same look in my friends’ eyes when they understood what my job entailed at times.
Being 5’3” did not allow me to use the double-lanyard system as it was designed. The Rohn brand of guy-wire-supported towers that we climbed had steel tubes spread too far away for my short legs to clip onto, so I free-climbed meaning that most of the time, I was not tied to anything. These days, no one free-climbs, you use a ladder welded to the side of the tower with a leash that follows you up and down the tower and if you fall, a graduated stopping release slows you down and keeps you from falling too far. I had no choice but to free climb… except not to climb at all and that was not my choice.
As I got to about 70’, I took a break and enjoyed just the tiniest tease of a hot breeze coming from the direction of the Atlantic Ocean. I clipped off to the tower and sat back in my harness like a swing to rest my legs a minute which were burning from the climb. I brushed ashes off of my shirt and stretched my back- the paper plant up north burned at the times they thought the public would least notice and it was that time. I swatted at wasps that had made a nest in the crossbars of the tube metal. They were not used to visitors and let me know they didn’t approve. As I was just below the tree line, I could still start to see across the fields of this small town and into the next…cows, barns, trailers, fields of crops in full growth spurt, a few farmers. Four wild boar rooted around in a shaded area about 500 feet away from the tower or lay flattened in the shade snuffling contently. I would be able to see for miles in the cooler parts of the seasons because Florida is as flat as a pancake, but haze was all that could be seen today past about 5 miles.
I mopped my face and took a small gulp of water to catch my breath for a while. I didn’t linger, though because the sun was coming up and, in an hour, it would feel like the surface of Mars. I glanced up to see if any outward signs of an issue with the dish was obvious and saw a scorch line across the bottom of the dish where I guessed lightning from the storm had hit the tower per usual. Towers were, by far, usually the tallest objects for many miles. I sighed and thought, it might be an easy day after all, a quick fix then back into some air conditioning.
Clipping on wherever I could, as I got up to the side of the dish, I took another break, the one I always looked forward to on a climb. The one from the very top. I could hear in the distance people rising and heading to work or school, just muffled mumbles in the distance. Maybe they were saying “have a good day at school” or “don’t forget to pick up something at the grocery store”- ordinary things. They would never know I was up here enjoying their morning routine. A real breeze existed over 100 feet and I enjoyed it for awhile, feeling it blow through my hair that wasn’t tucked under my hard hat and drying my sweat-soaked shirt some, cooling me off. Looking north, the haze wasn’t so bad, and I could see into Georgia. The wind was blowing hard enough to tickle the hairs on my arms and I sucked in deep breaths for a bit and closed my eyes, relaxing. All the nervousness from earlier was gone as I watched the sun rise like a ball of molten lava in the east. that stuck to the tower metal out of my boot treads regularly so as not to slip.
By Laura Matagano, United States Navy