Hanging Around (6/9/11)
One of the few remaining steeplejacks his helping restore a prominent local steeple
by Eric Johnson
Fred Franklin is a steeplejack, a last of his kind-type of guy who makes his living dangling from a rope high above the ground. So high, in fact, that you probably haven’t even noticed him climbing around up on the First Christian Church steeple. You should check him out, though. Go to the corner of 7th and Greene and just look up.
He’s been up there pressure washing and painting for a couple of weeks now. Just him and his ropes and his belt full of jangle.
“I use a bosun’s chair,” he says. “I do it pretty traditionally, the way it’s always been done.”
A bosun’s chair is basically a sling used to support someone suspended from a rope.
“I use modern climbing rope that’s rated at 10,000 pounds,” he says. “A lot of times I’ll just fasten a ladder to the steeple and I can go up and down the ladder and I’ve got positioning ropes out there. I’ll hook on to that with my bosun’s chair and then I can just move around it laterally to where I want to go.”
Simple as that. Fasten a ladder to a steeple and climb. When you hang for a living, you get to know your rope, andFranklinknows the maker of his rope personally — Smokey Caldwell fromPigeon Mountain,Georgia.
An old caving buddy, Caldwell used to take a piece of rope and hang it from a tree for five years, then put it on a hydraulic stretcher to see how it stood up to the elements.
“A rope is rated at 10,000 pounds,”Franklinsays. “The working weight is 3,000 pounds and it broke at 7,000 pounds. My truck weighs 7,000 pounds.”
Just because a rope’s rated strong doesn’t mean there’s no danger, though. The O’Neills, the three-generation steeplejack family who worked on the steeple the last time around, were undoubtedly confident about their rope, too, but working down in Savannah after the First Christian steeple was painted about 15 years ago, a rope broke and one of the brothers died.
Franklindoesn’t think much about stuff like that. Distractions aren’t welcome climbing buddies.
“I’ve had a few days when I’ve been out with the guys the night before or I’ve been real stressed and go to work and I can’t get my mind focused and I just say, ‘I’m not working today,’” he says. “If I’ve got problems that are unresolved to the point where I can’t work, I need to get them resolved and then come back.”
So far, the First Christian steeple has gone smoothly, though every day is a little different and every steeple requires its own plan of attack.
Initially, he slid a rope out from an opening between the shingles.
“I slide a rope out and then I use ascenders and climb up that single rope,” he says. “Then I can go up and I’ve got a pole and I tie a slipknot on a bite. I’ll get my pole and I’ll push it up and choke it off to the top of the steeple and then I’ll climb up that and then I’ll wrap it with carpet and about three wraps of rope and I’ll put some steel carabiners on that. That’s my rigging point to the top of the steeple.”
Nila Wicker, First Christian’s chair of restoration, anticipates the total steeple project will cost approximately $100,000. To help finance the steeple and the work still to be done on the manse, Wicker says they’ve reopened their antique store to the public Fridays and Saturdays.
“We’re finding ways to find it,” she says of the restoration money.
Franklin, who lives in Covington, Georgia, and has worked the Southeast from Memphis to Florida, used to do high rise work in Atlanta back in the 1990s, mostly at CNN Center and the Omni. Light shows. Hanging banners. Window washing. Just about anything off the ground.
After seven years he left that job to branch out on his own. His first job — preparing anAtlantasteeple on the marathon route for its international close-up during the 1996 Summer Olympics.
“That was about 15 years ago and since then I’ve probably worked on about 40 steeples,” he says.
He’s also worked onSacredHeartCulturalCenterandSpringfieldBaptistChurchhere inAugusta.
Because scaffolding is expensive and cranes are rented by the hour,Franklinis often the most cost-effective way to work on steeples, and though he’s slow, he’s deliberate, which can make the difference.
“That’s kind of my niche,” he says. “I can do it off of ropes and lower my overhead and take the time to do it right.”
Rushing can mean outpacing the products you’re using, he says, which can weaken them and cripple the project. The Kevlar reinforced elastomeric coating he’s putting on now, he says, expands and contracts with the heat, which is good, but it’s got to be put on correctly.
As for the near-misses and close calls you’d expect from a job like this,Franklinsays he’s been pretty lucky, though he has had a reoccurring battle with bees.
“Sometimes there will be thousands of them,” he says. “There must be something about the shape of the steeple that attracts them.”
And those are the ones that are just there buzzing around. Occasionally, he’ll come across a nest, like the time he hit one with his pressure washer.
“I saw them all come out and I just pushed off and turned my pressure washer off and spun around,” he says. “There were some ladies down below watching, and when I pushed out, they thought I was falling.”
See what you miss when you don’t look up?