Something about the step ladder let me know that I was on the verge of serious injury. It didn’t wobble or creak, but something changed. Maybe it flexed just enough to send the message up through my legs that it would not bear both my weight and that of the 14-foot long, 14-inch tall, 4-inch wide steel beam resting on my chest.
A wooden ramp was supporting one end of the beam… just barely… but I’d had to strain a little when I was on the ground and had picked up one side from the very end. Now, I had several feet of the heavy steel jutting into the air to my left, with the ramp sharing what remained to my right. And the ladder was hinting that I might soon be on the plywood below with the whole thing on top of me.
I’d gotten myself into that position one step at a time, just trying to see how far I could get, planning to be very honest when the next step was too much. The beam had arrived in the morning, and I’d been promised a crew of three or four men the next day to help place it in the interior wall of the old house that I was renovating.
It sat there for a while, next to a huge gash in the ground where the delivery guy had slid it off his truck, and at some point I’d decided to move it. Maybe there was a chance of rain overnight, and the beam was the only thing preventing me from installing the last of the windows that would make the project water tight. Or maybe that’s just the excuse that I remember creating in order to test my limits.
So, I moved the beam.
I was able to lift it, one end at a time, onto dollies (which were small wooden squares with wheels). I laid the beam flat, lashed the dollies to it, and was able to roll it around to the back of the house, stopping to move the lengths of plywood that served as my track on the soft lawn. When the wheels reached the end of one length, I moved the one from the back to the front.
With a bit more difficulty, I was able to lift the beam higher, one end at a time, onto sawhorses next to the hole where the window would go, and I removed the dollies. I’d already built a ramp from the opening to the point nine feet up, or so, where I’d cut out the old framing to accept the new support, and I was able to slide one end of the beam to the starting point.
The ramp had walls to fit the beam, still laying flat, and there was no chance it would slide off. So, I attached a rope to the front of the beam, and using a wall stud as a pulley, I pushed with my right hand while pulling with my left and managed to get the entire length into the house, onto the ramp.
I paused. If I’d really wanted to, I could have installed the window, at this point. But then (I told myself), there would be the risk of breaking it as we hoisted up the beam the next day. Of course, I could also have boarded the window and gone on to something else for the rest of the day.
Or I could flip the beam onto its edge, heave the high end onto the wall next to its intended home, and lift the low end up a series of blocks on the opposite wall, finally sliding the beam into place, bolting it in, and calling my manager to tell him that the rest of the crew needn’t be detoured to my job site the next day.
It was during the first step of the “or” that the high end of the beam shifted off of the ramp. The low end threatened to do the same. And the ladder expressed its doubts.
My muscles were maxed, and it would take a one-chance-only lunge to get the beam back onto the ramp. If I tried to rest it on top of my ladder or carry it down — even if I’d had the strength, and even if the ladder held — it was almost certain that the last inch of the beam on the ramp would slip off. If I tried pulling the beam off to let the low end fall to the floor with some control, I had no guarantee that it wouldn’t pull me down with it.
The only remaining options, then, were to jump well clear of the ladder and let the thing go, fixing (and having a doctor fix) anything that broke as a result or to… see if I could.
Safely off the ladder, with the beam back on the ramp, I spent a good while leaning with my hands on my knees thanking God for sparing me the consequences of my carelessness. Then I took the small step that had become clear once I’d already missed it and fashioned an arch over the ramp so the beam couldn’t fall off again.
I was finishing the weather seal on the last window when my manager came by, half believing, I think, that I’d been joking when I told him on the phone that the beam was fully installed.
Now, the year 2014 is lying here, next to the huge gash that 2013 left in the ground. The easiest thing to do would be to go about our business, preparing for the coming storm, trusting that somebody will have to put supports in the creaky old walls of our society.
I’m not so sure that we’ve got the time to wait, or that there really is anybody, who isn’t already here, coming to help. So, maybe it’s up to us — Rhode Islanders and Americans — to start taking steps. Just to see if we can.