When I was in college I worked as a theater technician. The job was very physical and required me to learn about rigging systems, set construction, and theatrical lighting. As a new employee I was assigned mostly menial work, which involved pulling nails and staples from wood that had previously been used in sets. If the wood was cleaned up properly it could be used again in a new set, without a cutting blade or finger ever encountering a fragment of metal. This was not exciting work, but after a couple of months I had apparently demonstrated enough nail-pulling prowess that I began to do more interesting work, which usually involved maintaining and hanging various lighting instruments.
Part of my theater apprenticeship required me to climb ladders while carrying lighting instruments, then attaching the lights to rails, pipes, and mounts, sometimes dozens of feet in the air, or high up on a catwalk. The ladders we used were not the same kind many of us have in our garages. We had a large wooden A-frame ladder, about 15 feet tall, that was referred to as the "BL", which stood for "big ladder". The BL required two people to move it and one person to remain at the bottom to steady it and spot for the person climbing the ladder. There was another ladder called the "BFL" which was the next size up. It was an A-frame type, close to 20 feet tall, but it was equipped with an adjustable vertical ladder in the middle that could extend another 10-15 feet. It required a team of three people: two people to move the ladder and steady it, and a third person to climb the ladder with whatever payload was required.
I will never forget the first time I climbed the BFL. The ladder team consisted of me as the rookie climber, and Cody and Tyrone, two technicians I had mopped floors with, but did not know very well. My payload was a Berkey Colortran ellipsoidal spotlight that weighed about 20 lbs. In the dim work lighting of the theater I began ascending the ladder rungs, trying my best not to lose my balance or grip, as failure, in this case, would undoubtedly have led to serious injury, or possibly death.
When I finally reached the apex of the A-frame I met face to face with the ladder's greatest charm, a series of vertical rungs that extended straight up into space. Hugging the ladder intimately, if not awkwardly, with a sweaty palm on one hand and an equally sweaty palm gripping the lighting instrument, I eventually reached the top and found I had nothing obvious to hold on to. I froze, with no good path up or down. Far below, I heard a voice from the matte-black darkness of the proscenium. It was Cody.
"Throw one leg over the top and use both legs to hold on."
At first I thought he was kidding, then I realized that I could only attach the light to the rail if I had both hands free. I had a crescent wrench in my back pocket, so I knew there could be no excuse not to complete the task, but cowardice, so I did what he said and swung my leg over the top of the ladder, jamming my shoes between the rungs as best as I could to gain purchase. In nearly the same moment, I felt the top of the ladder move and I began to fall backward. At the time, I was easily 30 feet in the air.
Adrenaline kicked in and everything appeared as though in slow motion. As I fell backward I glanced down at Cody and Tyrone. Their eyes were locked on me, but they didn't appear to be particularly concerned that I was high above them with a good measure of potential energy that was rapidly becoming kinetic. The hardwood surface of the stage was indifferent to my plight, but I was not looking forward to landing on it. Just when I was sure I would fall all the way back, I stopped falling, and quickly realized that the inner-bracket of the ladder, specifically designed to keep the inner ladder attached to the base, had indeed stopped my backward movement.
"There's a little play in it."
Someone, Tyrone this time, had finally offered guidance, which I would have appreciated much more had I been told before I reached the top, but he was right, and there in the air I stayed. With my legs wrapped around the top of the ladder I successfully used my free limbs to attach and connect the light. As I climbed down the ladder, a much easier task now, I felt a sense of personal accomplishment and the beginnings of camaraderie and a forging of trust with my coworkers.
When I mentally review the work experiences I have had throughout my life, I still remember the feeling of falling backward, alone on the ladder. I realize that we don't always need to hold each other up physically, but solid trust relationships reinforce our ability to withstand challenging times and remind us that we can have a safe place to land with each other.