First Day on the Job
Robert G. Sherman
    September 8th 1968 . . . the first day of my thirteenth year it was. A perplexing day I had been waiting for with manly anticipation. Finally I had reached the threshold on the working world. Yes I had held past positions such as lemonade stand vendor, golf caddy and lawn boy to name a few. But today I was going to work with my dad and the other men on the crew. We were roofers.
    A small town in South Dakota needed a new roof on their very tall church. Normally work began soon after sunrise, that morning we started late. A few days earlier a teenage girl had been killed in a fireworks stand explosion. Her untimely funeral was that morning at 10:00 am. As the last of the mourners departed the church, we had been waiting across the street.
    “Ladders up” shouted my father as we prepared to begin. Our large commercial ladders were made of  wood  and could be adjusted to heights from 16 to 28 feet tall. Two ladders were placed against the church wall about 8 feet apart. Next Dad and our foreman Duane confidently scooted up separate ladders. At the top they each installed a metal ladder jack. These scaffolding devices attached to the top rung and a rung two steps lower, thus forming a triangular bracket  securely hanging from the ladder. Then two 8 inch wide wooden planks 12 feet long were carried up and placed straddling between those two ladder jacks. Together they formed a 16 inch wide perch 12 feet long.
    Standing on the ground, neck wrenched looking upward, I watched as Dad and Duane worked in unison. At that young age I don’t believe I fully understood the impact this “Right of Passage” was going to have on the rest of my life.
    After a few minutes my dad yelled down, “Bring up a couple of roof jacks”. Yippie, I grabbed two jacks and peeled for the ladder. Roof jacks are similar to ladder jacks as they form angles to create level surfaces to stand on while working on steep slopes. In this case that level surface was only a single 8 inch wide wooden plank.
    As I scaled that ladder a working man, I only could use one hand to climb the ladder because the other hand was holding the jacks. Each step up there was a moment when I had no hands to hold onto the ladder. The higher I climbed the more that ladder swayed, twisted and creaked. About 12 to 15 feet up the ladder developed a 2 foot sway back and forth, well, maybe it was really more like 1 foot of sway. I thought to myself, while trying to act kool, am I going to die my first trip up the ladder? My visions of becoming the world’s greatest roofer quickly turned to thoughts of falling to my death!
   Approaching the top I offered my payload to Dad’s outreached hand. I think he was chuckling at the look of terror on my whiskerless young face. Without much hesitation I began my decent back to the sanity of earth below.
   Once down I thought, “That wasn’t too bad, I guess I can do it again”. My next trip up was to carry roof shingles.  Shingles are approximately 3 feet long, 1 foot tall and about a quarter-inch thick, each full bundle of roofing weighs 75 to 80 pounds. To begin my dad suggested I only carry one-third of a bundle under my arm. Real roofers carry a full bundle on their shoulder, one hand on the bundle to balance the load, while climbing up the ladder rungs with their free hand. This process is repeated many times per day per crew member.
   As I once again approached the top, things got more difficult. The ladder jacks were right above my head. To get the shingles up onto the planks above I had to grab the top ladder rung and lean way back while stepping up one more rung. Then without dropping my load I had to lift 25 to 30 pounds of roofing one-handed up over my head, depositing them on the planks. Once the shingles were up on the scaffolding I had to position them so they didn’t fall off and hit me on the head while climbing back down.
    After a few more trips the crew had advanced higher, to another scaffolding level. Now after placing the shingles up on the overhead scaffolding, I too had to climb up onto the ladder scaffolding. It’s difficult to describe the fear that I had to overcome at that moment.
    In order to get up onto that ladder scaffolding I had to reach up and grab the metal ladder jack with one hand, the other hand clinching the planks.  Then I had to step off the ladder, feet dangling over twenty feet in the air. By swinging my legs sideways I hooked my heel on the planks and twisted my body up onto that 16 inch wide platform. At this point I am on my knees trying to catch my balance.
    Did I mention we didn’t use any safety ropes or railings, those things just got in the way of work, I later learned.
    Gaining my balance enough to stand up took a few seconds.  The wind swirling around me was great for evaporating some the perspiration oozing out of my pours, but didn’t seem to help at all with me keeping my balance. Ladder swaying, planks bowing and wind a blowing, I felt like I was up there trying to balance on a beach ball. Next I had to bend down, using both hands, pick up the shingles, and lift them up onto the roof jack.  Roof jacks are only half as wide as the more spacious ladder jacks.
    “Keep your balance or die!” was my new motto.
    I remember looking up and seeing my dad casually working above me.  I drew a deep breath, said a quick prayer and got back to work. As I continued to climb up and down every few minutes, this is where things started to get tough. The men had applied enough roofing to require a second level of roof scaffolding. That meant my next trip I had to climb one-handed up the ladder, crawl out onto the ladder scaffolding, then lift the singles up onto the first level of roof scaffolding. After all that, in order to get the shingles up to where the other roofers were working, I had to somehow get up onto the first level of roof scaffolding too.
    The reality of me ever becoming 14 faded away as I prepared myself for my next heart pounding challenge. It was time to test my nerves. After placing the shingles up on the plank I had to grab the corner of the roof jack (which is nailed on with 3 small 1 3/4 inch long roofing nails) with one hand, then grab the plank with my other hand. As I started to lift my feet off the safety of that perch I once again had to swing my legs high enough to catch my heel on the plank above. Twisting and pulling myself up onto the narrow plank took every ounce of strength and balance in my entire body. Did I mention the wind continued to blow and still no safety railings surrounding my eight inch wide job site.  Now I felt like I was trying to work while balancing on a beach ball out on the ledge of a New York skyscraper. As I stood on the plank with nothing but air around me, I bent down to pick up my cargo and lift those stupid shingles up onto the next plank. Thoughts like “Why couldn’t my dad own a shoe store.” were racing through my terror-filled mind.
    For some reason, the higher I got, the more difficult each task seemed.  Occasionally, during a moment of confidence, I would watch the other roofers’ constant effort.  These guys seemed as comfortable as if they were bowling.  Watching them gave me the feeling that I (at least) had a chance of survival.
    After relaxing there a bit, I realized my cozy thoughts were a little premature. Down-climbing this albatross was about all my frayed nerves could take. Most people never experience this kind of fear. As I tried to climb down, I could not see the plank below.  I lowered myself, thinking, “Did I miss that narrow plank?”, “Do I have to go lower?”,  “Should I pull myself back up while I still have the strength?”  Finally, my tip-toes hit pay dirt. That wiggly old plank felt quite stable after dangling in thin air three stories up.
    Struggling to regain my composure, I realized I had to make that onerous move many more times during the next few hours. Soon after six o’clock, my dad commanded the men to wrap up their work and call it a day.
    I headed down and began cleaning up our mess on the ground. After six adrenalin-pumping hours, words can’t describe the relief I felt as we rode home in the old roofing truck.
    I believe my dad was pretty proud that I stuck it out like a real roofer. Hallelujah! I had just survived my first day on the job!