Hanging from the Top of the World

ON THE NIGHTS when Paul Taylor goes downtown to change the strobe light atop the antenna on the roof of the IDS building, his wife doesn't sleep. It's been like this for the entire 15 years that he's climbed the antenna. But she's not alone in her fretting. Paul himself thinks about the climb for nights in advance, feeling it in his gut, triggering a kind of mental preparation similar to how athletes prepare for competition. "We're going to do this," he tells himself. "We're going to get it done." But climbing the radio antenna is not a contest. As the IDS Center foreman for Commonwealth Electric, it's his job, and that's how he approaches it.

Electricians do high work all the time. Taylor routinely crawls into a body harness, fastens himself to an eye hook cemented into the roof, ties his tools to his wrists, and leans an arm's length over the rooftop parapet to change the hot halogen bulbs in the crown lights outlining the top of the IDS building. On one of his first high jobs downtown, he climbed out on skyway-level ceiling beams to remove a chandelier cable. That was when former foreman Bill Green began earmarking Taylor as the calm sort, just the right temperament for the strobe job.

In the electrical trade, changing the strobe light qualifies as high work, and then some. The IDS Center remains the tallest building in Minnesota, inching Norwest and First Bank by a foot and a half. The radio antenna looms another 110 feet higher. "It's intimidating, once you get on the antenna," Taylor says.

A 4-foot base surrounds and supports the antenna at the bottom; cables six inches in diameter begin snaking toward the top and impede the climb like so much brush on the face of a rock. The first foot peg, 15 feet from the base of the antenna, is reached by ladder. There Taylor begins "tying on" and "tying off"--the terms for hooking his full-body harness to the arms staggered along the length of the antenna. His hands sweat and his heart pounds from the physical and mental effort. For three days after the climb, his body aches. Dark bruises show up on his thighs from bumping the protruding arms that secure him. "You're tenser on the antenna than when you're doing work on a 20-foot ladder," he says with considerable understatement.

Once he's made it to the top, it isn't a matter of changing a light bulb. The works takes two hours. The glass fixture is about two feet long and shaped like an egg; it opens in half, exposing its working mechanism: a flash tube, a trigger, and a coil secured with tiny screws.

It's the wind that makes the difference. When it blows so hard it plasters the body against the antenna, trying to move upward is pointless. But psychologically, wind of any velocity is always a factor on the antenna. The IDS Center is constructed with a sway of several inches, and the blue steel antenna is even more flexible. "Any slight breeze," Taylor says, "you feel." But the real risks are few: He could slip and the harness could malfunction. So for good reason, the soundness of the structure is routinely checked, and no one but Taylor uses the harness Commonwealth provides.

So far, illusion and imagination have created the scariest moments. The strobe light must be changed when the radio audience is smallest, between midnight and 6 a.m. But several years ago, when the entire head of the antenna needed to be replaced, he worked in daylight from a scaffold he built next to the antenna. Too busy to notice the clouds coming up, he was suddenly engulfed and felt as if he were falling. The antenna itself is bolted down. But that doesn't prevent him from wondering where he'd end up if it ever did tip over. "I think about that every time I'm up there," he says.

When he reaches the top of the antenna, he takes some time to catch his breath, rest his racing pulse, and marvel at the view. It's a soundless world, except for a faint and distant siren on occasion. "You're like a bird," he says. "It's like flying without really flying. You feel the wind. Up there you just have the stars and the lights. It's unbelievable."

From solid ground the idea of the view is compelling. But most electricians who attempt to scale to that height get 20 feet up and turn back. Taylor is one of only three electricians to have ever climbed to the top, and he's never had a second thought. That would be out of character. "Anything I attempted to accomplish," he says, "I knew I was going to do. My father instilled a lot of that in me."

Paul's father was an auto mechanic in England when the war broke out. He didn't have the permit required for selling gasoline, and getting one during the war was impossible. So he left. "He gave up everything he had," Taylor says, "and came here."

As a child in Brooklyn Center, Taylor loved climbing trees in the wooded section behind their house; the taller the better. He remembers how the branches of a 60-footer split into a
Y at the top, forming a kind of easy chair in
the sky. "I'd lean back and sit up there for hours," Taylor says. "There weren't any freeways. I could see Highway 100 and the Mississippi River."

Physically he's still fit for climbing, though at 50 he notices that a pulled muscle doesn't heal as it used to. He skis in the winter to
stay in shape, and in the summer he works up a sweat nightly shooting baskets on his driveway. Even so, he's probably made his final climb up the antenna. He doesn't have the same attitude as when he started. "I was younger," he says. "You really don't think anything is going to happen."

The death of his father four years ago changed his perspective. "When I had a bad day I could go talk to him and I'd feel better," he says. "You lose your grandfather, you lose your dad. You realize your younger years are behind you. After my father, I'm the next to go, if you take the sequence."

Over the years, Taylor's been up the antenna about 15 times without incident. Considering all the other high work he's done, he counts himself fortunate. He believes in timing and luck, and doesn't want to push it. He has family to consider. Every two or three years he visits his relatives in England. His daughters are 28 and 18, and a second grandchild is due in December. "I have a lot of life to live," he says. "I'd like to be sure I stay healthy."

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