Drama Creative Nonfiction

The customer was skeptical of my competence, I could sense as much, and I suspected it was because she was shrewd and observant. This was the kind of sign job that I had little prior experience with, but I was determined to prove her fears unfounded, and assured her I would have her sign illuminated before the end of the day. I went back outside, a touch annoyed by her acumen, and proceeded to move the bucket truck into a position to access the sign panel.

By my standards, it was a large and expensive sign, double-faced, with two, 3-foot by 8-foot pan-faced Lexan panels in an internally illuminated steel and aluminum cabinet, twelve to fifteen feet above the ground and welded to a one-quarter-inch-thick steel pole that was 8 inches in diameter. The pole was cemented into the ground with about two-thousand pounds of concrete (or more) embedded in a concrete pylon that protected the pole from careless drivers. All in all, it represented a substantial bit of advertising hardware. The Lexan sign-panels were worth about 800 dollars each and probably weighed about 45 pounds, but I didn’t have to remove them. I merely had to unscrew a bracket and side-panel on the cabinet, and then slide one of the sign panels out a foot or two so I could access the ballast, an electronic junction-box that routes electricity to various fluorescent lights. I already confirmed that the bulbs were not blown, so it was a foregone conclusion that the sign required a new ballast.

I planned to open the sign’s cabinet, get the part number on the bad ballast, return with a replacement later that day, and switch the two parts out. Due to the novelty of operating a newly purchased, but very old, used bucket truck, I approached the job with a false sense of confidence, telling my assistant, Bridgette, “I’ll just back the truck up parallel to the faces so I can remove the retaining strip and pull the face out without having to move the bucket all over the place.”

She had a skeptical look on her face too. As if she knew there was a way I could fuck this up. “You want me to come up there with you?”

“No.” I shook my head, and told her it’d be better that she stayed on the ground in case I dropped something. She looked disappointed.

‘It’s not a carnival ride,’ I thought, but I didn’t say that. I understood her feelings. She would have nothing to do while I was up in the bucket fiddling around. ‘So she has to chill’ I thought. ‘So what?’

I climbed into the bucket through its one open side, checked my surroundings, and began my slow ascent to the sign, a process that defied gravity and afforded me a unique perspective on the parking lot, my assistant and the bucket truck itself.

The truck was about thirty-years old and I paid less than 700 dollars for the crazy thing in a silent auction; a sky-blue, rust-o-rama, Franken-truck, that weighed more than 5-tons. The boom lift itself telescoped out, rather than scissoring like some bucket lifts, and the mechanism was hydraulic, and that meant that the engine had to be running for the boom to work. Without power, nothing moves, in, out, up, or down. The three-levered controls for the boom were right next to the bucket. Swing left or right, go in or out, and up or down: One for each. What could be simpler?

Since the truck was so heavy, I didn’t need to deploy outriggers, extendable feet that give the rig stability. Good thing too, because it didn’t come with any.

These are the kinds of things you think about when sitting in a bucket, waiting for it to extend. It bounces up and down as you go, jerking you back and forth, so it is a bit like a carnival ride. I swung it in low towards the bottom of the sign, thinking I would remove the lower screws first, and then, ‘well, I guess I will have to raise the boom at least twice, to remove and replace the upper screws in the panel retainer.’

I should have been paying more attention to the boom and the sign because, while I was thinking of all this other stuff, the control lever to extend the boom got caught in the outward position underneath the sign cabinet. Simultaneously, the lever to lower the boom was rendered useless as well because it bumped into the sign face before it could engage its proper function. It would only come toward me, an action that would raise the boom, not lower it.

This was a dangerous situation and my first concern was keeping my hands from getting crushed, the last lever I could use was the rotator, but as I watched and did nothing, it too became encumbered as the boom continued to extend until it came up against the pole. As I said, an eight-inch circular pole of hardened steel.

The old truck wheezed once, then continued chugging, the boom creaked, and then to my horror, it began to bend the pole.

I screamed at my assistant Bridgette, to kill the engine in the truck.

“What?” She yelled.

“Turn the key off!” I screamed. “Turn the key off!” Luckily, the driver’s side door was already open and she was standing right next to it. She hopped into the cab and turned the key, killing the engine in a matter of seconds.

And there I stood, fifteen feet up, twelve feet out from the truck, inches from the sign, and—suddenly possessed with the clear understanding, that this old truck’s hydraulics would bend or snap that eight-inch steel pipe like a plastic straw in another 15 or 20 seconds. Jesus, what a sound that would make. That’d be something for the six o’clock news.

Naturally, Bridgette immediately wanted to know what we should do. I shook my head. I could barely think.

“You want me to restart the truck?”

“No, no, no, no, no. Don’t do that,” I said. The panic in my voice scared me worse than it did her.

I surveyed the controls. The levers were connected to rods, the rods ran down the boom, and went where? To a set of valves. I’d inspected the truck superficially, to check for fluid leaks, and as far as I was concerned, I never wanted to disconnect anything from anywhere. The boom was lodged between the sign cabinet and the pole, jammed up against a steel collar that welded the sign to the pole. No damage had been done to anything, yet. Bridgette hollered up at me. “Why don’t we let some air out of the tires?”

It was a great idea, I had to admit, and I hadn’t even thought of it, but this truck had dual rear tires, they were huge, and dangerous, and though I may have wanted to kill Bridgette a few times in the coming months, I didn’t know it yet, and was inclined to keep her alive for the time being, and in one piece. Another way to put it is this: I wouldn’t fuck with those tires under any circumstances, and I didn’t really think it would work anyway, so I told her no. Too dangerous.

The control levers were six inches long. I didn’t need a crash course in algebra to know that I needed at least seven inches of clearance to free that lever from under the sign.

I thought about climbing down to the ground, to inspect the situation from a different angle, but I hadn’t brought a ladder, I didn’t need a ladder, I had a bucket truck, and even in my nimble condition, it was a dangerous leap down to an asphalt parking lot, and the controls were near the bucket. So eventually I’d have to figure out how to get back up into the bucket from the ground.

I knew that as soon as the engine was started, the boom would resume extending, stressing a pole that was already, and quite incredibly, beginning to bend. And, for some reason I recalled an oft-quoted phrase, perhaps incorrectly but… ‘Give me a fulcrum and a lever long enough, and I could move the world.’

I was never good at math, so I don’t know who said it or why, but I knew what it meant, and I knew I was at the end of the lever, as far from the fulcrum as could be. ‘If I could move the world just a few inches,’ I thought, ‘the other end of the lever would travel quite a distance. Wouldn’t it?’

I looked around the parking lot from my perch in the bucket, but found my salvation in the bed of the truck. Two short pieces of 2 by 4 boards. I directed Bridgette to grab those two boards.

She snatched them from the truck, and, misreading my intention, she hollered up at me. “One under each tire?”

“No.” I said, very patiently now, because she was going to be crucial to the operation. I asked her which way the trucks front tires were turned, if at all. With that information, I told her to stack both boards on top of each other and to shove them in front of the right front wheel, the furthest tire from me, in the bucket. She did as instructed and returned to a spot where I could see her.

“It’s only gonna go up three inches, you know.”  

“Yeah, I know,” I said. Two by fours are only one-and-a-half inches thick.

It may be difficult to appreciate the danger I was in, the forces involved, the extent of my dilemma without being in the bucket with me. Eight-inch steel pipes do not bend very much, or far, or for long. A sign like the one I was about to break would cost about ten-thousand dollars. I might as well close my business after this fiasco.

My assistant roused me from my doom-laden thoughts with a simple question. “Okay. What now?”

Again, I want to give credit where credit is due, because this girl, my assistant, could drive—anything, and often drove like a maniac. And she was fearless. I said, “Hop in the truck and leave the parking brake on, but put the truck in first gear.”

“Uh-huh. And then?”

I suggested that she do that first, and she did. She returned to her previous location. “Now what?” She said, with a positive gleam in her eye.

“Okay. You’ll have to push in the clutch, turn the key, start the engine and let the clutch out, all in rapid succession.”

She stared up at me. “Yeah? What about the parking brake?”

Christ, it was a good thing she was thinking. She had to release the brake, turn the key, fully release the clutch, and stomp on the brake and the clutch as soon as everything moved.

“That’s right,” I said. “I almost forgot. Then stomp on the brake. I don’t want to go more than a foot, but you gotta go at least six inches. Think you can do it?”

She said, “You wanna get the front tire up on the boards?”

I nodded. She understood my intent, if not my reasoning. “Okay. Sure.” She hollered up at me. “If that’s what you want.”

“That’s what I want,” I said.

“I don’t see how that’s gonna help but… you ready?”

“No.” I hollered down at her. Perfectly petrified. “No. Wait a minute.” I looked around. It was amazing how anonymous we were. Two dopes, in broad daylight, farting around with a bucket truck and a sign. Trucks and buses passing by on the street. People pulling up in their cars, parking, getting out and going into a nearby store, hardly giving us a glance. All oblivious to our little drama, my career, my business, my truck, and my reputation circling the drain. Even the customer was unaware of our predicament. But I believed in my theory. The truck had a four-speed stick, on the floor, a top end of 53 miles an hour, a low speed, high compression engine and it would buck itself down the road rather than stall. I really believed it would work and changed my mind. It had to work. “Okay,” I said. “You’ve got to be fast, Bridgette. Release the brake. Turn the key, when the engine catches, dump the clutch, when she lurches forward, step on the brake and the clutch at the same time. You got all that?”

“Yes, sir.” She said, and saluted me. I think she was prepared to see me go down with the ship, come what may. I did not return the salute. I was not in a humorous mood.

She was in the cab of the truck so fast, it almost caught me off-guard, but she paused and got out again, standing on the running board. “I don’t know what you’re gonna do,” she said, “so I just wanna make sure you’re really ready.”

I surveyed the controls, the curve in the pole, the end of the boom jammed against the pipe’s collar. “Okay,” I muttered.


“Um, yeah, alright,” I said, staring at the control levers without touching them. “I’m ready.”

She darted back into the cab and I heard her say, “Here goes nothing.”

I heard the engine start, and the boom strain as it pushed against the pole and the truck lurched forward with me in the bucket. The end of the boom and the bucket instantly dropped about twelve inches as the right front tire went up three inches onto the wood. It jumped forward too, by about a foot and then stopped, and I was able to flip that handle up and out from under the sign and I could rotate away from the sign as well because she didn’t even stall the engine.

That’s it. That’s how Bridgette and Archimedes saved my ass. Archimedes may have been a genius, but few people on earth can drive like Bridgette. 

June 06, 2024 15:53

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Hazel Ide
00:16 Jun 13, 2024

Bridgette sounds great. This seems different from your usual tone in writing but I really enjoyed it. I was intrigued to the end waiting to see how the MC would get out of that mess!


Ken Cartisano
15:36 Jun 13, 2024

Hi Hazel, Thank you. It's funny how time and distance can change your perspective on things, if not the nature of the events themselves. After I read it, I thought the story would be more intriguing if I started in the middle, flashed back to the beginning, laid out the details of the predicament and then delivered the conclusion--like a lot of good stories. But it would have run afoul of the prompt, which specified no flashbacks, no flash forwards. No flashing at all! What's hard to believe about this story is that I'm as smart as Archimed...


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15:24 Jun 10, 2024

Utterly enthralled and fascinated by this tale! Really had me on the edge of my seat, I'm not even joking! I think because you told it so well and even though there was a lot of technical detail in there, the voice used delivered it entertaingly, I didnt find any of it boring at all! Great Stuff! I'd read more of these adventures! :)


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Darvico Ulmeli
09:29 Jun 08, 2024

I enjoyed the story. Great thinking to save the day.


Ken Cartisano
08:35 Jun 10, 2024

Thanks Darvico.


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Kristi Gott
04:32 Jun 08, 2024

The emotional truth of what the main character experiences comes through clearly and we readers feel the suspense and tension of the dangerous situation. I see from the comments this is a true story and I thought it must be while I was reading it. This story is a reminder of how strong and immersive a true story can be. Excellent writing with those details making me hold my breath knowing how close this was to disaster.


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Trudy Jas
02:56 Jun 07, 2024

Bless the old Greek. :-)


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Mary Bendickson
21:14 Jun 06, 2024

That woman is brilliant!


Ken Cartisano
01:26 Jun 08, 2024

Thanks for giving it a read. I don't think it's that good, but it's true.


Mary Bendickson
02:24 Jun 08, 2024

Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction but maybe not as exciting. Thanks for liking Flooded... It was true, too.


Ken Cartisano
04:10 Jun 08, 2024

I thought so. It was quite matter-of-fact. Which is what hunkering down is all about. Facing the facts. 'That thing is headed right for us, and we ain't goin' anywhere.' What is also accurate in your story is that no one seems to panic. Sure, people clear the shelves, buy water and batteries and canned food. But no one is really frightened of hurricanes... until they've been through a really bad one. I've lived in Florida for decades and experienced many storms, and many close calls. One year we had four major hurricanes hit us in one year....


Mary Bendickson
13:26 Jun 08, 2024

Really heady stuff you went through! That old lady we rode the storm out in was so solidly built we were sure there would be no problems. Naive. Next time we will leave. My youngest son moved to Punta Gorda last summer. Buildings around there are still cleaning up after one two years or so ago. Ida, I think. We have tornados around here. Devastating, but at least it is a path so others can come to your aide. Whereas a hurricane is more universal to the whole area. Stay safe.


Ken Cartisano
22:06 Jun 09, 2024

Mary, It didn't seem that heady, honestly. I believe that a lot of South Florida's housing was/is made of concrete block. Even old and tiny 'row' houses for soldier's families, or railroad workers, which later became lower middle class homes and neighborhoods. Everything was made of block, no matter where you lived. I suppose it's because wooden structures didn't hold up to repeated tropical storms. I recall living in four different homes as a kid, in South Florida, and they were all made of concrete, and we never worried excessively a...


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