We sipped our fresh-poured Bud Light pints as our eyes met across the table. I could tell our minds were in the same place, one of the only places they’d been for five months. And that place was not this bar.
"We have to do this tonight," I told him. I lit a cigarette and did that thing where you flick the lighter with one hand while your other hand covers the tip of the stick, like how Clint Eastwood would do before he delivers a climactic monologue to a villain. Also, I wasn’t really smoking, nor do I smoke, but it sounds cool to put that detail in here. "It’s time," my friend replied.
We threw some cash on the table and bolted out the front door. It may have actually been two credit cards, and in all likelihood we probably waited for the waitress to bring and return the check, and then politely thanked her, but you get the idea. Out we ran: up Main, down Mulberry, left on Grove, right on Boulevard, and into my apartment to prepare ourselves to do something illegal.
It was May 2007, and since December, a 100-foot-tall yellow tower crane had been parked across the street, working during daylight hours to put the foundation in place for the art museum’s multi-million dollar expansion. At night, the T-shaped steel dinosaur would sit dormant, its boom looming high above the Boulevard all alone in the darkness, its fence wide with gaps and no security, just taunting us to come play, climb up her trunk, and swing from her branches.
Our adrenaline was racing, and despite the angel on my shoulder that resembled me trying hard to get us to reconsider this climb, there was absolutely no going back. Over the course of fifteen seconds I exchanged my shorts for dark jeans; the button-down became a black long-sleeve; flip-flops morphed into Nikes. Austen got a loaner black shirt with the In-N-Out logo on the back, though he decided to keep his shorts and flops. Of course, no tower crane ascension would be complete without beer, so we grabbed the nearest six-pack of Coors Light, threw it in a backpack, and made our way across the street toward the crane’s concrete base. Whatever potential punishment awaited us we accepted; with clean records, at most, we’d get a night in a jail cell and a sub-$1,000 fine, and at a minimum, a slap on the wrist. So the calculated risk, in this case, was worth the reward. I guess the reward was getting to tell people we did it, and the killer view, but mostly the bragging thing. I don’t really have an answer to the reward question.
Death was furthest from our minds. I mean, it’s not like we were doing something stupid.
We climbed through an opening in the steel and began our ascension. When I tell people we climbed a crane, many wonder why we’d put ourselves in such danger. The women, mostly; men think it’s pretty hardcore and completely understand the fascination with tall things made of metal. The thing is, one has to try to get hurt on a crane. See, the path to the top is not a straight vertical shot up the mast. We’d studied it and knew that the reality of crane-climbing is that you go up 15 steps surrounded by a metal cage, arrive at a caged platform, walk around to the next set of stairs, then climb the next 15 steps surrounded by a cage. Repeat about a dozen times. If you fall, the most you’ll drop is about 10 feet.
Getting from the mast’s ladders and onto the horizontal jib proved rather challenging, as you have to pull yourself up through a 7-foot-tall hole; I recalled the inside of the spacecraft in Apollo 13. This hole was a part of the crane’s slewing unit, essentially the engine that allows the machine to rotate. Once through this gap, we made our way onto the back of the jib, cracked two Silver Bullets, and soaked up the view. A clear night offered us a full panorama of the Richmond region on a platform as safe as any tall building’s roof, though I’m sure the crane’s insurer would beg to differ. Past the low-flung tree-lined city streets gave way to the downtown skyline, some three miles away. You could see the glow of the giant suburban multiplex about 15 miles west. And the stadium lights from the baseball diamond just down the street. And the little ant-people walking around on the sidewalks below, paying no attention to the joyous wonder taking place a few dozen feet overhead.
We stayed on top of the crane for about an hour and a half, sipping beer and looking around and talking about nothing of particular importance. Eventually we decided it was probably time to stop drinking and playing with heavy machinery while sitting on a platform 100 feet up in the air. Getting off the crane was probably the smartest decision we’d made all night, but it certainly didn’t feel like it.
Six months later, I walked out my front door one morning, and the crane was gone. Disassembled, packed up, and hauled off to a new construction site, where two other idiots would consider scaling it for five months before finally doing it one night. Two years after that, construction of the building’s wing was completed and new Virginia Museum of Fine Arts opened to the public. Two years later, in a restaurant on the top floor of the addition that was built by that crane, I gave the toast at our wedding reception. I did, however, leave out this detail.