Chapter 3… Heights of faith

In most instances, I make it a practice not to engage in business activities with church members. Although, some of my best Groundglass customers resulted from leads through my Christian brothers and sisters.  I did break my own policy when a friend and long-standing church member, John Sickle, asked if I would help him on a particular job.  John and his family own an established sheet metal fabrication shop in Cleveland.  They primarily manufacture and install duct work on commercial heating, ventilating and air conditioning projects. When John asked me if I would photograph one of his largest projects to date, I could sense the excitement in his voice.  After an inspirational Sunday morning sermon, and a fellow brother reaching out, how could I say “no.”

What is now the Quicken Loans Arena, started out as the Gund Arena. It’s the home of the NBA Cavaliers, hosts numerous concert events, and makes ice for any current Cleveland hockey franchise.  During its construction, the Gund Arena project provided a sizable economic and real estate boost for downtown Cleveland. Next to the Jacobs (now Progressive) Baseball Field project, it kept union contractors and laborers busy between 1992-1994.  Sadly, it meant the demise of the hallowed Richfield Coliseum – the previous sports complex that was oddly located between Cleveland and Akron.  But there was no remorse on John’s face over winning the Gund contract for many months of billable work.

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It was a very frigid mid-January morning when I met John at the Caxton Building adjacent to the Gund construction site.  Several floors of this historic office building served as the arena’s “project trailer.” It was bustling with contractors, workers and security guards – all gripping steaming hot cups of coffee.  I was gripping a tripod, two large canvas bags filled with equipment and film, trying to follow John through hallways lined with blueprints opposed to artwork. We ended up in an office area where I signed in, and was quickly issued a white hard-hat that was “never supposed to leave my head” according to the issuer.  Throughout my journey that day, I concluded that the color of your hard-hat determined your status in the construction world.  It was like chevrons in the military – white being equal to a Private in the infantry. Or in my case, a visiting civilian.

John and I exited the Caxton Building through a make-shift corridor that led through a sea of laborers equipped with power tools and bright work lights.  Everywhere thick plastic tarps draped openings in order to retain what little warmth was generated by kerosene heaters.  Call it ignorance or a tight fitting white hard-hat, but I never considered at this stage of  construction there would be no permanent lighting, electric or functioning HVAC.  Walking cautiously, (as not to bump into a union carpenter’s circular saw with my camera bag) we finally entered the cavernous new arena. The floor was frozen mud with patches of snow here and there. The air was filled with diesel fuel and a deafening rumble from the huge cranes and trucks maneuvering about.  The only light available was generated by some large work “floods” on the ground.  And it was freezing cold.

I walked toward the center of the arena – all the time looking up into the dark reaches of duct work and steel trusses.  “How the hell am I going to do this,” I thought.  It was so poorly and unevenly lit, I couldn’t  make out where the duct work ended and the inside of the steel roof began.  Even the most powerful strobe lights wouldn’t have helped because, well, there were no outlets to plug them in.  Regardless, I set my bags down and started unpacking the ice cold gear.  John stopped and stated, “Don’t unpack here – this isn’t where we’ll be shooting.”  I must have looked bewildered as he pointed with his index finger toward the sky.  “Up there… we’re going on top of the ducts to shoot.”

If John wasn’t grinning from ear to ear when he then said, “I hope your life insurance is paid up,” I would have immediately left the premises.  As I followed him heading towards the largest “bucket lift” on earth, I still couldn’t tell if he was serious or not.  “I had to rent this thing from a place in Michigan,” John said proudly. “It was the only one in a five state area that could reach this high.”  He introduced me to Donnie, a young man at the controls of the bucket.  Donnie was wearing a blue hard-hat which made him a sergeant or something, but ultimately qualified him to operate the lift.  As John climbed into the bucket that was no bigger than my bedroom closet, he extended his hand and helped haul in my equipment. As I brought up the rear, Donnie hitched a small safety chain across the opening in the rails, and John said, “O.K. take us as far as it goes.”  I knew now that he was serious.

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There are some junctures in life that we have to put more faith in man than in God. There are other occasions in life that we don’t have time to calculate fears and risks.  We just go with it and hope for the best.  In the 45 seconds or so it took to ascend to max height, these points, and more, were racing through my frozen head.  Of all the acrophobia experiences I’ve had in my career, this was the pinnacle.

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I observed my surroundings dubiously, and noticed several factors. First, we were about 15 feet higher than the steel “catwalk” that’s used for scoreboard maintenance and rigging special effects lighting.  At least the catwalk had a waist-high railing on both sides that you could lean on. “Why can’t we shoot from there, John,” I thought.  Second, the only thing suspending the duct work from the steel trusses is a series of half inch rods spaced about 6 feet apart.  It reminded me of those rickety bridges strung across two cliffs lining a bottomless canyon. And finally, we were at the highest point in this building where you could stand upright.  If John, being the architect of this metal labyrinth and overseer of it’s installation says it’s safe, well then who am I to be afraid? (Psalm 27)

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As we lurched to a stop about a foot below the top of the duct, Donnie unhitched the chain and John stepped up onto the sheet metal walkway.  It made a “tinny” hollow sounding thud as he extended his hand again to help with the gear. With no regard for my fears, I left the bucket and stood motionless for a few seconds on top of the metal duct.  There was a bit of a swaying action left to right as Donnie stepped up behind me.  Oh boy – that didn’t feel good – and by the way, it was much colder up here than on the ground.  John had walked ahead on the 6 foot wide metal plank which at that moment seemed like 6 inches.

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“Here’s a good first shot,” as he motioned indicating a wide area spanning his work.  The first words from my lips since we left earth were, “John, we have to be completely still since these will be long exposures.”  It was very true.  With the low light conditions, 15 to 30 second exposures would be necessary, but I just wanted to reaffirm my safety concerns. I walked slowly and deliberately the entire time we shot.  We spent about two hours atop the span until John was satisfied that we covered it all.

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The sweetest phrase uttered that day was, “Donnie, take us back down.”  Now, whenever I attend an event at Quicken Loans Arena, I can say I’ve gone where few men have gone. I get butterflies in my stomach and a chill in my bones as a reminder of that project. Never the less, my heart is glad, and my tongue rejoices. My body shall also dwell in safety. (Psalm 16:9)