High Risers

CNJ staff photo: Sharna Johnson

Marlena Hartz: CNJ Staff Writer

From the ground, the wind can seem tame. It is almost always deceptive, though, according to recent college grad Eric Denton. He spent a big chunk of the last five years up in the air — his only protection, a harness.

Denton discovered the hard way how a crane can be like a carnival ride.

He and his cousin were in the tiny basket of a mechanical crane — 60 feet off the ground at the top of a grain elevator — when a gust of wind sent the basket spinning.

“As soon as we went above the top of the grain elevator, the wind started blowing really fast and the basket started spinning, making about 30 or 40 rotations a minute,” Denton, 23, said.

His uncle, the owner of Bell Crane Services of Clovis, was nearby, which was reassuring, and the wind soon died down.

“I wasn’t really scared because my uncle has been running cranes for 15 years. Basically, we were trying really hard to hang on to the tools and equipment we had up there,” Denton said.

Denton is among the hardy souls whose job requires they work high in the air, where one slip could be deadly and a safety harness is their best safeguard.

Before accepting a position at a local plant, Denton routinely used the crane for agricultural jobs: Pouring grain into silos, setting up dairy tanks and welding broken equipment. But one assignment required a little something different — a hike to the top of a wind generator in San Jon.

The massive contraption, built to rake energy from the wind, needed repair, so Denton climbed 250 feet on a ladder built inside the generator to get the job done. Once he reached the top, he opened up a hatch.

“It was awesome. You could see for miles. You could see all the little winding roads that wound through the Caprock. You could see all the houses you couldn’t see before,” Denton said.

Since he no longer works for his uncle, Denton doesn’t get to see the world from that view much anymore. It’s something he misses.

Though Denton now works with two feet on the ground, there are many who do not.

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Sergio Saenz, 31, changes billboards for a living.
Though his employer, Newman Outdoor Advertising, has headquarters in Roswell, Saenz travels all over southeastern New Mexico posting the towering signs that thousands of drivers whiz by.

A typical billboard makeover requires Saenz to climb a ladder with 60 rungs and scuttle along a skinny catwalk. Those in his line of business often quip, “It’s not the fall that hurts, it’s the landing,” Saenz said. He has never experienced a fall, or a landing — “knock on wood,” he said, and neither have any of his co-workers.

Like most others who brave heights for a living, Saenz relies on a harness for safety.

“As long as we are tied off, we are safe, but it’s pretty intimidating up there. You have to get used to it. And you do. It’s fun and a little bit challenging,” Saenz said.

The highest sign he has ever worked on is on Prince Street, he said. It takes two ladders and a climb of 120 rungs to change the sign.

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When Joe Marin describes the perils of his job, he sounds more like a surfer than a painter.

Marin paints and sandblasts a cornucopia of surfaces, the most perilous — water tower exteriors. He doesn’t really have a right-hand man, just right-hand equipment, including scaffolds and, of course, harnesses.

His biggest foe is the wind.

“When the wind pushes that scaffold away from the tower and slams it back into it, it’s kind of scary, but there’s noting you can do about. You just have to ride it,” Marin said.

Marin inherited his father’s painting business. A fresh faced 18-year-old when he was initiated into the world of extreme painting, Marin hardly remembers what raced through his mind the first time he stepped onto a scaffold, to be raised more than 150 feet up into the air.

He does remember his father’s words of wisdom: “Don’t fall.”

It can take up to 45 days to complete a water tower painting contract, Marin said. He currently employs only one person, so after 32 years in the business, he stills fights on the front lines, so to speak.

And brings in the big bucks.

Just one tower contract can bring in anywhere from $100,00 to $150,000, Marin said.