Mark Goldstrom's annual New Year's Eve party started with a ladder. A 28-foot extension ladder that, when he got it home, he realized was taller than he needed to clean the gutters on his Owings Mills house.
Some people might have returned the ladder to Hechinger's or swapped it for a 20-foot. But this 41-year-old marketing manager for a cement company is nothing if not creative. What could he do about this ladder overcapacity problem, he asked himself.
Ummm. ... He is in a business that uses many thousands of buckets each year, and they were sitting all around him. Ummm. ... There's the kids' swing set in the back yard. ... New Year's Eve is around the corner. ...
"How can I strap this ladder onto the swing set and give us something to laugh about New Year's Eve?" he wondered.
Thus was born a countdown to New Year's Baltimore-style.
The first New Year's Eve Goldstrom demonstrated his engineering feat he didn't give it a name. It was just a bucket on a cord, a light and a ladder. The ladder was so loosely attached to the sliding board that it fell over and nearly killed a guy. The cord froze.
The second year he sent out hand-drawn invitations and billed it as "new and improved." He added a bigger bucket, a string of white lights, and a pulley to the ladder's top rung to prevent the cord from freezing.
Tonight, when 30 relatives, friends and neighbors arrive at the Goldstroms for the third annual Bucket Drop, they expect a better-than-ever extravaganza. They won't be disappointed, judging from the boxes of discounted Christmas lights Goldstrom was stringing to his backyard swing set Monday night.
"It's so tacky, it's fun," said friend and co-worker David Clark, who worked into the early morning hours with Goldstrom to string the lights and rig the ladder. On the ground, Goldstrom's oldest daughter, Kelsey, 11, punched Christmas lights onto a big square of foam board to make the "1999" sign that will flash on and off as the bucket drops.
"It's very high-tech," said Dave Williams, a graphic designer and the guest who was nearly killed by the ladder the first year. He is in charge of standing on the deck with the electric plug in his hand and pushing it in and out of the socket when the bucket hits.
Each year the team has learned something different. For instance, the first year Williams learned to increase his life insurance.
This year, the ladder is double-secured to the sliding board with bungee cord and four pieces of railroad tie. Galvanized wire has replaced the electric cord that froze that first year, eliminating the need for Vaseline to execute the big drop.
Attached to one end of the wire is a 3.5-gallon bucket, white, with "98" spray-painted in blue on several sides. Inside is a 100-watt light bulb and a piece of dumbbell for ballast to speed the drop. The wire is threaded through the pulley on the top rung of the ladder, where the bucket sits until Goldstrom, standing on the ground and holding the other end of the wire, starts lowering it as the crowd on the deck begins the countdown.
The "impact zone" is marked by a large orange X inside a large orange circle at the foot of the sliding board. That's approximately where Goldstrom hopes the bucket will hit hard enough so the light bulb inside breaks with a pop, giving everybody something to oooh and aaah about when the clock strikes 12.
It took five hours to rig the swing set Monday night alone: After the lights were strung, Goldstrom realized the wire he needs to drop the bucket was entangled in lights on the wrong side of the ladder; he had to restring three-fourths of them.
"I kind of need to do it more than once a year to do it right," he said.
Cold as it was, Goldstrom was in a sweat from climbing up and down the ladder -- and from cleaning up mud on the kitchen floor where his kids trooped in and out. Every once in a while he'd stop to recharge the battery of the Ford Taurus in the driveway, as its headlights were illuminating the work site. He was thinking:
"How am I going to do this every year?" Will this seem like a chore no different from cleaning the gutters when he's 50?
The next afternoon, a hard-hat protecting him from the rain, he went back up the ladder with another 500 lights he bought that morning in an after-Christmas special. Altogether, it took him three days' work.
The planning starts around the second week of December, when Goldstrom draws invitations under his trade name, "All-Mark." This year he mailed 20 of them. Each person is asked to bring a dish when they come.
Guests think big -- one brings a turkey, another brings a ham -- and in this, the third year, all save one are returning. The defector is Goldstrom's boss at American Stone Mix, a Towson regional distributor of Sakrete cement mixes, who opted for a black-tie event at the Baltimore Country Club tonight.