Rooftop task becomes humbling experience

April 19, 2003|By ROB KASPER

WHEN CLINGING to a rooftop, questions about eternity spring to mind. You wonder, for instance: If there is an afterlife, will it have roof leaks that need fixing?

Last weekend, as I positioned myself around a rooftop vent pipe, and gingerly, ever so gingerly, patched a hole that appeared at its base, I hoped these were questions that I wasn't going to resolve that afternoon.

When I was younger, and dumber, climbing did not bother me. But as I age, I become much more aware that bad things can happen to upwardly mobile people, especially those with bad knees and bifocals. Each passing year, I am less inclined to soar with eagles or even share space with the pigeons. I am comfortable down on ground level, wiggling with the worms.

Yet, there comes a time when a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. When he has got to fight back the fear and thoughts of mortality, and slap goop on the roof.

Ideally, that goop-slapping man would be a trained professional, a roofer. But this job was too small for a roofer, even if I could get one.

Ever since this winter's roof-crunching storms hit, roofers have been extremely busy. I have been playing phone-tag with mine since February. We have had some good talks, and he had a good laugh at the way I "fixed" some leaky gutters - wrapping them with duct tape. But when it comes to setting up a date, a time he and his goop-carrying colleagues could actually come to my house, I have repeatedly struck out.

A variety of explanations has been offered for our failure to rendezvous. The roofer has been very busy. I wasn't home when he was in the neighborhood. So far, my roofer hasn't trotted out the excuse potential dates used to lay on me back in high school - "I can't show up because I just washed my hair" - but I still believe that one day my roofer will come.

This particular patch job could not wait. A water stain on the ceiling and a forecast of rain reminded me that I had to climb that ladder and wrestle with a can of roofing cement and questions about eternity.

If an Army moves on its stomach, a reluctant roofer moves on his keister. I was too scared to stand up, so I inched my bottom along the patch of slanted rooftop, toward the vent pipe. Every so often, a little piece of something would break loose and plunge toward the ground.

There, I told myself, but for my firmly anchored keister, go I.

The roofing cement looked like something the orcs had dragged in. It was dark and sticky. The label on the can was filled with warnings, strongly suggesting you keep naked body parts clear of the stuff, and never, never snack on it.

Yet because it is so terrible, it is appealing to work with. It reminds you of happy childhood times in the old mud hole. Moreover, when slapping on roofing cement, neatness does not appear to count for much. Sure the directions on the can say you are supposed to "feather" the goop around the vent pipe. But up on the rooftop, who is going to critique your technique? The vent pipe police?

Even when you wear rubber gloves, as I did, streaks of roofing cement ended up on my fingers. Later, I rubbed my fingers with plenty of hot soapy water and panic - out, out damned spots. A not very attractive glob of roofing cement somehow ended up on the seat of my jeans. Perhaps neatness did matter.

They say there are no atheists in foxholes. I would guess that you find plenty of true believers on rooftops, especially when it comes time to step off the roof and onto the ladder.

I emerged from my afternoon encounter with infinity dotted with goop and delighted to be on terra firma.

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