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Joe's Neighborhood

A friend with a safety rope

4/17/2013

joes1You have to love fear and its favorite step-child, anxiety. I mean, what’s there not to love? Here you have a basic emotion, fear, which makes all kinds of sense when it comes to keeping you safe from the invading North Koreans, but now you discover you can’t even leave your room to prepare kimchee for the marauders because the anticipation of fear, anxiety, has crippled you into immobility. And, this is the kicker, there’s nary an angry North Korean in sight. Nope. Not a one.

So what exactly is a person to do? Where is the escape for the anxious? Your friends might have all sorts of advice. From meditation to cognitive therapy to immersion into the fear. Perhaps they’ve even recommended that you cut back on lattes and eat only root vegetables grown near the Firestone plant and harvested by the full moon. All well and good. But think about this unsurprising solution… a friend with a safety rope.

Jeff Palmer is not a young man. His creased, worn face, stringy hair, dark sunken eyes and thinness of build speak of hard times. Surely he wakes up each morning trying to get those 54-year-old muscles moving after the physical punishment from the day before. If he was a boxer, you would say the bell for the next round has rung too soon, and my guess, people have placed their money on the other guy.

But today? Today he is that speck up in the tree — 70 feet in the air with a chain saw dangling from his waist.

Trust me, this is not your typical office cubicle. Palmer, high in the sky on this brisk, cold day in early spring, sways back and forth with the tree in the morning breeze. Perturbed squirrels voice their disgruntlement at the intruder with a raucous chatter usually reserved for dogs. But Palmer can’t be distracted. He has work to do.

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Joes2“I can’t stand being inside,” Palmer explained. “I get a lot of enjoyment seeing a tree look like a ‘tree’ when I’m done.”

And that’s what he does. He cuts and prunes and snips, until he can walk away saying: “I made a tree look beautiful.” Then his task is done.

But today the broken branch dangling high above the houses refuses to drop clear of the cable line. So, without any cheerleading section, without coverage on ESPN, without being part of any reality TV show, Palmer lowered himself onto the branch and danced it clear of the line using a variation of the limbo. No kidding.

What about fear in this crazy job?

“I wasn’t afraid of nothing,” Palmer quietly asserted.

Until seven years ago. Almost done working on a soft maple, he was perched 40 feet up in the air with his safety rope tied off on one of the few remaining branches. There was apparently a “bad spot” in that branch. A “bad spot” is not a good thing.

OK, take a break. Look up at your ceiling. It’s probably about eight foot tall. Now stack five of those. There you go. Forty feet.

Fortunately for Palmer, the branches he had earlier cut created a cushion on the ground. Unfortunately for Palmer, he fell 40 feet. He remembers falling when the branch broke — but he still doesn’t remember the next three days. Elbow shattered. Pelvis cracked. Permanent notches on his back from the chainsaw. Palmer lived, but the doctor told him his tree-climbing days were over. He refused to believe it. One year of rehabilitation followed.

And then fear and anxiety hit. Palmer could not go up a tree. He was physically able, but he couldn’t do it. He wanted to, but the anticipation of fear, a.k.a. anxiety, destroyed him. And time passed. Then Benny stepped in. Benny, Palmer’s 77-year-old friend and boss, climbed a tree, hooked the safety rope, and threw it to Palmer. Told Palmer it was time to come up, he had the safety rope and all would be well.

joes3“I was shaking like a dog and shitting razor blades,” Palmer said.

But he climbed the tree and never stopped.

Now, seven years later, Palmer descended from on high after dancing the limb past the wire.

“At the end of any job, I’m just proud as hell,” he said.

And fear?

“To have no fear is a bad thing,” Palmer said as he smiled and reverently untied himself.

And a friend with a safety rope? Also not a bad thing. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.

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