TALL TALE FROM TORONTO

When the man in Toronto asked if I would like to visit  what would soon be the tallest free-standing structure in the western world I said yes; that would be very nice provided that we could pop up and down about 10.30 a.m. as I had a rather important appointment an hour later. At the site, little dust storms were eddying among the air compressors. The Project Director looked critically at my newly valeted grey pin stripe and carefully brushed brown suede shoes and said something would have to be done about my clothes.

Having read and signed a form which said that I did thereby release C.N. Tower Limited, its contractors, subcontractors and agents from all claims and demands for loss, damage or injury sustained or suffered, etc. etc., I pulled on a pair of overalls that might have fitted an outsize basketball player. The trouser bottoms  came in useful for filling the generous space around the ankles of the safety boots that I was also required to wear.

“You might like to have a parka,” suggested the Project Director, as I fitted the strap of my hard hat under my chin.  “It may be a bit breezy up there.”

Picking our way through assorted hardware, we entered the base of the tower and what, to my mounting concern, I recognised as a manifestly temporary lift. Fleetingly, I glimpsed again the means employed by my brothers and me to reach our  childhood tree houses in the woods. Except for a fibreglass hat, the operator’s garb put me anxiously in mind of Sir Edward Lutyens’ sculpture of Shackleton at the South Pole.

After five minutes or so the lift rattled and groaned to a halt and I followed the Project Director into a gloom of bare concrete, hoses and electric cables. “This is where the lower observation ports will be,” he said, indicating wide, chest-high apertures. Stepping gingerly around squares of rough planking that were, I feared, the temporary covers for other such observation windows, I ventured as near as I dared towards a high-flying bird’s eye vista of Canada’s premier business city.  The wind moaned as I have heard it in caverns measureless to man far underground.

The art of convincing small talk about very large artificial or natural contrivances is one that I have never mastered, and after what I judged to be a silence eloquent in both respect and gratitude, and assuming what I hoped was an expression of excited wonder, I turned towards the PD in expectation of a welcome return to base and my more conventional appointment. It was an injudicious move.

“Come on,” said my host impulsively, much as an adult will introduce an already-excited child to an extra and unpremeditated pleasure. “We’ll go all the way to the 1,500 ft level. Only take it easy; we’ve 300 feet or so to climb.”

We climbed. Up rungs resembling the companionways in a ship’s engine room, over plank bridges, up arrangements of rude timber, we climbed within that concrete tube, one of us tremulous, never daring to look downwards, both of us pausing every few minutes to rest our labouring hearts. I had never thought to see the day when I would have recourse to the expression “breathtaking”; but then, I had never thought to emerge on to what seemed to me an infamously narrow, 1,500 ft-high platform in a gale-force wind.

“Great view!” shouted the Project Director, one hand in the pocket of his parka, the other holding the brim of his hard hat. “Great!” I screamed, feet placed firmly apart, the sticky palms of both hands striving for a frictional hold on the concrete pile behind me. Recently, I had read Bonnington’s Annapurna South Face and tried now to recall what he might have said about the early symptoms of pulmonary oedema.

Far, far below; beyond the low, circular, temporary wooden perimeter of the platform (shortly before my visit, as I heard only later, a daredevil steelworker had successfully parachuted from the same vantage point), Toronto had become a Lilliputian village in a landscape bounded only by the haze of distance. Light aircraft moved like flying insects halfway between our celestial selves and the blessed bonds of earth.

“See that chap painting the mast? He’s really high.” yelled the Project Director enthusiastically, now standing nonchalantly with one hand on the fence. For a fraction of a split second, all the while straining my body back against the concrete wall, I dared to glance up to where a figure was silhouetted against a background of nearby cloud.  When my companion shouted the suggestion that he and I should change places so that he might use my Leica to take a snap of me looking down at the city I could only shake my head.

It was past noon by the time we had regained the administrative office and the ruins of what had earlier been the knife-edge creases of my trousers and the once-immaculate collar of my shirt had emerged from the overalls. “Get a picture of him?” I overheard the Project Secretary ask as I recovered my shoes from the next room. “Afraid not,” said her boss apologetically. “That’s a pretty expensive  piece of equipment he’s got there and he keeps it kind of close to his chest.  In his business, I guess I’d do the same.”

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