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  • Writer's pictureLee Roth

Climbing to the Top of that Sign

The Acme Sign — Times have Changed.

Today, in this age of everybody suing everybody, and everybody getting charged for trespassing, could the below happen? I have had to defend adults from charges of trespassing when they were not trespassing. I have been asked by adults to defend their children from juvenile charges that would have been considered “pranks” not that many years ago. Times have changed.

Construction Beginning In 1956

It was exciting to see construction beginning outside of the downtown area of Flemington. One of the first things we saw at the construction site was a giant structure holding up a sign that said “Acme.” Construction had hardly begun when the sign was erected. At least we now knew what to expect in this new building. It was the first commercial construction outside of the downtown central business district.

My best friend and I looked at that sign and saw it as a challenge. I’ve heard mountain climbers be asked “why did you want to climb that mountain?” The usual answer has always been “because it is there.” Bill and I were thinking the same way when we saw that giant sign. I think it was the summer after we graduated from high school, or perhaps the summer after we concluded our first year in college. At any rate, we had discussed several times the prospect of climbing to the top of that sign.

There were ladder rungs welded to one of the corner pipes of the support structure. They began about 10 feet off the ground. The first challenge was how to get to the lower rung. We were young and athletic college boys, so we didn’t expect the climb to be much of a challenge. There didn’t seem to be anyone around to ask what we were doing.

If we were to climb to the top of the structure, I thought I ought to bring a camera and take a picture of the construction that was underway. In those days, my camera was a very heavy Speed Graphic. It was a camera that took film holders that contained two pieces of 4” x 5” film. If you had a film holder in the camera you could take two pictures. You pulled what was called the “black slide” out which then exposed the film to the inside of the camera. After you took the first picture you put the slide back in place, pulled the film holder out of the camera, turned it over, put it back in the camera, removed the second dark slide, and took your second picture. I don’t remember how much the camera weighed, but I remember that it was heavy.

Off we went on our adventure

Off we went on our adventure. Bill helped me get to the first rung so I could pull myself up until I was holding on to the third or fourth rung with my feet on a rung one or two steps down. Then, using a rope, I hauled the camera up. By using a board, Bill was able to get a hold of the lowest rung, and begin the process of pulling himself up behind me. When he was firmly on the ladder, I lowered the camera to him and he held it while I advanced to the length of my relatively short rope. I then pulled the camera up to where I was and he advanced, rung by rung by rung, up the ladder. In this fashion we inched our way, with the camera, to a platform at the top of the structure.

It was only when we got to the top, that we began to appreciate how high we had climbed. I wouldn’t say it was windy, but there was at least a good breeze on this clear summer day. You would think a tower constructed of pipes and cross supports would not be affected by the breeze, but it was. We rocked back and forth, I am sure just few inches in each direction. We know it wasn’t swinging two or 3 feet in each direction, but it seemed to us that it might have been.

I took my two pictures fairly quickly. We now reversed our procedure and begin the climb down off of the structure. I suppose we breathed a sigh of relief when we got down to firm ground. I don’t recall that we told anybody else what we had done, at least not right a way. But now we had pictures and needed to decide what to do with them.

It seemed like a good idea to offer them to the Hunterdon County Democrat, our local weekly newspaper. But how do we do that without explaining that we had been trespassing on this new tower structure. And what would the reaction be of adults to the obvious danger we teenagers had exposed ourselves to?

I developed the pictures and made some 8” x 10” prints. I’ve done other work for the newspaper, so I knew the people there. In fact, the publisher and owner of the paper was Bill’s uncle. I delivered my prints to Jack, who was the editor of the paper. I told him we’d managed to get a couple of aerial pictures of this exciting new construction at the edge of town. He accepted that was the case, with some skepticism.

We soon heard from Bill’s uncle who called to question what we had been doing there. What if we had fallen? I told him we just wanted to get some pictures for the paper. The paper had been paying me three dollars a picture, and this was one they were likely to want to publish.

I believe the photos were published. And I think I did get paid my usual three dollars for that picture. Of course, it came with a bit of a scolding, and instructions not to pull that kind of stunt again. I don’t think my parents learned about the experience until they saw the photo published with my byline under it.

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