Adventures in Roofing, and Gravity

Circa May, 1999: I stood in the attic space that ran the length of our small, L-shaped, ranch-style home. Unless you enjoy a good, dusty, claustrophobic sauna, an attic in Houston is never a particularly fun place to be. This particular day, however, was a bit of a different experience as I stood on the flooring of the attic looking through the rib cage of rafters and support beams which normally supported a roof but today provided a view of a deep blue sky.

Our roof had gone through one too many summers and a few too many hail storms. The two layers of shingles, as well as the large pieces of aged, leaky plywood which had formed the decking of the roof, had been scraped off earlier in the day and now sat in piles around the circumference of our house. On the back patio, where a failed attempt by the prior owner to create a glassed-in porch had gone to pot, the piles of boards with rusty nails were joined by jagged pieces of the aluminum frame that had been pried off the side of the facia boards.

I’d come to the attic to survey the progress thus far from the inside out, and because it just really seemed like a cool idea. The roofing crew, comprised exclusively of extremely hardy, hard-working gentlemen from south of the border, was taking a brief break in my front yard before they began the work to assemble the new roof. From my perch, I saw them laying about the yard, chewing on various things wrapped in tin foil and chugging down large amounts of Coke and water. All but one of these guys was painfully thin from this extremely hot, strenuous occupation.

I stood there for a minute — Lord of my tiny domain. The moment quickly passed as I was distracted by the fact that one of the foil wrappers had been picked up by a sudden gust of wind and was now flying across the yard. The roofers and I all turned at the same time to see about the source of the wind, and all of us were treated to a most unwelcome site.

The blue sky that currently sat overhead was rapidly giving way to a huge storm system coming from the west. Black clouds spitting lightning and growling thunder spilled out into the previously blue horizon. I saw all of this as I stood between the ribs of the rafters, and it occurred to me at just about the same time it occurred to the roofers that it was about to rain inside my house. I turned and stuck my head between two of the rafters to yell down to them, but they’d already dropped their food and were digging through the back of their truck.

I stood transfixed as they enrolled the largest tarp I’ve ever seen. Several of the guys were already climbing up ladders, dragging the flimsy tarp, which looked like it was made of the same material as lawn bags, over the skeleton of the roof. This is obviously something they’ve dealt with before. That makes sense as there’s nothing more fickle than Texas weather – unless we were to attempt to count the amount of times that a certain friend of mine has fallen in-and-out of love (I have unofficially diagnosed him with ficklecell-anemia but that’s another story for another time ).

Most of my blue sky overhead was now covered by the plastic tarp, which fluttered in the ever-increasing wind. I saw flashes of the sky amongst the flurry of activity whilst several of the crew attempted to nail the edges of the tarp to the edges of the roof to keep it from flying away.

As I walked carefully across the now dark attic I saw a large pool of light coming from the other side of the L-shaped, exposed roof. Carefully stepping over HVAC ducts and water lines, I made my way to the still open portion of the roof and saw the sky rapidly going dark with the incoming storm clouds. Unfortunately, the darkness was accompanied by large drops of rain that quickly created a gooey mess as they splattered onto the dusty ductwork and attic floor. Before I could raise the alarm the roofing crew clambered up onto the exposed portion, dragging yet another giant tarp behind them.

It was now very, very dark in the attic. I knew that there was a light switch somewhere, but I’d never been this far into the attic without already having turned the light on. Stumbling across everything in my path, and trying hard not to accidentally step through the drywall on the ceiling below, I tried to find the switch with the small amount of light coming from the few portions of the tarp still not secured.  I pondered the much-discussed phenomena of senses growing in power when one of their ranks is incapacitated. I doubt very much that this kind of thing can happen in a matter of minutes, but my temporary loss of sight seemed to have produced more than I’d ever wanted in terms of my sense of sound. The rain was now coming down in earnest, and the sound of millions of large droplets hitting the flimsy tarp just above my head was terrifying.

I then heard another, slightly different sound, which was less like individual raindrops and more like water pouring out of a garden hose held ten feet above the ground. I finally found the light switch and turned it on to see that there was indeed a large, unbroken flow of water coming through the tarp from near the top of the roof and landing on now-mushy boxes below.

A slight bit of grayish/blackish sky was visible where the flow began. The tarps weren’t overlapped enough around one of the vent pipes, and the rushing water used this gap as the quickest, easiest path. Nature may not like a vacuum, but she loves holes.

I cupped my hands together and screamed out into the plastic tarp above. “Hay agua! Hay una problema! Una problema grande! Ayudame!!”

In return, amongst the deafening rain, I heard rustling above me. A voice called out in return, “Que? Que dice?”

I repeated my attempt at conversational Spanish in an emergency situation with the same result. The water continued to pour in. It was time for a more direct approach.

I scrambled down the attic ladder and ran outside to the back porch. The debris pile allowed me just enough room to peer out over the long roof and see the heads of several of the roofers still struggling to get the second tarp in place. I couldn’t go any further in my dubious choice of footwear — sandals —without running into the nails and sharp chunks of aluminum.

I tried calling out to them again but the wind and the rain made it impossible. The answer to my problem presented itself in the form of a medium sized aluminum ladder perched against the side of the roof. This is one of the ladders the crew had been using to scramble up and down, so it should work in that regard for me.

Rain blinding my vision, and thunder jolting me every few seconds, I tried to ascend the skinny, slippery rungs of the aluminum ladder as I made my way up. I finally emerged at the top of the ladder and saw members of the roofing crew attempting to nail down the remaining loose edges of the tarp. Their frenzied, dripping work was backlit by the dark clouds and lightning strikes just behind them in the low ceiling created by this massive storm.

I screamed out again to them. Most of them turned to look, but it was clear that they didn’t have any idea what I wanted or why the hell I was climbing up to the roof in the midst of a storm.

“Que???”

I pointed to the vent pipe that had created the issue and, summoning every ounce of my Spanish vocabulary, and my volume, screamed, “Hay una problema allí! Agua! Mucho aqua en la casa!”

The roofer who appeared to be in charge of the show stopped tugging on the tarp for a minute and, with water trickling down his face, tried to process my heavily accented, completely inadequate Spanish. He stared at me for a few seconds, and it become clear that no one had any idea what I was talking about.

I was out of Spanish, and out of options, so I decided that there was nothing left to do but to crawl up the rest of the way onto the roof and lead them to the problem. I looked at the fluttering expanse of wet plastic stretched over the skeletal remains of the roof below me and realized that this was going to be a bit harder than I’d envisioned. Not only are all of these guys — save the one that apparently had yet to miss a meal — smaller and more sure-footed than me, they also have the benefit of experience walking on half-finished roofs.

I took a tentative step out onto the tarp and digested the fact that most of what I saw in front of me had nothing to support it. Only the portions of the tarp backed by the rafters, which ran vertically, or the smaller subset backed by the pieces of 1 x 4 which ran every so often horizontally, could support me. If I stepped anywhere else I was only going to succeed in falling into the attic and creating a hole bigger than the one I was trying to fix.

I took another tentative step and attempted to catch my balance. The roofing leader had no idea what I was doing, but didn’t like what he saw. He made a number of gestures attempting to shoo me back down the ladder. A particularly close lightning strike punctuated his feelings, but I and my hubris were not to be denied.

I took a few more tentative steps up the roof, gestured to him to come closer, and then pointed to the hole in the tarp coverage next to the vent pipe. He quickly scrambled closer and his eyes tracked my unsteady finger. He then moved up the roof towards the offending vent pipe. “Aqui?

I gratefully put my hand back down to touch the roof in a kind of four-point stance. “Si, mucho agua allí.”

He leaned down and pulled on the intersection of the tarps below him and a confident look came over his face. “Ah. Si. Si. Lo tengo.”

He called out to his crew and two of them gingerly scrambled across the tarp to assist him in pulling on, and tacking down, the edges of the tarps around the pipe. It was at this point that the aforementioned Big Guy of the crew, the one sitting astride the crown of the roof, decided to join in. Unfortunately for everyone, his first step in the driving rain was on one of the spaces of the tarp not backed by anything except optimism.

My world went in to super-slow-mo mode as I watched the one I later learn is called Tiny quickly react to his mistake by pulling his foot back just as it is about to break through the tarp. In this particular facet his effort was successful. However, he had taken a step with his other foot in order to break has potential fall, and this step was also largely placed on a portion of the tarp supported by air. What followed seems highly unlikely, but this is how my brain processed it.

His initial step already pulled back, Tiny retracted his other foot so strongly that he was now effectively, very briefly, suspended in mid-air atop a long, slanted roof covered with an extremely wet plastic tarp. Gravity was about to, pardon the expression, weigh in.

As Tiny’s body started on its downward trajectory his co-workers cried out in alarm — which is all they could realistically do in the situation as they were clustered around the vent pipe several meters away from Tiny. In the midst of the screams, Tiny flailed forward in an attempt to avoid plunging through the tarp, and instead began flying straight down the roof towards the back porch.

What happened next is a bit of a blur. I recall thinking that I must save him. I also seem to recall being waived off by the rest of the crew, who had probably seen something like this before (and who, quite understandably, might be worried about the fact that I had not yet signed a check for their efforts and what my early demise might do to this process). All I could think about was saving Tiny, who was now screaming at the top of his lungs, his arms stretched out before him in a SuperMan-like position. Water churned from the spot, a boat at plane, where his ample chest met the plastic tarp.

While it did not initially seem like it, luck was on my side that day. Proof comes via the fact that I reached out and grabbed Tiny’s chubby ankle as he passed me, and was then immediately pulled from my perch to follow him in a face-first, speedy plunge off of the roof and into the pile of rusty nails, boards and torn aluminum struts that greeted us on the back porch. The fact that I accompanied Tiny in his flight off of the roof isn’t the lucky part. The luck came when I regained my senses and began to move my arms and legs amongst the debris. Somehow I’d managed to avoid being impaled and had also not broken my neck.

I lay facedown in the debris, still performing my assessment, with Tiny’s face just inches away. He was also face-down with his head turned to me and seemed to be in a state of shock (the fact that I’d landed on him probably not helping matters). I still wasn’t brave enough to actually sit up, but I manage to croak out, “Esta bien?”

Tiny’s eyes rolled around in his head for a second before his systems reengaged. He groaned as he slowly moved around in the debris, looking for a place where he’d been impales, or perhaps a compound fracture. After a few seconds he groaned again as he sat up, brushed off some of the debris that had collected on his extremely dirty shirt, and proclaimed, “Esta bien!!”

As he shouted I could see the others scrambling down the nearby ladder. I sat up as well and then shakily accepted help as I made my way to my feet. Tiny was quickly pulled up to a standing position next to me, though it took everyone on the crew to get him elevated. With rain still pouring down around us and thunder roaring in the background, Tiny and I embraced and spontaneously screamed out together, “Esta bien! Esta bien!”

The euphoria of the moment was such that everyone joined in. All of us formed a large, hopping, hugging scrum, dancing in a pile of jagged debris in the pouring rain. In the midst of the jubilation I had a thought, and quickly extricated myself to dash in the back door of the house. I reemerged a few moments later with a 12 pack of beer.

The beers were quickly opened, and the dancing was joined by chugging. It was at this point that my partner in crime pulled me close, stuck out his hand and announced, “Me llamo Tiny.”

Amongst all of the back slapping and drinking I heard the distant sound of my house phone. I broke off again from the group and reached inside the door to where the phone was perched. My wife will later tell me that all she could hear was laughing, thunder, rain, and more laughing. For my part I thought I was retelling the entire exciting story.

Eventually the beer ran out and the rain stopped. The guys gave me one last nod and then all of them, even Tiny, scrambled back up the roof and began removing the tarps and preparing to install the decking. With one last look at the debris pile on the back porch, to which we’d added a 12 empty Coor’s Light cans, I went inside to clean myself up.

The next afternoon as the work was being finished up I got a call from the general contractor who had accepted the roofing job and assigned the crew.

“Heard you had a little bit of fun yesterday.”

“Yeah, I guess you could say that.”

“Mind if I give you a little advice?”

“Sure.”

“Next time you see somebody sliding off of a roof, let ‘em.”