Thursday, May 5, 2016


“A man’s ego is the fountainhead of human progress.” – novelist Ayn Rand
Each time the aircraft warning light blinked red next to my head, I closed my eyes to keep from being blinded, clinging for dear life to the ice-cold ladder. As for why I was perched atop a 275-feet-high smokestack on a blustery February night, I mostly credit Ayn Rand.

Technically, I suppose I should blame Crazy Rick. My long-time friend had a way of leading me into trouble. He was a wiry, tough little guy who, during our college years, loved showing off and bragging about his feats. Like how many miles he could walk while balancing on the iron rail of a railroad track without slipping off, a stunt he took straight from one of Rand's novels.

We both idealized the ego-crazed hero created by Rand – “a man who perseveres to achieve his values, even when his ability and independence leads to conflict with others.” (Wikipedia)

Instead of "What would Jesus do?" we asked "What would Ayn Rand do?" Her philosophy proved a dangerous catalyst for our self-absorption.

Crazy Rick challenged his own considerable ego with daring nighttime exploits on the campus of Michigan State University near where we lived. He had, for example, figured out how to sneak into the university’s mammoth powerplant and reach its smokestack’s ladder.

So late one night, there we were, standing in darkness just beyond reach of garish security lights, looking across a snowy field to the powerplant. We made a run for it, ducking past a line of coal cars waiting to be unloaded and into a long, enclosed structure that carried coal from mountainous piles along the railroad tracks to the powerplant’s boilers. The giant, black conveyor belt was silent, and we crept up it into the plant. Once inside, we slapped off coal dust, then slipped across metal gangways and up several floors to a door leading to the roof and gigantic brick chimney, massive at its base and tapering to a twelve-foot diameter top. A ladder up its side faded into the night like an Escher illusion.

I took a deep breath and exhaled a frozen cloud. “You coming?” said Rick, looking down at me from the ladder, just a hint of sneer on his lips.

Up and up we climbed, hundreds of steps. Cold from the steel rungs burned through our gloves. We paused often, hanging onto the ladder with our arms while trying to warm our hands, but the wind was brutal, cutting through our jackets, and we had to keep moving. Far below, a few cars crawled silently along Farm Lane. Downtown East Lansing twinkled in the distance. An airport light blinked way off to the northwest. When we reached the smokestack’s flashing red light, we knew we could get no higher.

In truth, the view from the top was a bit of a letdown – mostly snow-covered farmlands in the dark. We’d actually gotten a better view on an earlier climb. Weeks before, Crazy Rick had found a way into the university’s other powerplant. Its brick smokestack was a local landmark, towering 239 feet above the center of MSU’s campus, vertically emblazoned at the top with immense white letters, “MSC,” for the school’s name, Michigan State College, when the powerplant was built in 1948.

Getting in was easy. We crept up late one night to the gigantic metal door used for letting in coal-carrying railroad cars and hit a button. I didn’t know what to expect but certainly not the explosion of racket as the immense door rolled and clattered upwards. We ducked inside and hit a button to reverse the door’s direction. The powerplant’s operating noise was so loud that no one working there noticed the door’s starts and stops.

We sneaked up open metal stairways to reach a door to the roof and the smokestack’s ladder. The 20-year-old stack was showing its age, and as we climbed silently in the dark we bypassed several ladder rungs that were rusted nearly through and ladder anchors pulling loose from the bricks and mortar.

At the top, a glorious, bird’s-eye panorama spread around us – the city’s lights; glowing paths, streets, and buildings of campus; and looming below across the dark ribbon of the Red Cedar River, snow-covered Spartan Stadium.

Crazy Rick was like a monkey – strong, agile, and fearless. He roamed the rooftops of any building he set his mind to, always finding a way to sneak up there, whether through unlocked windows or by scaling walls. He also went below ground, exploring the ten-mile web of tunnels underlying the MSU campus, which house steam-heat pipes running from the powerplants to university buildings. I followed him on his four-story-high, slate-covered-rooftop romps a few times and down into the rat-infested tunnels just once. What finally got me in trouble, however, was trailing him across a campus pedestrian bridge.

By “across” I mean under it. It was dark and it was winter and I should have known better. But there was youthful testosterone in the air and ego at stake. If he can do it, I can do it, I told myself. Standing in the snow on the steep riverbank, I watched him grip the flat, frozen I‑beam on the underside of the bridge and quickly move hand-over-hand out over the river, feet dangling five feet above the water.

Back in high school, Rick and I had been on the wrestling team. He was good and won most of his matches. I was awful and lost nearly all of mine. During one after-school practice, our coach had teammates wrestle each other in “grudge matches,” starting with the two lightest. The winner would take on the next heavier guy. You kept wrestling until you got pinned.

That’s how I ended up paired against Rick, who was two weight classes lighter than me. It felt personal, the way he came after me. A bit scary, like he had something to prove. Although I was heavier, he was stronger and a far better wrestler. I vowed to not let him beat me and found some untapped fortitude to avoid humiliation. The coach finally had to declare a draw.
Me & Rick (right) -- winter church camp, 1964
Rick always wanted to best me, and under that MSU campus bridge that wintry night, he succeeded. The bare metal was brutally cold on my fingers as I inched out over the river. Halfway across I knew I was in trouble when I saw the tree branch from the opposite riverbank blocking our progress. I watched as Rick swung like an ape under the branch to keep going, then scrambled to the opposite bank.

I tried to copy his trick, letting go with my right hand to swing under the branch and catch the I-beam, even while knowing it was hopeless. My left hand lost its tenuous grip and down I went into the dark depths of the too-polluted-to-be-frozen Red Cedar River. I bobbed up and splashed to shore, slipping, sputtering, and shuttering, then ran the mile back to my dorm room.
It didn’t take long. Within hours my body started purging that germ-infested river water in ugly fashion. Still the middle of the night, I walked to the campus infirmary. When I explained what had happened, the nurse just shook her head, then admitted me. I was in there sick for two days.
We were young and foolhardy, testing every limit, challenging authority, looking for truth. Ayn Rand’s novels, since branded as “the most exquisitely adolescent of fictions” (essayist Nancy Mairs), gave us such nuggets of moral guidance as:

“Your mind is your only judge of truth – and if others dissent from your verdict, reality is the court of final appeal.” (Atlas Shrugged)
Such were the foibles of youth. Some of us grow out of them. Some of us don’t. There are still people who take Ayn Rand seriously. One guy online calls himself “The Profitability Coach.” Send him money and you can learn how to “Live a Life and Lifestyle of an Ayn Rand Hero, Know Your Purpose, Build True Wealth, Love The Journey.”

It’s been nearly 50 years since my Red Cedar River dunking; I suffered no obvious lasting effects, but who can really say? That pedestrian bridge is still there, crossed every day by throngs of students. The iconic MSC smokestack we climbed was demolished long ago. The taller stack that we scaled still sits atop MSU’s T.B. Simon Powerplant, which since has been expanded, repeatedly fined for air pollution, and now has two smokestacks. I’m pretty sure nobody gets to sneak in and climb either of them these days. Ayn Rand would not be pleased:

“One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.”

~ ~ ~
Second of a series, “Wayne’s Crazy Days.” See also:

1 comment:

  1. How many times in the succeeding (interesting choice of word) decades have I thanked some supreme force that you two considered me too much a wimp to be included in Crazy Rick's hards-on? Of course, I never experienced the joys of polar bear swims in the Red Cedar or maggots feasting on a gash in my leg. Ayn Rand proved less than useful in my waning college days and has been assigned to my philosophical trash bin. I hear Rick is toothless and homeless... perhaps an apt result for a Fountainhead protagonist.