As I mentioned in another post, I spent five years as the secretary of a church, and had entirely more than my fair share of misadventures during that period. Since my friends apparently wish I actually would sit down and put them all into a book (and perhaps I will after all, in the future), it seems only fair that I offer another example of something that happened to me during those five years. So today I'll tell you about the time the church building tried to kill me.
I frequently found myself handling tasks that were not necessarily part of my job description, simply because no one else was able or available to do them. One of these involved the annual inspection of our smoke detectors. Someone had to escort the inspector(s) through the building, unlocking doors as needed so they could get into all the rooms and test the detectors. The detector inspectors -- wait, wasn't that a character in the old Speed Racer cartoon? -- would take up the better part of my day with this particular project, but usually I was the only one who could do this, for one reason or another.
A few years ago, this had nigh disastrous consequences.
As I mentioned in the post linked above, the church no longer has a bell proper; it plays a carillon on the designated hours. But it does still have a bell tower, which is accessed in only one way. You must climb up to the sanctuary balcony and unlock the door to a storage room. Inside the storage room is a set of stairs that looks like it's built out of kindling and matchsticks. Climb these and push open the heavy oak door in the ceiling. This leads to the lower part of the bell tower, and from there you can move in two directions -- up the stairs to the tower proper, or east, through another small heavy door that leads to the eaves above the sanctuary.
This lower section of the tower is more than a little creepy. The church had a massive fire years ago, and this is the only part of the building that still shows evidence, in the form of scorch marks on the old stone walls. It's dark, it's filthy, and it's very cold. And of course, the annual inspection takes place in February.
I tell you all that to tell you this. About three years ago, I was escorting the detector inspector on his annual tour of the building. The time came for us to climb the stairs to the lower section of the bell tower, because some of the smoke detectors are out in that section above the sanctuary. Because I have a crippling fear of heights, I never went into the eaves themselves, but would take the inspector as far as the lower tower, and wait by the door. This inspector happened to be the same one as the year before, and he somehow actually remembered that I was afraid, so he encouraged me to stay downstairs while he went up into the lower bell tower by himself.
I watched from the lower landing as he climbed the rickety stairs, pushed open the door in the ceiling, and disappeared into the black. There was a pause. "I can't find the light switch."
"It should be right there on the wall." I imagined him feeling the wall and disturbing the cobwebs, and shuddered. Ew. I don't mind spiders, just their webs.
"Not finding it. This is weird, I could swear it was right here."
Puzzled, I decided to ignore my fear of the eaves and go up and help him. "Hang on," I told him, and headed up the stairs.
Remember that door in the ceiling that I mentioned? The oak door? We called it the door but it was really nothing more than a huge honking plank of wood, about two feet wide and four feet long. No doorknob, no hinges. You push this thing up and essentially prop it against the wall to hold the space open. There's a rope handle on the upper side, so if it falls shut while you're in the tower you can get it open again, but that's the only fixture.
As I approached the opening, the door-plank decided to fall shut. I looked up and saw thirty pounds of solid oak rushing toward my face. (Why did it fall shut? No idea. In hindsight, I've just come to the conclusion that gravity hates me. Other stories that I plan to tell in this blog will bear out my theory.)
I spent a few nanoseconds watching my life flash before my eyes. Then I spun around, dropped into the fastest crouch you ever saw, and covered my head with my arms. I heard the slam of the door falling into place about three inches from my ear. Clouds of chalky white dust billowed up around me. As I slowly stood up and came to the stunning realization that I wasn't dead or even severely injured, the door was yanked open by the white-faced inspector, who apparently was convinced that I must have been one or the other.
"Are you all right?!"
"I think so." Aching, yes; I'd managed to wrench my back by spinning and crouching so fast. Annoyed, yes; I'd gotten dust in my contact lenses. Filthy and in need of a shower, yes. But overall, unharmed. I waited while he finished his inspection of the eaves, then returned with him to my office to complete the year's paperwork.
The property manager came by a little later. I was sitting calmly at my desk, sipping a Coke and waiting for the painkillers to kick in, trying to look nonchalant. He did a double take when he saw me and inquired whether I realized I was going prematurely gray. I explained what happened, and he turned pale.
Come to think of it, that was the last time I provided the inspector's escort through the building.