Water Tower Adventures

short stories

Doug Alt


Water Tower Escapades in Matawan

My Cousin Vic and I spent a lot of time together in Matawan NJ during our teen-age years.

One type of adventure we talked each other into was climbing the water towers. There were two of them, both near the Matawan High School and the Hanson Van Winkle Munnings manufacturing plant. One tower was located right behind the diner that was situated just across the railroad tracks from the “Munnings” plant. The other tower was located a few hundred feet south of the first, along the railway,

The first challenge of climbing these towers was to do it at a time when no one would see us, so we wouldn’t get in trouble. This meant nighttime, preferably with no moon.

The Pumpkin Tower

Our first tower escapade was on the “Pumpkin” Tower.

I don’t know specifically how tall it was, but to us, at night, it looked VERY tall.

This tower consisted of a big pumpkin-shaped metal tank perched atop a four-sided metal lattice-work tower.

As with most towers, there was a ladder welded to the legs of the tower for maintenance access, except for the first 10 feet or so up from the ground. This 10 foot gap was to discourage casual tower climbers (like Vic and Doug) from doing exactly what Vic and Doug were about to do. Being nimble high school age athletes and gymnasts, it was a minor challenge to climb up the first 10 feet of the tower legs to gain access to the ladder that went the rest of the way to the top.

It was a long climb, and even with my gymnastics background and handgrip strength, I was getting quite fatigued as I led the way upward. We were looking forward to reaching the platform that ran around the pumpkin shaped tank above so we could sit there for a while enjoying the breeze on this hot summer night and take in the view of the town from that great height. We might even scratch our initials on the side of the tank while we were up there.

Right here I must describe the configuration of this tower more precisely. The tower that supported the pumpkin tank was a 4-sided construction with 4 “legs” that went from the ground up to the tank, with diagonal bracing pieces that criss-crossed between the legs for stabilization. The ladder ran up the side of one of the legs. Now, the 4 legs were not exactly vertical. As they proceeded upward they were angled in toward each other so that the square that formed the base of the tower was much larger that the square at the top of the tower where the tank was supported. In one way, this was a nice feature, in that we were not climbing a ladder that was perfectly vertical, rather, it was slanted slightly inward, much as a ladder would be if you placed it against the side of a building to climb up.

The disadvantage was this: the pumpkin tank perched atop the 4-legged tower was much wider across than the top of the supporting tower structure. (For an exaggerated illustration, picture: a golf ball on a golf tee.) What this meant was, that after climbing (forever) on a ladder that was slanted slightly IN toward the center of the tower, we would have to negotiate the last 15 feet or so of ladder that suddenly leaned sharply OUT away from the tower in order to clear the fat part of the pumpkin tank and reach the platform that circled its mid-point. At this point, we were no longer climbing ON a ladder, we are hanging FROM each rung of the ladder as we approached the platform above.

I was sweating bullets, but was determined to reach the top. I proceeded up this final outward-leaning section very slowly, pausing on each rung to catch my breath and to trying to avoid thinking about the long distance down to the ground. Vic had wanted to turn back much earlier, but I had convinced him to keep going. His head and hands were about 3 rungs below my feet. It was very dark and very quiet. It seemed that my heartbeat was the loudest noise in town at that moment.

I finally reached the highest rung of the ladder. The next thing I had to do was to reach up over the lip of the platform above with my hands and pull myself out, up, and around onto it. During this process, my feet would have to be dangling free from the ladder in space… nothing for a hundred feet or so below until the ground.

I took a few, or maybe even more than a few, seconds to gather my courage, then began reaching up over the lip with one hand. Just at that moment, a THUNDEROUS noise exploded over us! It seemed be coming from the very platform above! I think this was the most frightful moment I have ever encountered in my life. I froze in complete terror, with my hands gripping the rungs of the ladder so tightly that I am sure you could find my fingerprints embedded into that metal yet today if that tower was still standing!

It was only a second or two later that I figured out that the huge noise had been created by a large flock of pigeons that had been sleeping peacefully on the platform until my hand came appearing over the lip of the platform and startled them all into flight.

We both couldn’t move for about two minutes. We unanimously decided that we’d had enough for that night and then started a very slow, shaky trip back down the tower to the safety of terra firma.

We never did get up the nerve to go back to that tower in order to see the view of Matawan from the platform around the pumpkin tank.