The Amateur Amateur: Two Retirees on the Roof

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
August 2019

Two masts with six antennas
Target: The mast on the left

I'd wanted for some time to get on the roof of my house and start improving the antenna situation up there (see my earlier column Nibbling at the Master Plan). As I wrote in that column, three things held me back:

  1. It was much too cold to climb up there.

  2. I had very little strength and virtually no stamina.

  3. I did not have anyone to help me.

A month or so ago I'd found that everything had changed.

  1. It was no longer too cold. If anything, the temperature and humidity were tad high. (Hey, it's the Midwest. There's rarely any middle ground here temperature-wise.)

  2. My health had improved to the point where I had some strength and some stamina. I wouldn't be running any marathons, but I was pretty sure that I could now handle getting up and down a ladder.

  3. I'd found someone to help me.

Dremel tool and cutting disk
Dremel tool to the rescue

That third element was the key. Bob, a long-time friend of mine, had retired recently and found himself looking for things to do. Over lunch one day, I'd floated the idea of him helping me with my antenna projects, and much to my surprise he agreed. The reason I was surprised was because Bob is not an Amateur Radio operator, and hence had no particular affinity for antennas or messing around on rooftops. He just wanted to help out a friend. What a nice guy!

Referring back to Nibbling at the Master Plan, the task we were going to undertake was some simple preliminary antenna mast maintenance. The more complicated work would be done at a later date.

When I say that the job would be simple I do not mean to imply easy. In fact, I was pretty sure that the task we were trying to do would be difficult, and that our first attempt might not succeed.

Basically, what we had to do was to replace six sets of nuts and bolts that were securing an antenna mast to a roof-mounted tripod. The existing nuts and bolts were extremely rusty, and I planned to replace them with new bronze ones. I'd already discovered that no amount of lubricant or torque would budge the rusty ones. The only way to remove them would be by cutting them off. Having already tried that many months earlier, I wasn't even sure that I had any tools capable of doing the job.

While conferring by phone with Bob, he said that he had a Dremel tool with metal cutting disks. I replied that I had the same thing, but had found the disks to be fragile and ineffective. Bob insisted that his worked fine. After each of us described what we had, we determined that we were talking about completely different cutting disks. Ever hopeful, I told Bob to go ahead and bring his Dremel and disks when he came. In the meantime, I looked up the disks he described and ordered a set myself.

Vice grip
A little persuasion from a Vice Grip

Anyway, we selected a date and time, and hoped that it wouldn't be raining that day. (It's been crazy in St. Louis, with rain every single week for months now. The favorite activities here have become repairing levees and building arks.)

As the date we had chosen approached, I kept a close watch on the weather forecast. I'm not sure why, because it had become wildly inaccurate of late. I don't really blame the National Weather Service, though, as it's almost like gremlins or UFOs or something have taken control of the local weather.

The day finally arrived, and it didn't look like it was going to rain on us. We were going to start at 9:30 AM, and I figured we'd finish no later that 11:00 AM. The temperature was already in the lower 90s, but there was a slight breeze, and the part of the roof where we planned to work was in the shade. In other words, conditions weren't ideal, but they were livable.

Bob was right on time. I took him down to my basement to show him my shack, and to shut off the transceivers running my APRS home station and Winlink Remote Mail Server. I would've been a very poor host if Bob had gotten brain cancer while working near antennas that were still transmitting.

Finishing up in the basement, we went to my garage and pulled out my old fold-up metal ladder. It's quite sturdy, but really difficult to unfold. It's joints are as old and cranky as my own, and just as painful to operate. I suppose I should try to loosen them up with lubricant next time. About four or five gallons of 3-in-1 Oil ought to do it.

Once the ladder was in place and unlikely to move, Bob and I crept up it (like I said, we're both retirees) and began hauling our gear onto the roof. I'd brought everything I could think of, but I knew from experience that there are always two or three items that I'd need to go back down the ladder to find. With both of us being compulsive over-preparers, though, it turned out that the only thing we'd forgotten was a can of lubricant. I quickly remedied that omission.

Rusty nuts and bolts
The rusty hardware finally removed

We surveyed the rusty bolt situation and decided that we should work on one nut/bolt set at a time. We'd remove the rusty set and replace it with a bronze set before moving on to the next one. The main problem was that the parts of the nuts and bolts that we most needed to access were out of reach to tools and cutting disks. We could jam out fingers in there, but there was not way we could get much of a grip, let alone unscrew recalcitrant nuts. We did eventually locate one bolt that protruded further than the rest, and presented us an opportunity to chop off its head.

I held the mast steady and Bob went at the bolt with his Dremel tool. I was quite surprised by how effective it was, lopping off the head of the bolt in less than a minute. Bob got the entire rusty set out and carefully inserted the bronze set. I made sure that the mast didn't crush his fingers.

Once cut, some nuts and bolts obligingly fell out by themselves, while others required some physical persuasion. In all, it took two Dremels, two cutting disks, a variety of wrenches (some doubling as hammers), and a trusty can of oil.

One bronze nut managed to escape and skitter down the roof and into the garden, never to be seen again. I had anticipated that and had plenty of spares. One wrench tried to follow it, but was quickly recaptured. None of the rusty parts even tried. They opted to have us haul them down manually.

To be truthful, I wasn't sure that I had enough stamina to last through the entire job. As little as six months earlier, I had practically no endurance whatsoever. It wasn't my age, it was the medications I was taking. I knew that since I'd been allowed to stop taking them, my strength had increased. I'd regained some musculature by exercising daily, but I didn't know how long I could go before my stamina gave out.

One hour, as it turned out. That was much better than the one or two minutes I would've lasted a year ago. Our work on the roof took a little over an hour, and I did need to take a break near then end, but I was back on the roof fairly quickly. That, plus the job Bob and I had just done made me quite happy that day. We brought down all of our equipment, folded up Cranky the Ladder, and headed out for a celebratory lunch.

The rest of the Master Plan can wait until another day.

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