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Top of the world
Local man earns living as steeplejack

COVINGTON - "I'm on the top of the world lookin' down on creation," the Carpenters sang.

Fred Franklin has actually had that experience, many times over.

Franklin is a steeplejack. He climbs to the tip top of churches, hotels, water towers and other places where most humans would fear to tread.

He is a craftsman whose studio is at bird's-eye view. He works hundreds of feet above the ground to repair a building weakened and damaged by deterioration and restore it to its former glory.

He gets there without a crane and without scaffolding.

Franklin does it the hard way - he climbs.

He does his work secured by only a harness and ropes.

Franklin estimates he's worked on 40 churches during the last 13 years, repairing structural damage and making aesthetic improvements.

His latest project is Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta, where he's refastening some loose panels, improving the structural support on the inside of the steeple and painting the outside.

The way he describes his day-to-day work activities can leave a listener wide-eyed, but Franklin sometimes forgets what he does for a living is out of the norm.

"I've got to remind myself that it's weird to other people. People that teach school or work in an office, I couldn't do that. Everybody is good at something; that's just what I'm good at. I was lucky enough to find it," he said.

Franklin was born for this work, it seems.

As a child, he loved climbing to the highest branches of trees. At age 12, he built a tree house that was so high, his friends refused to go in it.

"I kind of realized I was a little different then," he said.

Franklin discovered rappelling when he joined the Boy Scouts and began caving at age 16. He would spend as long as 30 hours in the caves of North Georgia with his friends, exploring, eating, even napping.

Then he took up rock climbing. Franklin recalls one trip to Mount Yonah in northeast Georgia when he and his buddies set up camp a couple hundred feet up the side of the mountain.

"We stayed up there and hung out, had a few beers, and went to sleep. At 5:30 in the morning, these ropes came down next to us and woke us up. These (Army) Rangers came down with M16s strapped on their backs and said, 'What are you doing here?' And we said, 'What are you doing here?'

The Rangers were conducting a training exercise and weren't expecting company.

"We just hung out and watched them," he said.

Franklin later joined Tree Climbers International and began climbing some of the largest trees in the country.

He was the first person to climb the fifth largest tree in the world, a 247-foot-tall, 2,000-year-old Redwood Sequoia in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It took him four hours to get to the top.

"It was incredible," he said.

He was featured in a 1996 documentary about tree climbing called "Tickle the Sky," which has aired on public television.

Franklin started working for CNN Center in Atlanta 20 years ago as a window washer and became the go-to guy for special projects, like hanging Christmas decorations, cleaning the large globe atop the building's famous escalator and even vacuuming a dummy-astronaut hanging from the ceiling.

He started his own business, Franklin Restoration Inc., in 1996.

His first customer was Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta, whose members were concerned about the church's appearance, as it would be seen on TV during the Olympics marathons and bike races.

His longest project was the restoration of the top of Big Bethel AME Church, also in Atlanta, which took about 18 months. The oldest predominately black church in the metro Atlanta area, the church's steeple is familiar to drivers along Interstate 75 and Interstate 85 for its blue neon "Jesus Saves" sign.

He also does rigging for skylight companies, hanging safety nets so crews can work during business hours without endangering the public.

The highest Franklin's ever been is 800 feet, on top of the Westin Peachtree Hotel in Atlanta.

"They say after 30 feet it doesn't matter anyway. It's all psychological," he said.

He's only fallen once, at CNN Center, when he left his rope short to avoid hitting pedestrians. He got to the bottom row of windows, his soapy hands slipped and he fell about 8 feet, landing on his bucket.

He wasn't hurt, but, "It really taught me to never let your guard down," he said.

Franklin said he doesn't experience much fear at climbing to unthinkable heights. In fact, it's almost a meditative experience for him. But that doesn't mean he's not cautious. He said he has a healthy respect for the danger involved with his work. He prays before getting into the harness.

"It's just like driving a car. If you're driving 70 miles per hour on a two-lane road and you're three or four feet from a car, all it takes is a little swerve and you're dead," he said. "It's the same way with climbing. You just have to focus and think about what you're doing."

Another danger he's learned to deal with is the presence of bees and wasps. Some days there are thousands; apparently, the insects are attracted to ions in the metal, or the shape of the steeples.

Because they don't usually have nests there, however, they're mostly passive and Franklin works with them swarming all around him.

"I've just learned to ignore them. I've only been stung four or five times in the last 13 years," he said.

One of Franklin's favorite aspects of his job is the chance to get creative.

For example, when the roof blew off a water tower at the Fulton Bag Factory in Cabbage Town, Franklin found the top of a grain silo that he retrofitted as a replacement.

The result was that a job that could have run $60,000 cost $15,000.

"I can usually come in and do a better job at a fraction of the cost," Franklin said, noting that he doesn't have the overhead of scaffolding or cranes like some companies.

Franklin's business is based out of Rutledge, but he lives in Covington. Locally, he's worked on Covington First United Methodist Church, several churches and homes in Madison and the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center.

One advantage to his line of work is that he doesn't have a lot of competition.

"I do stuff no one else can do or wants to do," he said.

Another benefit is quality alone time.

"Nobody messes with you. Nobody ever comes up there and bothers you," he said.

The worst part of the job?

"Paperwork," Franklin said. "I hate doing paperwork."

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.