An observant person who was familiar with both can pretty easily see that there are a lot of things which the sailboat and the stage have in common. A big one is in rigging and knots. The rest? Well, I recently read something comparing stagehands to pirates that wasn’t too much of a stretch, so I think there’s probably a future post in there somewhere.
“Do you know your knots?” many of the old heads will ask you on your first call. I would hesitantly say that “most” stagehands do know them, which is why it’s generally only the older heads that will ask you. I’d confidently say that the guys that don’t know their knots usually don’t carry knives, either.
Basically, there’s two knots that stagehands will generally find themselves using just about every day: the bowline and the clove hitch.
I think it’s because the story of how I learned my knots is funny that I’ve always wanted to start asking the people I work with how they learned theirs. Was it on the job? Or were they clued in beforehand, and able to confidently answer in the affirmative when asked the all-important question I’ve already mentioned above?
Personally, I wasn’t clued in. Actually, I was clued in…it was attempted and I was just too scatter-brained to retain the info. I tend to not be so hot about learning things unless I’m really interested in what I’m being shown. And the chances of that were slim when I was in my teens, unless it involved Jack Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, Led Zeppelin or girls. The long and the short of it is that I didn’t know my knots when I showed up to my first call for carpenters.
I was a half-hour early. It was a cacophonic riot of moving dollies and shouting and gear. I was greeted by the owner of the gruff voice I had heard on the phone the day before. He sported a pompadour, a face older than his voice, a limp and a cigarette in his mouth while one sat ready behind his ear. He was arguing with two guys, both of whose bellies hung far beyond and below their toolbelts and who looked like they could bench press three of me. Each. I asked to speak with the man whose name I had been given.
â€œYou the new guy? The college boy?â€
I didn’t really know how to respond to that….I’d never been anywhere where having gone to college might be a bad thing. â€œI guess so, unless there are two of us starting tonight.â€
â€œDid we speak yesterday?â€
â€œThen you’re the new guy, college boy. Thought you’d be smarter than that.â€ He laughed to the other guys, and jerked his thumb back in my direction. â€œHe paid all that money just to not know that he’s the college boy who’s a new guy.â€ They both laughed as they ambled off.
â€œSo. College boy. Tell me, do you know your knots?â€ The speed and manner of which he so thoroughly chewed his gum was especially intimidating, even above and beyond his rangy strength.
I vaguely remembered my father mentioning this, and showing me the two knots â€œI absolutely, positively needed to know.â€ His hands moved in flashes under the light and after he showed me three times how to tie each, he had me do what he did. I fumbled around until I got them right, and promptly forgot everything about them. What was good for me was that I quickly and correctly saw that I was doomed here, that nothing I could say or do would prevent me from getting kicked around for a while. Somehow, I internalized it, accepted it and decided to roll with it in one quick, shining and rare moment of adulthood. Rare for me, anyway.
â€œNo sir, I’m sorry, but I don’t.â€
He leaned in close to me. Though all around us was chaos and noise, he spoke very quietly. I didn’t miss a word as he growled them at me, delivering them aloft a quiet breeze on which I smelled the odor of every cigarette he had smoked that day, along with the slightest hint of mint. Judging by the pack he smoked over the course of that first four-hour call, there were a lot of sticks on that breath.
â€œDon’t call me sir, college boy. I work for a living. Do me a favor and save that shit for your professors, alrighty?â€
â€œOoooooookay. Yup, no problem.â€
He turned to a bin full of bundles of white rope, grabbed one, spun and unraveled it all in one fluid motion that showed he had done it tens of thousands of times, all while keeping his eye on me. â€œOK Plato, there’s just two knots you need to know for now, alright? The first is the bowline. I’m gonna tie it for you once or twice, and then you’ll do what I do.â€ He reached back, grabbed another coil of rope and tossed it to me.
â€œSee, you just make this little loop, then bring this thing here around it, back to the front, and then through it. Pull this end here to make it tight. There you have it, a bowline.â€
The temptation I always have to break into a smile in situations as ridiculous as this had, very luckily I think, deserted me completely. It left in its place a creeping feeling that I was in completely over my head.
â€œWant to see that again?â€
â€œPlease, if you wouldn’t mind.â€
â€œOne more time, and then you do it. Hold it like this to start. Then there’s your loop, there’s it going around, back in here, through, and pull. OK?â€ He seemed to be enjoying himself. And now, in retrospect, I know for a fact he was, because we’ve since joked about it.
I looked down at my hands, which compared to his were awfully soft. And clean. The ability to control what they were doing seemed to have left me. â€œYup. So I start out by…â€
â€œSwitch hands. You a lefty?â€
I was. Sometimes. But it was complicated. It took me going for tests with the gym teacher as a kid to figure out which hand my parents should buy a baseball glove for. I never really knew which way to hold a bat, which hand to throw with, nothing. Now, I’m older and wiser and comfortable with the fact that there’s nothing wrong, I am just totally incompetent when it comes to anything related to sports. â€œIt depends.â€
â€œIt depends? Is that something I need a diploma to decode? What the hell could it possibly depend on?â€ Standing under a No Smoking sign as well as the hand lettered, all caps â€œABSOLUTELY NO SMOKING IN THE STUDIOâ€ one below it, he sighed out an impossible lungful of smoke, and looked first left, then right over his shoulders. He leaned in a little closer, but didn’t talk as quietly as last time. â€œTell you what…do you know what hand you tie your shoes with?â€
â€œAlright. Then do the opposite of what I do. Take the short end in your left hand. That’s called the working end. You know why they call it that?â€
â€œNo? Boy, you’re really getting your money’s worth at that college. Alright. Take the working end in your left hand, and the standing end in your right. I don’t supposed you know why they call it that, either, yes?â€
‘Christ,’ I thought to myself. The call hadn’t even started yet, and already I wanted to crawl under a rock. â€œYes. Well, no. I don’t know why.â€
â€œDidn’t think so. Now follow me. Make this loop. Take this thing, go around the loop. Then go through it. No, the loop. No. Through. The. Loop. That’s it. Now pull it tight. No, the other thing. Yeah. And there you have it.â€
I’m sorry, what was it I have again, apart from a fistful of fear and regret and a simmering desire to go disembowel the old man for getting me into this?
â€œDo it again.â€ The second time was a little better, though not much. He only had to show me where I messed up once. Two more times, and I was pretty sure I had it.
â€œNow do it behind your back.â€ I did, with some effort. Then he grabbed my right hand. â€œDo it one handed.â€ I fumbled around for a minute. Two minutes. He let my hand go. “Alright. Another day. Come with me.”
He walked over to a Genie â€“ a sort of open elevator device. It’s kind of like a cherry picker that can only go up and down…a platform that’s about two and a half feet square, surrounded by bars at foot and a half intervals, keeping you inside. He lifted the chain that was stretched across the entrance. â€œHop in. Now move over. More.â€ He hopped in next to me. â€œPress the green button.â€
I turned slightly and pressed the green button. The box started to rise, slowly, with a whine that indicated that it was laboring under the strain of perhaps more weight than it was designed to lift.
We went up, up through the grid, at about 19 feet, the height to which I had become accustomed on lighting calls. On past that, I was looking at the network of pipes and then the thick, dusty cables that powered the whole thing. Up further, and we were going past the air-conditioning ducts, with holes punched here and there by some of the studio equipment that hung from the grid. Past that, the genie whining ominously and the whole thing swaying back and forth like a ship caught in a hurricane, we stopped. We were higher than I’d ever been in my life. And I’d never been very high because I was terrified of heights.
He put his palm on the ceiling. â€œSo this is the whole studio.â€ I looked around. â€œYou might be spending a lot of time here eventually, but you won’t see if from up here very often.â€
Being terrified of heights and up that high in what is essentially a phone booth without the safety of enclosure, I really wasn’t seeing too much anyway. I was really only good for a nod and a smile.
Then he pulled a short section of the same rope out of his pocket. â€œThis is a clove hitch.â€ He whipped through the knot, going under, over, under then over, through, something, I couldn’t keep track. He pulled it tight and turned to me.
â€œGot it?â€ he asked, with a sly grin.
Um, yeah. It was easier than the last one…what was it called again? But at this height, it could be that old shoe knot and I would have trouble. â€œOnce more, if you could.â€
He heaved a sigh, untied and retied the knot. â€œYour turn,â€ he said, untying it and holding it limply between two fingers at eye level.
I took the short length and started to do what I thought he did. Then the bucket began to sway. I turned and looked at him, he had a wickedly leering grin on his face. It was swaying because he was rocking from side to side! What a crazy fuck!
â€œC’mon, Aristotle. Tie the damn knot so we can get down. Don’t you know I’m afraid of heights?â€
With some pointers from him, I worked through it as we passed through states varying widely from perfectly vertical. Thankfully, he started us on our long descent with a touch of his thumb. â€œNow tie the bowline again. Behind your back. You should be tying that fuckin’ knot twenty-four seven until you can tie it without looking, upside down and with one hand. Got it? I’m going to check you every night when you leave the studio to make sure you have a few feet of line to practice.â€
We hit the ground with a slight thud and he climbed out to go have another smoke. Props was done with most of their strike in the first set.
All we had to do was wait for the clock.