A young man named Flegg, responding to a dare by a girl he wants to impress and the taunting of a group of young acquaintances, attempts to climb a vertical ladder on an old gasometer, a storage tower in a deserted gasworks. The reader experiences the event through the consciousness of the climber, living through the various perceptions and changing emotions of the performer as he undergoes a wide gamut of feelings from foolish bravado to sheer terror and dreadful isolation.
The group of three boys and two girls are probably teenagers because they are apparently old enough to be given considerable freedom, yet young enough to have little sense of responsibility. They have walked out the back gate of a public park into a run-down, almost deserted section of town, wandered on to the abandoned gasworks, and started throwing bricks at the rusty iron gasometer, towering above all the other structures. The protagonist is showing off, casting his bricks higher than the others, claiming that he knows something about throwing grenades. Then comes the shout from one of the girls: “Bet you can’t climb as high as you can throw!”
The boys immediately take up the derisive, taunting tone. The playful psychological game quickly pushes Flegg into a position of bravado from which he cannot gracefully retreat without losing face.
There are two ways of ascent, one known as a Jacob’s ladder, bolted flat against the side of the tower, the other a zigzag staircase with a safety railing. Flegg saunters toward the safer stair, but the boys call him a sissy and insist that he climb the vertical ladder.
The ladder looks solid enough except that some twenty feet of the lower rungs are missing. A wooden painter’s ladder is propped up against the vertical ladder, however, making it perfectly accessible. One of the girls, no longer vicious but actually encouraging and admiring, gives him her handkerchief to plant at the top of the tower like a banner.
He starts off jauntily enough, practically running up the wooden ladder but slowing significantly when he reaches the vertical ascent. Flakes of rust drop in his face, and he finds that he cannot remove a hand long enough to brush them off. He shakes his head to dislodge them, but this...
(The entire section contains 610 words.)
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