Janet Combs (copy)

Janet Combs

The ladder has a name, and it is “Baby Death.” Apparently, there was a larger, older, significantly wiser ladder that gave Baby Death its disturbing name, but it was sold when my husband retired because its offspring had matured enough to handle most home improvement projects.

Before I ascended Baby Death, the tallest ladder I had ever climbed was a 10-foot step ladder -- let’s call it Wimpy Life — and I used it primarily to change smoke detector batteries. But Baby Death is a 24-foot aluminum extension ladder, and when you step on it, it “gives” and bounces with your weight, which is surprising as well as mildly terrifying. This might cause you to make the sound my mother made when she taught me to drive, which is that sharp intake of breath that sounds like a reverse laugh -- the word “ha” but spoken on an inhale.

Up and down the Grand Strand right now, thousands of readers are making the aforementioned sound out loud while reading this — and their unsuspecting associates are shouting, “What’s wrong?” That’s because when this sound is made, any folks within earshot go immediately on high alert. In fact, this is the only sound in the world which — spoken because a person fears an accident — has the potential to cause an accident. That is why it is prohibited on construction sites, as it should be from vehicle interiors, fine restaurants and nude beaches.

I learned this in my early training on Baby Death in Baltimore, Maryland, when we put a new front porch on our home. We needed both of us to fit the last pieces of siding up on the facing gable of the porch roof, something I had previously only gazed upon from the safety of an interior window seat. I was on Baby Death while my husband was a few feet away on Rusty Junior Death, borrowed from a neighbor.

Now, I have a theory about experienced people who know how to use tools — and I will share it with you in case any of you work for a university and would like to spend thousands of dollars studying this phenomenon of nominal significance.

For professionals, a tool just becomes an extension of their coordinated bodies. The screwdriver morphs into their dominant hand and efficiently turns, never missing the screwhead or stripping the screw. The hand-saw works from the shoulder, cutting plastic piping along precise lines with a few short strokes. And a ladder? Well, a ladder simply elongates their own two legs.

I guess my husband didn’t find the placement of his ladder precisely to his liking that time in Baltimore, so he “jumped it,” which is to say he lifted the ladder off the ground and two inches to the right while he was on it. Instinctively, I made the sound.

“What’s wrong?” he shouted.

“Nothing,” I said, gripping the ladder, my hands blanched to the hue of Nicole Kidman’s face.

“Don’t ever do that!” he said. “It’s the most dangerous thing you can do on a construction site.”

“Well,” I said, “Don’t you ever do that.”

“Do what?” he said.

“That thing you just did — moving the ladder while you were on it.”

Wisely, we focused on our task and postponed our discussion to when we were on solid ground. Nearly four years later, I am happy to report we are still encountering this lively aerial exchange!

Progress is being made, however. This past weekend, we had to yank out some rotting boards in an open stairwell two stories high. My husband secured some planks across the opening and was about to set up a stepladder on them.

“You might get a little squirrely,” he said.

“Let’s use Baby Death instead,” I replied. He agreed, and we got the job done quickly, safely, and — for the most part — quietly.

If only we could get our dog to stop panting nervously while we work.

Janet Combs is a freelance writer in Georgetown County. Her column will be published weekly in the Georgetown Times. Contact her at janetfrickecombs.wordpres.com.