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Sometimes a wonderful confluence occurs and what a person does for a living not only makes him happy but also makes the rest of us happy. By that I don't mean that this person is providing some service that makes our lives better. Rather, I mean that this person being content, and, more important, occupied, is preferable for the rest of us, because God knows what he'd be doing otherwise. In the case of Spiderman Mulholland, he followed his own unusual interests and found not only a calling, but, in many ways, peace.
I heard about Mulholland when my friend Owen, who was then working at the Rocky Mountain News, in Denver, forwarded me a story from his paper, dated April 27, 2004, titled, "The Amazing Spiderman Saves the Day with Flag Fix." Here's how the story began:
BROWN PALACE HIRES HERO'S NAMESAKE FOR AERIAL REPAIR
A real-life version of classic Marvel comics hero Spider-Man created a spectacle for passers-by when he scaled one of the Denver landmark's rooftop flagpoles to make an otherwise routine repair before rappelling headfirst to safety.
The hotel flew in Spiderman Scott Mulholland from his home base in Pensacola, Fla., to fix a pulley that got stuck about six weeks ago at the top of a 40-foot flagpole at the edge of the 10-story building'sroof.
The 42-year-old former Marine, who has built a multimillion-dollar business doing repairs and cleaning on what he calls "suicidal buildings," said he paid Marvel to use the Spiderman name for his business. He flashed his driver's license to prove he legally changed his own first name as well.
It seemed too good, or perhaps too weird, to be true. A former Marine who calls himself Spiderman and scales buildings. Unusual: check. Enthusiastic: check. Potentially unstable: also a check. But if so, he was certainly a functional delusional, and that is the most interesting kind (Howard Hughes being a prime example).
I pulled up some more newspaper stories on Mulholland, including an account of how he taught a Florida SWAT team to enter buildings by rappelling the exterior and then busting through the windows boot-first, like they do in action movies. Next, I checked out his Web site, which included what appeared to be an ad detailing Mulholland's work on the First National Bank of Mobile using a Dow Corning sealant. The ad read:
He's a wall climber. He is a curtainwall consultant, past president of the Exterior Design Institute, a forensic expert on waterproofing failures, and a certified waterproofing contractor in his own right. But at heart, Spiderman Mulholland is a wall climber. A life of foster homes, drugs and detention took a turn when Scott Mulholland joined the Marines and received specialized training in advanced rappelling, helicopter extractions, and skyrigging. His experience in the Marines led to his career choice-climbing walls.
This, I thought, was the kind of guy I was looking for. I called him one morning in the fall and reached him on his cell phone as he drove to a construction site. "Very, very, very few people do what I do," he said, his voice coming loud and fast. "Most people do not have this kind of passion for it, VERY FEW are willing to go up the side of a building for it, and very few understand forensic investigations."
He was extremely busy at the moment, he told me. His office was in Pensacola, Florida, so he was right in the midst of the devastation from Hurricane Ivan, the last in a series of four hurricanes that ravaged the Florida coast during a nine-week period in the summer of 2004, leaving 107 people dead and causing approximately $40 billion in damage. The hurricane had been disastrous for the general populace but a boon for someone who repairs buildings. As long as I didn't mind tagging along, Mulholland said he'd be happy to show me the ropes, in this case literally. "You and me, we'll go jump off some buildings," he said. "You ain't gonna believe it when you see it!"
There has been a fair amount of research done on why people are drawn to dangerous activities and occupations. In 1973, Bruce Ogilvie, who is considered by many to be the father of sports psychology, performed a study on 293 "high-risk" competitors, including skydivers, race car drivers, fencers, and aerobatic pilots. In contrast to the conventional wisdom of the time, which equated such pastimes with a death wish, Ogilvie found these people to be success-oriented, strongly extroverted, and, compared to the general population, above average in abstract thinking ability and intelligence. Rather than being reckless, he found their risk taking was calculated; he estimated that only 6 percent of the athletes he studied competed out of anger, because of an inferiority complex, or because they were trying to prove something.
Two decades later, Psychology Today did a story on risk taking in which the magazine culled the opinions of top researchers and psychologists and came to similar, if less ebullient, conclusions. The consensus among the scientists was that, among other things, an inclination to take risks may be "hard-wired into the brain . . . and may offer such a thrill that it functions like an addiction." Extroverts are more likely to be risk takers, the experts concluded, a finding that seems logical. But the researchers were divided on what propels the impulse; some argued that it is an internal drive, an urge hardwired into one's personality, while others argued that environmental factors play a large role. Marvin Zuckerman, a pioneering psychologist in the field, labels some people "high sensation seeking," or HSS individuals, whereas other researchers break people down into Type A, Type B, and Type T, for thrill.
For all but a few Americans, a job is not an outlet for sensation seeking. Unless you're a firefighter or a logger, the most dangerous part of most people's workday comes during the commute to work (though in Manhattan, it's probably a tie between taking a taxi and ordering a "salad," whether it be tuna, chicken, or egg, at one of the city's smaller delis or bodegas). So the HSS individuals among us take "expedition vacations" and summit mountains in faraway lands and spend our weekends eating cardboard-flavored carbohydrate bars and hanging off cliffs in neoprene outfits, all in search of an adrenal rush.
But not all can handle the heights. It takes a certain type of man, or woman, to seek out the sky. In 1999, 23 percent of Americans described themselves as "very afraid" of heights (technically, it's acrophobia). The only thing we are more afraid of as a country, at least statistically speaking, is snakes.
Mulholland claimed to be scared of nothing.
* * *
Not long after my initial phone conversation with Mulholland, I booked a trip to Pensacola. Even though it had been weeks since the hurricane hit, all the hotels within a 120-mile radius were full of storm refugees, an indication of how much work remained for people like Spiderman, so I stayed a ways down the coast.
The morning of my meeting with Mulholland, I awoke before dawn and drove to Pensacola. As the sky brightened into a pale orange, I began to see the aftermath of Ivan. The road ran parallel to the water; to my left a thirty-foot boat had been thrown up on the roadside like a child's toy, its hull pocked with puncture marks. Towering piles of debris, thick with garbage, uprooted trees, sheets of bent aluminum and wood, lay at regular intervals like so many unkindled bonfires. Everywhere there were reminders of the storm-the "Goodbye Ivan Clearance Sale" at the mattress store, the woman in the State Farm Catastrophe team T-shirt at the coffee stand, the bulldozers rumbling down the highway, the plaintive graffiti scrawled on one house that read, simply, IVAN SUCKS.
Mulholland lived inland but his house had still taken a beating. A tree branch had fallen through his carport, just missing his Escalade, and almost all the vegetation in his yard had been either flattened or uprooted. Defiantly, Mulholland, his wife, their seventeen-year-old daughter, and their thirteen-year-old son John (Mulholland's two older sons no longer live at home) had hunkered down during the ten-hour storm as winds battered the modest two-story brick home. This might seem rather foolhardy, but once I got to know Mulholland, it didn't surprise me at all.
When I pulled into his long dirt driveway, Mulholland fairly bounded out of his house to meet me. His handshake was akin to meeting an oncoming linebacker, fast and firm and delivered with no small amount of elbow-pumping force. Though a relatively squat man, about five nine and broad, he possessed a coiled energy, like a crouched cat stalking its prey. He was wearing his work "uniform," which consisted of a tucked-in polo shirt, jeans, black Rockport sneakers, and an ID badge clipped to his shirt that read spiderman mulholland, bennet shuman architects, the name of the architect he partnered with much of the time. He was exquisitely clean-shaven, and his full black hair was gelled into a politician's helmet. He looked less like a daredevil and more like someone who might sell me kitchen appliances.
We headed to his office, a one-story, three-room building separate from the main house, to talk about his work. Or, more specifically, for Mulholland to talk about his work. Best described as a one-way conversationalist, Mulholland doesn't interact so much as preach; it is as if he's speaking in ALL CAPS. He also likes to make an enthusiastic hooting noise before and after sentences, a sort of hybrid of "Hooo boy" and "Whoopee," and often follows particularly exciting declarations with a high-pitched, wheezing laugh that causes his face to scrunch up in a manner reminiscent of Jeff Daniels in the movie Dumb and Dumber. So, for instance, were Mulholland eating a sandwich, he wouldn't describe it so much as champion it. "WOOOOOO! NOW THAT'S THE BEST SANDWICH IN FLORIDA RIGHT THERE," he would say in his loud, raspy voice. "I MIGHT JUST GET A COOLER AND FILL IT WITH THOSE SANDWICHES, HEH, HEH, HEEEAHHHHHH."
Not that Mulholland ate any sandwiches while I was with him, or, for that matter, any solid food. At the time, he was on day three of one of his semi-regular fasts (he alternates between three-day, seven-day, and ten-day liquid fasts, and his wife and kids often join him). Over the course of two days, all I saw him consume was water, V-8, Gatorade, and coffee. "I'm stronger when I'm fasting than when I'm not," he explained to me. "Your body and your mind become sharp, son. It's like a RAZOR," he said, snapping his fingers. "You think by not eating you'd get weak"-and here he shook his head emphatically-"I came off a twenty-one-day fast about ten years ago and it was in the heat of summer and 111 degrees and I was just out there flying down the sides of buildings, JUST FLYING."
So, in observance of his fast, he drank his "breakfast" of black coffee while giving me a tour. His office was large, exceptionally clean, and lined with bookshelves, which included a mixture of building maintenance tomes such as Sick Buildings, and motivational books such as Do It Now!" and Break the Procrastination Habit. The walls were pasted with various trade school diplomas (the Exterior Design Institute), thank-you notes (from the SWAT team I'd read about, on behalf of the sheriff), framed news clips ("Spiderman Coaxes Jumper Off of a Water Tower"), and motivational reminders ("Take a look at your appearance. Do you look like a polished professional?"). An assortment of photo collages from his Marine Corps days graced the walls.
I pointed to a picture of him standing in a jungle, wearing fatigues and camouflage paint and cradling an enormous black gun. "That's my rifle there, that's my puppy," he said in the manner of someone identifying a nephew or a niece in a family snapshot. "That's an M-40 A1 sniper rifle, ten by magnification, fires around 2,550 feet per second with a bolt tail projectile. I could hit a helium balloon on the wind at three and a half football fields away. I have a 20/17 shooting eye. I outshot everybody in the Marine Corps except one man."
And the next photo, of a bunch of soldiers suspended from lines below a helicopter in jungle terrain. Rappelling?
"Nope, that's spy rigging," he said. "They hooked us up, chained us in, and took us up. Four guys go out north, south, east, and west. The helicopter comes in and you lock yourself in, with each line shorter than the other. When the helicopter starts going you start walking and it just picks you up. [So the soldiers are hooked, one above the other, to the same line.] On that day, we lost four guys. They got killed. They hit the power lines. It was just a miscalculation."
He shook his head in a brief moment of remembrance, then headed toward his computer. "Hey, you gotta see my DVD!"
He popped in a disc and the hard-charging chords of Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" blared from his computer speakers. Mulholland nodded along. "OH YEAH, HERE WE GO!"
The screen came to life and there he was, hanging upside down about a hundred feet below the top of a skyscraper, attached at the waist by a long rope, looking something like an unspooled yo-yo. As I watched, he inverted himself and began walking along the side of the building, then running, using the tautness of the rope to remain perpendicular. With a strong push of his leg, he launched himself into the air and did one, two, now three spins before landing against the glass with arms out, cushioning the impact like a cat falling from a height. Then he tore off the other way across the building, soaring out thirty feet-"THIRTY-SEVEN FEET, SON," to be exact-performing twelve turns in the air and finally wrapping himself around the edge, briefly disappearing from sight. "After twenty-two years on buildings, you name it and I can do it," he said as we watched. "If you open your legs, it slows your speed, if you close your legs you spin. I can see the building and after a while you can get pretty good at it, so I never hit my back. Probably been six years since I hit my back."
The video was impressive-I felt like I was watching a segment on That's Incredible! or some new extreme sports competition on late-night ESPN2-but I wasn't clear how these stunts helped him with his job. He explained that he used his rappelling and wall-climbing skills to make high-risk repairs-whether it be fixing a flagpole as he had done in Denver or doing mechanical repairs on top of a water tower or ascending a cracked atrium-that would otherwise require cranes or helicopters or a team of specialists.
Excerpted from The Butterfly Hunter by Chris Ballard Excerpted by permission.
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