An office with a view: Unique job brings out creative side in New Richmond man
A lot of white-collar corporate employees spend a lifetime in the rat race striving to someday get a promotion that will land them in a corner office with a view.
Jason Meissner, a 1998 New Richmond High School graduate, didn’t have to wait. As a tower technician with Hudson-based Midwest Tower Erection Inc., he enjoys expansive wide-sky views every day from towers high over landscapes all over the Midwest.
Meissner, a father of two young girls, worked in construction until jobs dried up during the recession. A friend who worked at Midwest Tower encouraged him to apply for an opening about three-and-a-half years ago as the company expanded thanks to investments Verizon was making in its long-term evolution (LTE) service across the nation.
“They hired me on the spot and I’ve been working for Verizon Wireless ever since,” Meissner said. “It’s all Verizon, whether we’re stacking towers, or taking towers down, or hanging new antennas for LTE or AWS (advanced wireless services), or installing a microwave dish.”
Most people probably don’t give it much thought, but it’s towers, technology and technicians like Meissner that are to thank whenever their cell phone conversations and wireless data service work as they should.
“If it wasn’t for guys like us, people wouldn’t be able to do everything on their phones with games and apps,” Meissner said. “What people don’t realize is that for your calls and Internet to work really well, guys like us risk our lives every day. We freeze up there just to make sure everything works. It has to get done.”
Though it’s clear that the job involves heights, Meissner says that’s just the beginning of the risks involved in working on metal structures hundreds of feet in the sky. Rigorous safety training and equipment prepare him for many contingencies in a job he believes is even more dangerous than those of the commercial fishermen portrayed in the Deadliest Catch TV show.
“If a tower falls, there is no Coast Guard to come help us,” Meissner said. “If their ship goes down, they still have a chance of getting saved. If a tower collapses, that’s pretty much it.”
According to Meissner, each tower technician with Midwest Tower is certified for tower climber rescue operations in case of individual accidents on the job. So far, Meissner hasn’t had to use that training in a real-world lifesaving situation.
Other dangers that keep Meissner and his fellow crew members on their toes include dishes that emit potentially harmful microwave frequencies, strong winds, cold temperatures and icy tower conditions.
“We are one of the best when it comes to conditions in the Midwest,” Meissner said. “Guys from down in Texas, they can’t really come up here this time of year and try to do this. It is miserable. This is the time of year when it really starts to suck. There’s times when your eyes can start freezing shut. Amazing stuff can happen up there when a tower’s glazed in ice.”
He admits that upon occasion his mind has wandered to thinking about how the towers are engineered, particularly how much ice weight and wind shear they can withstand. He also thinks about what the human body can withstand at extremely low temperatures. When the weather is cool, he is careful to climb the tower very slowly to avoid breaking a sweat. He’s not trying to be lazy, he just doesn’t want his exertion to turn against him when he reaches the top. Once at the top, he needs to be there for several hours to complete his job. That means moving too quickly and working up a sweat could lead to a lot of discomfort — or even hypothermia — as he stops climbing at the top.
“When it’s 2 degrees on the ground, it’s probably like minus-12 up there, even at just 100 feet up,” Meissner said. “We’re usually working between 300 and 400 feet, sometimes higher than that.”
Meissner’s highest climb was 550 feet, but he says he knows guys who have been about 1,000 feet up on a tower near Somerset that has since been lowered.
On pleasant days, Meissner very much enjoys the unique parts of his job.
“Cars look like Micro Machines (toys),” Meissner said. “I’ve had flocks of geese fly underneath me. I’ve had helicopters fly pretty much at or just underneath me. I’ve had hail, rain and snow up on the tower. I’ve seen it snow below us without it being very bad up top.”
One weather situation all tower crews are especially careful to avoid is lightning, which can spell doom for both the climbers and the ground support crew members.
“Only certain things sketch me out, like if I’m 400 feet up in the air and I see a storm rolling in with lighting,” Meissner said. “If a lightning bolt hits the tower, you’re done. The whole crew is done, everybody on the ground is done. It can arc off and kill everybody. There are times you might not be able to climb down fast enough when a storm rolls in and a tower is just a giant lightning rod just asking to get hit.”
Despite the dangers, Meissner can’t imagine ever leaving the company to find safer work.
“I’m going to stay here forever. I love this job,” Meissner said.
In fact, the vistas the job offers have provided him with a heavy dose of artistic inspiration that he has begun exploring thanks to the cell phone photography application Instagram.
His Instagram account has awe-inspiring images of brightly colored sunsets and autumn landscapes, tranquil green forests and farmland, and shots looking straight down at the tower itself. Meissner’s artsy shots are mixed in with selfies and slice-of-life snapshots of his daughters — Kennedy, 8; and Brynn, 6.
“I’m trying to get into amateur photography, because I can take so many amazing pictures from there of the sunsets, the leaves, the lakes and the mountains,” Meissner said. “I was on a tower last October where I could see Mount Rushmore from the tower. That was really cool.”
Over the past two years, Meissner has been shooting photos just with his cell phone, but he has recently purchased a nice 35mm film camera to experiment with.
“I want to open up my own darkroom and start bringing back real vintage-type photos without a digital camera, doing it all myself,” Meissner said.
For now, he still shoots all his photos with his cell phone, but he hopes to soon begin packing his film camera along with his lunch, tools and other equipment. For Meissner it’s about learning to create some of the Instagram filter effects using only a camera, film and darkroom techniques.
“Everybody strives for the old-school look now,” Meissner said. “A lot of people take pictures and go on Instagram to try to make them look old. If you just get yourself an old camera, you can shoot real vintage stuff, and it will be old.”
Meissner’s Instagram images can be viewed at instagram.com/blackmoonkiller.