Somebody's got to do it. Robert Crisman plays human fly on the stony faces of Mt. Rushmore, fixing `hairline' fissures on the presidents' weathered skin
Mt. Rushmore, S.D. — `I'VE always had a fear of heights,'' says Robert Crisman, casually. That's hardly a statement to recommend him for his current duties: Each autumn Mr. Crisman swings into space to patch the noses of George, Abe, Teddy, and Tom on Mt. Rushmore. And out there in eagledom, it's a 500 foot drop - 50 stories - to the granite rubble below, heaped high from when the mountain was carved more than four decades ago. Some job for a guy who doesn't like airplanes or ladders or steep stairs with no railings.
Crisman's aerial adventures started back in '76, when he pocketed his phobia and volunteered to do repairs on the massive presidential faces.
``Wanted to try it, to see how it was,'' he says. Then there's a pause. ``Well, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. So they lowered me down over,'' he says, betraying a streak of the daredevil. (His terra firma pastimes include such things as collecting firearms and breaking horses for riding.) During his first crack at the ``upstairs'' job, Crisman filled fissures on two heads: Roosevelt and Jefferson. Now he does all four.
On the days when he goes over the mountain's side, he's strapped into a chair similar to the ones that cradled the early mountain carvers. It's this chair that gives Crisman the feeling of ``control'' when he's hanging in midair. Patterned after the sling seats used by ships' bosuns, the chair was devised by Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor whose genius created the Rushmore.
``There's no way you can get out of it. Even if a person should pass out, he still stays in the seat,'' says Crisman, explaining that his model has more safety features than Borglum's, but even the old ones held men securely. Borglum took pride that no workers were killed or severely injured during the years of blasting and carving.
It goes without saying that Crisman didn't risk a look downward on his initial repair trip. His reaction then? ``Scary.'' But now he regards his journeys on the 60-foot heads as routine as escalator rides.
Howard Peterson takes the same blas'e attitude toward the job. A septuagenarian who now lives in Rapid City, S.D., Peterson worked on Mt. Rushmore for 14 years, from the first drilling in 1927 to almost the last, in '41. Much of the time he was a ``steel monkey,'' bouncing about in a bosun chair, toting equipment to the workers.
``At the very beginning, every newsreel outfit come to see us. Well, I'd go down and jump off the end of the nose. You know when you jump off, you got nothin' to put your feet on. You're just spinning' around. Oh, we did that for the newsreels right along. That's what they wanted. We never thought too much about it,'' Peterson says, recalling his kaleidoscope of experiences.
But he and Crisman say there's a trick to sitting in that swinging seat. ``I finally found out that I had to lean back and trust the equipment,'' says Crisman. At first, fear makes you want to hug the rock, he explains. And if you do that, face and belly can get bumped along the granite surface. ``When you lean back and relax, you can stand and walk on a nearly vertical slope. It gets to be half fun.''
Maintenance is done in September before the onset of winter, a brutal season for outdoor sculpture because sunshine melts snow, letting it trickle into cracks. When temperatures dip again, the water freezes and expands, eventually making fissures bigger.
Crisman figures each season he fills about 100 cracks on the four heads. ``Never counted them, though,'' he says with a grin like Paul Newman's.
The fissures are filled with a mixture of granite dust, white lead, and linseed oil, the same concoction used by Borglum. ``This material we use to fill the cracks, it starts to crack after a year or two along the original fracture lines,'' Crisman says. And he explains that, for the most part, he repairs the repaired cracks. They're all ``just the same old cracks'' that were here when the mountain was first carved.
At the outset of this monumental project in the mid-'20s, the sculptor Borglum, along with his son, the late Lincoln Borglum, and guides scoured the hills on horseback, searching for a suitable granite site. Mt. Rushmore was selected. But once work started, deep cracks were uncovered. So several times Borglum made changes in his original design to keep the carved heads free of large fissures.
The cracks Crisman fills now are ``no wider than a pencil, and that's a hairline on something so big,'' he says. Repair work takes only five days, and for that time, Crisman's pay is upped by 25 percent. During the rest of the year, he's busy at the Rushmore Visitor Center, mostly with carpentry and cabinet work.
Clearly, Crisman holds a special fondness for Lincoln's likeness. ``There's more detail in Lincoln. Washington was the first. You can see the transition they [Borglum and the workers] made - the workmanship on Washington compared to the workmanship on Lincoln. It's really evident when you're standing on their noses. It's not that Washington isn't good, but Lincoln seems more alive up close. His sculpture looks as good at six feet as it does from 600 feet away. Every fold of the skin is there,'' says Crisman.
Borglum designed Lincoln's eyes so that a shaft of rock protrudes from each pupil. These shafts catch the sunlight, making the eyes look more lifelike to far-off viewers.
When describing his solo ventures, Crisman insists that ``it's as safe as sittin' here,'' and he slaps the side of his swivel chair in the Rushmore maintenance office. He explains that his airborne chair is connected to a cable, controlled by two men on a winch at the mountaintop. If winds get gusty or a storm hits, he simply signals on his police whistle and the winchmen crank him to safety.
Does he know these fellas well?
``You bet. Real well. And a month before I go over, I'm real nice to 'em,'' he jokes in a joke that maybe isn't a joke at all.
Democracy etched in stone
GUTZON BORGLUM sculpted on a colossal scale. The creating of the Mt. Rushmore monument took 14 years - from 1927 to 1941 - and nearly a million dollars, and it required the moving of more than 400,000 tons of rock.
But if visitors to the monument merely see the likeness of presidents' faces, they're stopping short of the sculptor's vision. Borglum's goal was grander. He was sculpting democracy into a mountainside. And he relied upon the presidential figures to collectively personify this idea.
About 2 million people visit the monument each year, and this summer the Lincoln figure will be rededicated July 4, having first been unveiled in September 1937. The ceremony will feature the unveiling of an 45-by-85-foot American flag to be hung at the site.
Times were lean during the '30s, when Borglum was solidifying his dream into granite. And his battle for dollars was constant. In the end, federal appropriations provided $836,000 of the $990,000 spent on the mountain.
The sculptor hired the jobless, many from the shut-down mines in the Black Hills area. Eager for work, yet untrained in mountain sculpting, the men were taught by Borglum to dynamite, drill, carve, and finish the granite.
Edwald Hayes well remembers those times. ``I started at 30 cents an hour in 1932,'' says Mr. Hayes, who had been laid off at a lithium mine.
``We had to build a road up there - by hand,'' he says. ``If we brought our own pick or shovel or an old wheelbarrow, we got a nickel more an hour,'' recalls the octogenarian, who now works at a Rushmore-Borglum attraction in nearby Keystone, S.D., chatting with tourists about the making of a monument.
In the early days, supplies and equipment were transported to Rushmore by pack horse. And workers, including Borglum, started their mornings by climbing more than 700 steps to the mountaintop, 6,000 feet above sea level. Eventually a cable car was built, so both the sculptor and men could ride up.
``And I ran the cable car,'' says Hayes, ``so I saw Borglum a lot. Every day. One morning - this was before the faces [of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt] were showin' up - Borglum was standing there, lookin' up at the bare mountain.
``He always called me Hayes. `Hayes,' he said, `Do you see those other faces up there?' And I said, `No. I see the mountain, but I don't see the other faces.'
``Then Borglum said, `I see 'em. They're in there. All I've got to do is bring 'em out.'''
And so he did.