Repairman's work is well-received

April 22, 2002|BY ANDREA ROWLAND

When he was a boy, Austin Brandenburg climbed atop his family's barn to try to catch pigeons. At 83, he's still ascending to bird-worthy heights.

Now, his quarry is better TV reception.

Brandenburg has been repairing television antennas and the tall towers on which they rest for more than 50 years. He is just as willing to scale the towers now as he was when he started Brandenburg TV Antenna Service in 1952, he said.

"It's pretty hard to say 'no,' " Brandenburg said. "I enjoy meeting the people. I like trying to get better reception for them.


"I would say I do the jobs the average person might not want to do - I still like the challenge."

He has no plans to retire anytime soon, he said.

Brandenburg still scrambles up 30- to 100-foot-tall antenna towers at residences in Frederick and Washington counties. Scaling the towers helps keep him spry, he said.

He spent a recent Friday afternoon adding 10 feet to the 30-foot antenna tower at Bill and Mary Poffenberger's Sharpsburg home.

Tools in pocket, Brandenburg scrambled up the tower, work boot heels one over the other hooking into the widely spaced metal rungs, until he reached the base of the antenna at the top.

"He climbs up that antenna like a 16-year-old boy," Mary Poffenberger said. "He gets around better than I ever even think about."


Brandenburg never wears a safety harness.

"It's inconvenient and cumbersome," he said. "I've just learned to use my legs as my security so I can let my hands go free."

Supporting most of his weight on his straight left leg and crooking his right leg around one of the tower's outside poles, Brandenburg unbolted the antenna from its towering base with a socket wrench in one hand and pliers in the other.

He wiggled the large, unbolted antenna loose, checked his balance and lugged it down to the ground with one hand while clutching the tower rungs with the other.

Brandenburg climbed up and down the tower at least six times within two hours, detaching and reconnecting the rotor, disassembling and reassembling portions of the tower, pivoting in place 30 feet above the ground to loosen and tighten bolts as he inserted the extra 10 feet of metal.

Bill Poffenberger threw wrenches and files and sockets from the ground. Brandenburg caught them with one hand from his perch high above the earth.

A tough job?

"Mediocre," Brandenburg said. "I've done a lot worse."

Experience has purged the trepidation he sometimes felt when climbed the towers in the early years of his career, he said.

"I would say it took a good many years to eliminate the fear factor," Brandenburg said.

He's never fallen, he said.

"So far, so good."

He's never been dive-bombed by nesting birds.

"They stay away from me," Brandenburg said.

He's never been blown around.

"I stay out of winds over 5 mph," he said.

Brandenburg did have one close call with lightning.

"One time I got a little tingle," he said.

Not much change

The quality of some of the materials he uses has improved since Brandenburg started repairing antennas a half-century ago, he said, but the work hasn't changed much.

He climbs, disassembles, descends, repairs, climbs and reassembles, he said.

"It's simpler than TV repair," Brandenburg said. "More dangerous, but simpler."

His reputation has spread by word of mouth, said Brandenburg, who was featured in Calfornia-based gerontologist Kelly Ferrin's 1999 book "What's Age Got to Do With It?" about active senior citizens.

He keeps plenty busy even in this age of high-tech cable, he said. Brandenburg has done all the antenna repair work for Hagerstown-based Acme Television Repair for the past eight years.

"Austin does excellent work," Acme owner Joe Henneberger said.

Members of the Grossnickle family of Myersville, Md., have employed Brandenburg to repair their antennas for nearly 50 years because he does good work at a reasonable price, E. Quentin Grossnickle said.

"He did work for my father, for me and for my sons. He's still working on my daughter's antenna," Grossnickle said. "As far as I'm concerned, he's a very honorable person."

The Poffenbergers, who first hired Brandenburg to repair their antenna about two years ago, said they weren't surprised when he nimbly scaled their antenna tower. But they watched in stunned fascination as he shimmied up the tower for about the fifth time, with the 10-foot extension in tow, balancing on the structure as he wiggled the extension into place.

"He's got another leg somewhere or he's coming off of there," Bill Poffenberger said.

But Brandenburg wasn't finished. Down and up again, he hauled the bulky 30-pound antenna past the tips of the 35-foot pine trees next to the tower.

"You're getting close to heaven," Mary Poffenberger called from the ground.

Brandenburg laughed.

"I always wondered what that would be like."

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