Sitting on Top of the World
03/28/1983 at 01:00 AM EST
Unforgettable," reads the sign outside Allentown, Pa., and though it is in most respects an unremarkable billboard, there are those who consider it home. Since last Sept. 20 three Allentown-area natives, Michael MacKay, 31, Ronald Kistler, 25, and Dalton Young, 23, have lived perched, like three implacable over-wintering birds, on a six-by-48-foot platform atop a spindly 30-foot-high scaffold looking down on U.S. 22. Whichever of the three stays up the longest will win an $18,000 two-bedroom Cozy Cottage mobile home supplied by a local distributor, Love Homes.
The contest, reminiscent of a Depression-era flagpole sit, is the latest promotional brainstorm of Harold G. Fulmer III, the multimillionaire owner of radio station WSAN. The names of the contestants were picked at random from an estimated 600,000 entries—47,000 of which were MacKay's. After signing away the right to sue for illness or injury, each man was provided with a small domelike tent, a summer-weight sleeping bag, a chemical toilet, a phone and electrical service. Family and friends are allowed to empty the toilets and to hoist up food and water, but only the sponsors and reporters are allowed on the platform. The contestants are forbidden to cross the waist-high barriers that divide their aerie into three sections.
Mike MacKay, a miner's son, is the only one of the three who is married. He has forgone more than $3,000 in salary while on leave from his job as a counselor at a home for retarded children, where he worked with his wife, Linda. "I'm a people person," says the jolly, rotund, bearded MacKay. "I get up in the morning and look for a hand to shake." Now, deprived of that pleasure, he sits on the floor of his cluttered tent, clothes and bedding in a jumble behind him, and says that though he once put his gregariousness to work selling vacuum cleaners and insurance, he is willing to endure the isolation of the billboard because he believes it is the only way he and Linda will ever own their own home.
For exercise, says MacKay, he plays his guitar six hours a day, practicing for a monthly lesson over the telephone. He reads (The Covenant, Hawaii, Psycho-Cybernetics), listens to Bach on his radio, keeps a journal, and hatches ingenious plots to make money, regularly calling camping equipment manufacturers in pursuit of endorsement opportunities. The author of the self-published paperback Cooking Varmints and Other Little Critters ("Groundhogs are a lot better than you think"), MacKay is now at work on The Billboard Cookbook.
While her husband amuses himself by carving a notch in the platform's railing each month, his wife, Linda, 28, comes by regularly to shout up encouragement. "I'll hold out as long as Mike wants to stay up there," she says. "I told him, though, that after seven years we're legally divorced. That's my limit. I hope I don't have to enforce it."
MacKay, while supremely confident of victory ("I feel that those other two guys go to bed fearing Mike MacKay"), believes that all three billboard sitters should be awarded a mobile home. "Otherwise," he says, "even if I win, I'll feel sad and defeated. We've had temperatures down to zero. We've had a lot of rain, 34 inches of snow. Anything they can come up with, we've already been through. It's the three of us against Harold Fulmer. It's taking the other guys awhile to see that, but they'll catch on. I have faith in them."
As well he should. "It's the three of us against Harold Fulmer," agrees Dalton Oliver Young III, at the other end of the platform, gazing down at a nearby shopping mall. "One of these days Harold is going to have to give up." Young, whose tinted aviator glasses and unhurried speech are in the Peter Fonda mold, returned from an infantry hitch in Korea just a month before ascending the billboard. "I was looking for a job that was closely related to what I'd done in the Army," he explains, "and this was about as close as anything I could find."
Hunched over on his cot—the tents are too small to permit sitting up straight—Young proudly displays a handmade afghan sent by a young woman he has never met. Several other ladies call him regularly, the result of a phone interview with a Philadelphia disc jockey, which evolved into a daily on-the-air chat. Young uses the afghan to cover his sleeping bag, which he conceals as a matter of style. "This is the trouble with sleeping bags today," he laments. "There's always pictures of hunting dogs or deer in the forest—never anything relevant to the urban camper."
Young passes much of his time listening to tapes (the Clash, Dire Straits) on the beat-up stereo that dominates his tent, reading (Shōgun, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), and keeping his journal ("mostly when I'm depressed"). "I'm also a person who daydreams a lot," he confides. "Up here, that's probably essential." Among his more esoteric pastimes: contemplating the grid of the green nylon tent fabric. "I picture each quarter-inch block as 1,000 square meters of jungle," he says, "and I think about all that's going on down there on the jungle floor."
Young, who submitted 1,000 entries for the privilege of taking his place on the billboard, says he'll come down "if it stops being amusing." But so far that hasn't happened. "There's never been a dull moment up here," he says. "Besides, people on the ground say, 'Don't worry, you're not missing anything.' There's not a lot of action out there." Young is intrigued by the unending stream of press and tourists, particularly the elderly man who hoisted up a small American flag that still flies from the railing. "I was trying to figure out what that flag meant to him," says Young. "I think he meant, 'The American people will endure, no matter how pitiful and piss-poor they get.' "
Ron Kistler, softspoken and bashful, in contrast to his loquacious neighbors, is the man in the middle. "The advantage is that I can talk to both guys," he says. "The disadvantage is that I have to listen to them both." A year before the contest began, Kistler left his job as a baker's helper to enroll in a truck-driving school, where he qualified to drive 18-wheelers. Then he couldn't find a job. Now he finds himself sitting on his cot watching his chicken-flavored Oriental noodle soup heating in the hot-pot atop the ivory plastic Porta Potti Continental. Outside, trucks rush by on the rain-slicked highway with a roar like diesel-driven surf. "I hate it when it rains," Kistler sighs. "I have to sit in here and stare at the walls. I like to be out there where I can talk to the guys and watch traffic and stuff." He draws a deep breath after almost every statement, as if steeling himself against the consequences of having spoken. Under the cot an electric heater glows. The radio station, after some hesitation, decided to allow the heaters when winter came on. The thermometer hanging from the tent roof reads 58 degrees.
Kistler's tent is the most sparsely furnished of the three, among the only nonessential items being a stack of American Rifleman magazines. It could be a Boy Scout's tent. Indeed, the boyish-looking Kistler could be a Scout but for the sparse beard he decided to grow. "I thought it would be something to do," he explains, leaning out of the tent to acknowledge with a weary wave the supportive honk of a passing motorist. As he moves, the entire platform sways, like a rickety vessel on an uneasy sea.
When the weather clears, Kistler is visited by his awesomely cheerful girlfriend of 18 months, Susan Issermoyer, 23, whom he met at the cafeteria where they worked. She has since been laid off, joining the ranks of Allen-town's 12 percent-plus unemployed. Bundled up in two layers of thermal underwear and a blanket, she sits in a green-and-white beach chair on the embankment behind the billboard, as she does for up to six hours a day, gazing raptly at Kistler, above. "It's like Romeo," she says, "only we're in the wrong places." Mike MacKay has suggested she is crazy, she reports, "but I don't care what he says."
For his part, Kistler won't think of coming down without earning the mobile home of his dreams, and hopes he might even get a job for his efforts. "Maybe somebody'll say, 'This guy's determined to sit up there I-don't-know-how-long to get a house. That's the sort of guy I want driving my truck.' "
What do you think of those crazy guys up on the billboard?" asks Harold G. Fulmer Ill, 42, the flamboyant, cowboy-hatted owner of WSAN. Twenty-five years ago Fulmer, the son of a sheet metal worker, was working for a dollar an hour at a McDonald's in Allentown, trying to pay his way through Kutztown State College. Now he is the sole owner of 14 McDonald's franchises, a hotel, a printing company, Sky King Airways, Kutztown Airport, 1,100 rental apartment units and some 250 commercial properties. And that isn't counting his partnerships.
Fulmer lives on a 76-acre estate outside Allentown with his wife, Judy, a former assistant manager at one of his McDonald's and their two small children. He also maintains a 1,500-acre hideaway in the Poconos, which he makes available as a retreat for his 3,600 employees. He declares his net worth as "far in excess of $80 million," which he describes as a strong foundation for his secret "Grand Plan."
"But I'm just a normal man with simple tastes," insists the 6'3", 280-pound Fulmer, who eats some half-dozen Big Macs a day as a quality check. "I could live just as I do on $25,000 a year, except for my cars. That's my one splash, my cars." Fulmer owns 140 antique and collectible automobiles, including Goldfinger's Rolls-Royce from the old James Bond movie, a Jaguar that once belonged to Nelson Rockefeller and the Stutz Blackhawk VI Fulmer drives around town.
He is quick to protest the notion that he is exploiting the economic hardships of the men on the billboard. "They're not chained up there," he says. "They can come down anytime they want." From his point of view, probably the sooner the better. When publicity surrounding the contest began turning sour over the winter, Fulmer decided to add to the prizes. The second-and third-prize winners will now each receive a year rent-free in one of Fulmer's apartments. Also, the big winner will receive one free McDonald's meal a day for a year, the runner-up a meal a day for six months, and the third-place man the same prize for three months. "Now we've got a good clean promotion," says Fulmer.
The WSAN owner admits he was more concerned last year during the station's Rocking Horse Marathon. During that contest, 30 adult contestants rocked continuously on kiddie-size rocking horses, with five minutes' rest every hour. After 104 hours and four minutes, a woman named Agnes Buchert was awarded a Plymouth. "There were some crazy moments," Fulmer recalls. "They go through delusions. And one of the women didn't tell us she was pregnant."
How long is Fulmer willing to let the men stay on the billboard? "Those guys say they'll stay there two or three years," he says. "We have no problems with that. If the publicity turns negative, we could give all three of them a mobile home. But we wouldn't want to do that, and I don't think we'll have to."
The Billboard Three disagree. "What are we talking?" asks MacKay. "He could throw in two more mobile homes for less than the price of one of his cars. What's it going to look like, two years from now, when one of us gets sick and comes down and says, 'I'm having trouble breathing, and I won hamburgers'? Harold Fulmer just doesn't want to swallow his pride and fess up that he made a damn mistake."