Like Her Mom, Pole-Sitter Mellissa Sanders Falls for a Groundling

updated 04/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

What we have here are the beginnings of an American dynasty. As the Kennedys are to politics and the Barrymores to theater, so the Sanderses of Tucson, Ariz., are to pole-sitting. When Mellissa Sanders, 19, climbed down on March 24 from a record-breaking 516 days atop two poles, it was all in the line of descent. She was following in the footsteps of her mother, Mauri Rose Sanders, who set her own 211-day record in 1959. And if that honor weren't heady enough, mother and daughter also share an even more unusual distinction: While in pursuit of their records, they both snagged earthbound fiancés.

Mellissa's saga began in the summer of 1986, when she heard that the owner of an Indianapolis restaurant wanted to sponsor a pole sit in his parking lot in order to raise funds for cancer research—and, of course, to get a little publicity. Mellissa, one of the four kids of Mauri Rose and John Sanders, a truck driver, couldn't ignore her legacy. "I wanted to do it 'cause Mom did it," says Mellissa. So in October she headed for her folks' hometown of Indianapolis and a 4¾-by 5¾-foot plywood box 43 feet up, balanced on two telephone poles.

The next 17 months did not pass easily. Spending much of her time playing video games, Mellissa had to endure a 30-lb. weight gain, a 72-mph windstorm and the screeching that ensued whenever her feline roomie, Polecat, went into heat. Mellissa also had a falling-out with the restaurant owner, telling him—in frequent screaming matches—that his food was lousy, that it wasn't being sent up in her bucket fast enough and that her portable toilet wasn't being cleaned promptly. Eventually she got other local eateries to donate meals and an attendant at a gas station to assume latrine duties. Then her cat took a fall, bruising her ribs and breaking her teeth. Polecat survived—and so did Mellissa, mostly thanks to her new boyfriend.

For the Sanders women, sitting poles turn out to be lightning rods for romance. Mauri Rose was 17 when she climbed a pole in the parking lot of a drive-in restaurant in Indianapolis, where such stunts seem indigenous. While living 71 feet in the air, she attracted the apparently sharp eye of John. "He used to eat his steak sandwich on the roof of his car every day, and we'd shout at each other," says Mauri Rose.

At least they had the advantage of glimpsing each other. Mellissa and her swain, Keith Seal, conducted their courtship entirely by phone during the first year. A month after Mellissa had settled into her roost, Seal, 25, a hotel desk clerk in Monterey, Calif., read a story about her and called her up. "I dunno," says Keith, recalling his motivation. "Basically I had nothin' else to do."

Her parents were skeptical of the teleromance at first. For the youngsters, however, chemistry really crackled over the wires. "Me and him just hit it off," says Mellissa, who accepted Keith's marriage proposal last August.

The lovebirds finally met in November, when Keith paid a four-day visit to Mellissa's aerie. She was nervous when he first climbed up to her home, but pleased by what she saw. "He was handsomer than I thought," says Mellissa. Keith was nervous too, but mostly about getting his Moon Boots caught in the swaying ladder and tumbling to his death.

After a December visit, he returned to see Mellissa come down from her perch and earn her record, beating the old mark by 28 days. Now that she's landed, she'll eventually move to Monterey to be with Keith and marry him in November 1989. Meanwhile she plans to take lots of walks and showers and to get her cat spayed. She also plans to get to know her betrothed. "I think I'm going to like him on the ground," Mellissa says.

Keith's divorced parents, Jack and Lana, were somewhat surprised by his engagement. In fact, they thought their boy had slipped a few gears by proposing to a pole-sitter he'd never seen, but they're starting to come around. "My dad just says that crazier things have happened in the world," shrugs Keith. Mellissa's parents are more optimistic, especially because of the long long-distance courtship. "If couples had a year to talk on the phone before they met," says Mauri Rose, "we might have happier marriages."

—By Robin Micheli, with Bill Shaw in Indianapolis

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