There are people among us who have the personality and opportunity to express true dedication; people that can be relied on to perform a job rain, snow or shine. Retired firefighter, Tammy Denhard, is definitely a member of that lot. She has been volunteering for the past 27 years to put smiles on faces and make sure the 88 bulbs that line the Castle Rock Star stay lit for the holidays.
Now retired, Denhard first joined the Castle Rock Fire Department over 20 years ago. She had been on the job for less than a year the first time she volunteered her help. “I began doing the star in March of 1989,” she continued, “When they (her fellow firefighters) went up to work on the star, I offered to go up with them.”
Unbeknownst to her, she had just walked into one of the most important and perilous jobs around Town.
As many know, the wrought iron structure, supported by crossbeams and joints, is a major part of the Town’s identity. And while it is a signature part of Castle Rock year-round, during cold holiday weather, it is illuminated and becomes a perilous undertaking for those who take care of it. its five peaks must be ascended by Prusiking. “We use Prusik ropes to climb it,” said Denhard.
Often used by climbers, cavers and rescue personnel, Prusik ropes have a user form a specific hitch to both push and pull them around a structure in an upward direction. “You basically shimmy up the pole with one rope and use the other for your other leg so you have something to step on.”
Though it may appear primitive, for the environment atop the rock, it has been the best way to climb the star to replace bulbs and sockets. “Up there, it gets windy sometimes,” noted Denhard. “You can usually tell by the flagpole… if the flag’s standing up on end, you can bet it’s gonna be a heck of a day.”
Along with wind adding a flair of excitement, the height and positioning of the structure has kept most from volunteering to give her assistance. “One of the points on the star actually stretches over the rock so when you try to get out there on one of the crossbeams to work, it really sways.”
Finally in 1998, Lieutenant Matt Rettmer expressed an interest teaming up with Denhard to care for the star. “It’s been me and Matt up there for years now,” she said. “Matt and I split up duties and I’m usually the one who goes up way to the top.”
Their job begins about a week before the Castle Rock Starlighting event, when they first head up the hill to put in fresh bulbs for the year. The 40-watt bulbs are left in during the year to keep the sockets dry and clean. “We go up there with our supplies and two backpacks of gear and take all the old bulbs out,” said Denhard. “I save the bulbs that are still good for replacements when we need them.”
The last few years have been a little easier since the department has allowed them to use their snow cab to drive up the supplies needed. “It used to be harder when we had to hike up the rock with heavy supplies,” she sighed.
Along with the work of hauling heavy equipment, years of prepping the star has been exciting to say the least. Not only has Denhard has being zapped a number of times by live wires and sockets, the day of the event has also had its share of mishaps and close calls.
“Before 98, we would go up there they day of actually put the bulbs in, get everything ready to go and then I would come down and go help out with the chili supper at the station,” she stated. “One year we raced up there to do it and were surprised that only half of the star came on…someone had loosened the bulbs.”
Unfortunately, because of its prominence and location, the star is and has long been the target of senseless vandalism. So since then, the bulbs are checked one last time before sundown, then Dehard puts on her Carhartts to camp out. “I officially close the rock at sundown and then go down to where the flagpole is because climbing down from there is dangerous at night.”
Once the program starts, she follows her copy of the printed itinerary to make sure things stay on schedule. “The Town is pretty lit up at night so I can see the itinerary and make sure no one comes up the rock,” said Denhard. “I hang out there and Matt and I coordinate back and forth and I can hear the countdown through my radio.”
“The last couple years things have come off without a hitch, but there have been years that I’ve had my own fireworks show,” she remarked. “I probably should have been electrocuted a few times putting my fingers in the sockets– it’s dark and I can’t really see what I’m doing…it can be comical.”
Denhard, who has never seen Starlighting from the ground, recalled a memorable incident when people saw her mishap from the below. “I had zapped myself up there and when I came down I had people say, ‘I didn’t know we had a blinking star.’
But when the countdown starts and the switch is flipped, Dehard and her partner Rettmer know all the unexpected accidents make it all worthwhile. “From up there, I can hear the roars of the people even without the radio,” said Denhard. “It’s a relief because I am so nervous up until that point. It’s a lot of pressure.”
In the meantime, she will be scouting for someone who can step up to the challenge to give Rettmer a hand with the general maintenance of the star, once the time comes. “My son CJ was climbing and has helped us for the past 6 years or so,” she said. “But now he’s going to the away to serve in the Navy.”
“Thankfully, I can still climb and Matt too, but we are going to have to find someone else to do the climbing soon.”
But until then, you can bet that the star will continue to stay lit up from mid-November to mid-January on Denhard’s watch, with Rettmer by her side. “No one really knows what it takes. They just know that someone’s going to do it,” she stated.
“Jokingly, we’ve thought, ‘so what happens if we decided not to do it one year?” laughed Denhard. “But you know we couldn’t do that. We love what we do.”