The Hood Canal Bridge

As a bridgetender, whenever my travels take me anywhere near a movable bridge, I have to check it out. And the Hood Canal Bridge, which connects the Olympic and Kitsap Peninsulas in Washington state, is a unique bridge indeed, with an interesting history. The entire bridge is 7,869 feet long, and 6,521 feet of that floats. It’s the third longest floating bridge in the world, and the longest one located in a saltwater tidal basin.

The reason it was made a floating bridge is that the water depth ranges from 80 to 340 feet, and therefore support columns would have cost a fortune. Not that this bridge has been cheap by any means. The floating design has always been controversial because the tide difference averages 16.5 feet, and the wind, weather and current in the area can be rather severe.

The bridge first opened to traffic in 1961, and did well, until February 13, 1979. That’s when a disastrous windstorm with sustained winds of 85 mph and gusts up to 120mph hit the bridge broadside. The bridge was closed to traffic, and drawspan sections of the bridge were left open to reduce water pressure, but the western half of the bridge broke loose and sank. Fortunately the bridge crew and all members of the traveling public were off the bridge by then, so there were no casualties.

It took nearly 4 years to replace the span, and during that time, people either had to take a 50 mile detour or ride the hastily reestablished ferry system. The ferry took some time to set back up as the state had to reacquire the land and build the needed infrastructure. The bridge replacement cost 143 million dollars.

They then replaced other portions of the bridge from 2003 to 2009 to the tune of 471 million dollars. The pontoons and anchors for the bridge were built off site, and they had to relocate that site after two weeks when it was discovered that they had uncovered an ancestral burial ground belonging to the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. Not only did they have to purchase new land and relocate, but they had to rebury all the remains that had been uncovered and pay the tribe 2.5 million dollars in damages.

What interests me in particular about this bridge is the movable span. It is one of the few movable bridge designs that I’ve never had the opportunity to operate. I would love to!

The hood canal bridge doesn’t open very often. You have to make an appointment at least an hour in advance to get it to do so. And then, it’s a fascinating process. Check out this video if you’d like to watch an opening with an explanation. And here’s an explanation from WSDOT (Washington State Department of Transportation:

How long does it take to open and close the Hood Canal Bridge? 

The length of time it takes to open and close the Hood Canal Bridge for a marine opening can vary from about ten minutes to 45 minutes.

To open the bridge to allow marine traffic to pass (as required by the Coast Guard), WSDOT has three spans on each side that are hydraulically raised. Once they are raised, the floating spans can be retracted back under those spans to provide the opening. Depending on what type of vessel is passing through, WSDOT may only have to retract one side of the span. If it is a sail boat that darts through, we will only open one side and it will take less time for traffic to get moving again.

Submarines and the support vessels that accompany them take longer and require both sides to be retracted. Submarines are not very maneuverable on top of the water and they will request the opening early. Ahead of the submarine will be smaller escort vessels that cross through first and then the submarine. As soon as all the vessels are through, the operator will start the closure of the two 300-feet floating spans moving towards each other. These are massive and take time to get moving and then slow down until they are together and locked. A crew member verifies that the lock is engaged, and then the three spans on each end of the opening that were raised up for the opening, these will be lowered back down. Once they are in place, the gates can be opened to vehicle traffic.

If there are any malfunctions in the system, the process will take longer. There have been times when cars would not start after they stopped for the bridge opening. This can also cause a delay in the time to clear traffic.

You can read a lot more interesting questions and answers about the hood canal bridge here. It also includes a link to live traffic cameras if you’d like to see what’s going on right this minute. Meanwhile, here are some of the pictures I took while crossing this fascinating bridge. I hope you get to cross it, too, someday.

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Forever Changed by George Floyd

I’m alone at work on my drawbridge. It’s 8:30 in the morning and the sky outside is so dark grey that it feels like the sun had gone down. Lightning and thunder crash all around me. The sideways rain disorients me. It’s as if gravity no longer exists.

I came to expect this kind of weather every day Florida, but I can count the number of times I’ve seen lightning in the Pacific Northwest on one hand, even though I’ve been here for nearly 6 years.

It feels like my nerves are on the surface of my skin. Even a slight breeze feels agitating. The atmosphere is highly charged. And this fucking pandemic doesn’t help. I’m so over it. I’m so done.

Masochist that I am, I decide to read the news. It seems like the whole world is on fire due to what happened to George Floyd. I already know it’s about police brutality and injustice, and I’ve been righteously indignant for days now. But for some reason I feel the need to actually see the video. I feel like I should bear witness.

Don’t watch it, unless you’re okay with being fundamentally changed. But watch it, because we all need to be fundamentally changed. Either way, it’s disturbing.

Floyd is lying on the ground with three cops on top of him. One has his knee on his neck. His full body weight is pressing down on him. Three on one, with a man who is already handcuffed, for a confrontation that was never violent in the first place. A fourth cop is standing over the action, protecting the other cops from the crowd.

The cop with his knee on Floyd’s neck is willfully choking him. He’s gasping for air. Calling for his mother. Begging them to stop. The crowd is telling them to stop. Saying this isn’t right. Saying blood is coming out of his nose. Saying there’s nothing in academy training that teaches you to do this… strangle someone on the street.

I watch for more than four minutes as he gasps for air. Four minutes is a long time. Stare at the clock for four minutes. Do it for George Floyd. You’ll see. Four minutes is the average length of a drawbridge opening.

This is very triggering for me. I used to live with someone who had to fight for every single breath he took. I know how terrifying it was for him. I know how helpless I felt. I feel helpless now.

The man is subdued, for God’s sake. Why won’t they stop? This isn’t necessary. There’s no need for this.

In my loved one’s case it was a health situation. There was nothing, really, for me to fight against. In Floyd’s case, if I had been on the scene, I’d want to wade in there and kick that cop in the head until he was dead. Anything, to let this guy breathe. Anything. Why isn’t the crowd doing that?

Because the “protecting” cop/thug has a gun and mace and a night stick, as do the other three. They are not listening to reason. They would not tolerate physical intervention.

Why won’t neck cop get up? Because the crowd is taunting him, calling him names? Is it a point of pride, not to listen to the crowd? Is he showing them who’s boss? Is this man’s life worth proving the point that you’re the alpha here? Why won’t he stop? My God! Stop! I hit the desk with my fist.

I’m crying as I watch. No, I wouldn’t kick the cop until he was dead. That’s not really in me, even at my most desperate. I would have been on my knees. Begging. Trying to appeal to their humanity.

But there is no humanity in them. You can tell. They’ve lost it. They are animals. They are in predator mode. They are very quiet. Very focused. They’ll have their kill. Because they can.

And just like that, about 4 minutes in, you see Floyd’s life leave his body. He’s clearly, obviously dead. The man is dead. I’ve never seen someone’s life disappear before, up close and personal. I’ve never seen that exact second. He goes from being a man to being dead, just like that. He’s gone.

My God, I have just witnessed a murder. I’ve never seen a murder before. And this defiant man gets paid to protect and serve us. He is a murderer in a uniform.

The murderer stays on Floyd’s neck for at least another three minutes. Why? To make sure he’s truly dead? To make sure he’s past the point of return?

I cry as the rain beats against my window. I watch as they pick George Floyd’s body up like a piece of meat, dump it on a gurney, and roll it away. Like he’s nothing. Like he never was anything.

It feels like everyone in a position of power is insane. And that’s terrifying. What do you do when you feel helpless to stop a power structure that’s gone mad?

I understand why the world is on fire right now. I get it. We are past the point of a plea for reason. The people in power have absolutely no desire to do the right thing. Peaceful protest doesn’t cut it. I don’t think burning and looting shops is the answer, either. Those business people didn’t do this to Floyd.

But we all prop up the system that allowed this to happen to Floyd, and that system has made it clear that it has no ears. It won’t listen. And fire, man… fire removes the old, twisted growth. Fire makes way for the new. Fire allows us to start over. But the best fire in this instance is metaphorical. Literal fire would muddy the message. No. we need the slow burn of peaceful yet demanding protests by reasonable people who are trying to make people in authority be reasonable as well. We need to turn up the heat and increase the pressure for justice to finally be born in this country.

Destruction and violence shouldn’t be necessary. I don’t condone it. But we do have to start over. We can’t continue to pay people who think that they’re then allowed free reign to stand on people’s necks. It’s not right. It never has been.

A sailboat requests an opening, and I come back to the here and now. Why would anyone be out in this weather? Why risk it?

As I’m about to raise the bridge, I hear a dog barking, frantically. I delay the opening and look for this dog. Probably longer than I should. Definitely longer than I normally would.

I don’t want to kill this dog. I’m desperate not to kill him. But I can’t find him anywhere, even though I hear him. That’s really strange. Why can’t I see him? I think I’m in shock.

Traffic is backing up. Finally, I’m forced to do the opening and hope for the best. My stomach is in knots. The sailboat floats casually though as if nothing is happening. That’s privilege for you.

I close the bridge. The lights turn green. All is go. I watch an unmasked jogger with a prancing, barking labradoodle puppy on a leash cross over. I’m feeling irritated.

And then, holy jumping Jesus, I’m encased in a ball of white light. I’m covered in gooseflesh. I step numbly back from the electric operating console. That lightning strike was so fast and so close that I didn’t even hear the thunder.

And now I’m watching the launch of the first crewed, private rocket as SpaceX delivers astronauts to the International Space Station. What a contrast. So much ingenuity in space, so little here on the ground.

Everything is different, now.

But I’m still breathing. George Floyd, a fellow human being, is not. May he rest in the kind of peace that none of us who are living in this hellish status quo should enjoy.

_______________________________________________

After an emotionally and exhausting day which included the writing of this post, I got in my car to commute home in a downpour. Less than hour later, that very interstate was shut down by rioters, and Seattle, too, began to burn.

Please know that I make a distinction between protesters and rioters. We had a peaceful and lawful protest in Seattle for four hours. Then all holy hell broke loose. People were hurt. businesses were destroyed. Just like the officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck, people were doing criminal things, taking advantage of an already tragic situation, just because they could. This did not strengthen the message. It added to the thuggery. It demonstrated even more of what needs to change in this world.

Stay safe, everyone.

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A Bridgetender Thanks Frontline Workers

About two months ago, I decided to blow my bridge horn every night at 8 pm, to thank frontline workers for all they are doing in the face of this horrible pandemic. I’ve been doing it every time I work swing shift ever since. I’ve blogged about it in more detail here.

I’ve gotten some positive feedback from people in the neighborhood. And often, when I blow my horn, some of the larger vessels in the area join in. It’s all very gratifying.

But the sound of my horn only goes so far. And mine is a humble little blog, only read by a limited number of people. And I really want to thank all the frontline workers that I can. It’s the very least I can do.

So I made this video and posted it on Youtube. You can tell I wasn’t exactly made to be in front of a camera. I’m nervous. The words aren’t  flowing smoothly. Hitchcock and Tarantino would not exactly be jealous if they saw this thing. But hey, it’s heartfelt.

Please, if you know any frontline workers at all, whether they’re in the healthcare field or are first responders or are considered essential workers in any way, it would mean a great deal if you would share this video with them.

Thank you. Stay safe.

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Any Excuse to Be Angry

There have been a lot of Facebook fights of late. People are scared, and they’re only brave enough to lash out if they can do it from a distance with very few consequences. I try really hard not to feed the trolls, but, as with everyone else, my patience is paper thin.

As I write this, I’m watching a live video feed with my governor and multiple nurses, in celebration of National Nurses Day. Even as these heroes talk about what it’s like to work on COVID-19 wards, trolls are commenting that it’s all lies, and that no one is really sick, and that this is just some twisted conspiracy to keep people from working. Attacking nurses on National Nurses Day seems like a new low to me.

I was also attacked online the other day for saying that as a bridgetender, I blow my horn at 8 pm to thank the frontline workers. This guy immediately jumped on there, infuriated by the number of times we bridgetenders have made him late to work. He said a bridge opening for a sailboat would often cause him a 20 minute delay.

First of all, the average bridge opening only lasts 4 ½ minutes from the time the traffic light turns red to the time the traffic gates rise back up, and I’ve never, EVER seen it take an additional 15 ½ minutes to clear traffic afterward. I’ve never seen that in 19 years as an operator. It may feel like you’re sitting there for 20 minutes, but trust me, you’re not.

I often wonder why people who get so irritated at drawbridges don’t simply take a different route. But I think it feels safe to be outraged at an inanimate object. Those iron girders can take it.

I think a lot of people are angry about any number of things, and don’t have the skills to deal with their anger, and therefore express anger at ridiculous things instead. That guy that jumped on my case told me that Seattle drawbridges are a pet peeve of his, and that any time a bridge opens, it infuriates him.

Um…  Get over it? It’s a situation that isn’t going to change. Why would you allow fury into your life several times a week? Either take a different route, or reframe it as an opportunity to step out of your car and get some fresh air, or maybe try and figure out why you have so much anger inside of you, and get some help to learn how to deal with it effectively.

Becoming infuriated by something you know you’ll be exposed to multiple times in the course of your life seems rather self-destructive, and frankly, insane, to me. Getting upset at a drawbridge is about as silly as getting upset every time it rains. Rain happens. Bridge openings happen. What on earth is the point of all your impotent rage?

I suppose, in light of all the anger that’s floating around out there, the rest of us just need to breathe deeply and not let their anger enter into us. Don’t feed the trolls. Don’t become one yourself.

But man, that’s easier said than done these days.

trollfeed

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Breakthrough!

Whenever I work the day shift, once I’ve survived the commute and parked my car, I make my way over my drawbridge to the bridge tower. I’m usually not living my best life at that exact moment. I could never be mistaken for a morning person.

But during that foggy-brained walk, I almost always pass a guy who is walking in the opposite direction. I could set my watch by him. We both are creatures of habit, it seems.

I often wonder about this guy. Where is he going? Where is he coming from? He’s a bit scruffy, but he’s punctual as all get out.

So, about 9 months ago, I decided that I would say good morning as we passed each other. He did not even look up at me, and he said not a word. But this is Seattle, after all. People don’t just say good morning to strangers, as a general rule. It’s just not done. (I’ll never get used to that.)

The next day, I thought that maybe this time, my good morning wouldn’t take him by surprise. But I got the same reaction. No eye contact, no response.

Okay, this has become a challenge. I began to want, very badly, to get a good morning out of this guy. I was determined.

Months went by, and I continued to do my daily experiment. It became a bit of an effort to keep my pleasant tone when I could only assume I was going to get nothing back. But I did so because, when all is said and done, I really did hope he had a good morning.

After all that time with no eye contact whatsoever, I began to wonder if this gentleman had some sort of anxiety disorder. If so, were my good mornings construed as a type of bullying? Was I adding stress to his life? That certainly wasn’t my intention.

But I really didn’t know a thing about him. Maybe he was just less of a morning person than I was. Maybe he was a Seattleite from birth and his greeting muscle had atrophied. Maybe he doesn’t speak English. Maybe he just wanted to be left alone, but on the other hand, maybe he’s desperately lonely and just socially awkward.

I decided to press on, because if he never responded, it wasn’t like I’d beat him up or something. He’s an adult and can make his own choices. I’d just be a little sad.

Somewhere around month three, he began to give me eye contact. He didn’t smile, but he didn’t give me a hostile glare, either. Progress.

By the end of month six, I began to detect a change in expression. Was that a very slight, hesitant smile peeking out of his scruffy beard? Yes, I think so.

Then in early February, I got really sick with the head cold from hell, and I missed a week of work and sidewalk greetings. I wondered if he noticed. But I didn’t dwell on it, because I was too busy coughing up my lungs.

When I came back to work, to be honest, I still felt like utter crap. I’m sure I didn’t exactly look like my old self, either. I was so busy trying to ambulate through my vertigo that I didn’t bother to say good morning, or even look up, to him or anyone else, for about two weeks.

The following week, though, I was back to our old routine. This time I got the biggest smile ever. That really made me happy.

After that, his smile was more subdued, but it was still there. I’d like to think that I was a bright spot in his morning. I hoped so, at least.

And then today, it finally happened. I said good morning, and he smiled brightly. “Good morning!” he said.

I almost jumped for joy. I wanted to dance the rest of the way down the bridge. I wanted to look over my shoulder at him, but I didn’t want to intimidate him in any way, so I just walked, casually, to the bridge tower, climbed the stairs, and then started jumping up and down. Yes! Yes! Yes!

Do I plan to escalate this contact? No. I look forward to exchanging good mornings, of course, but I’ll leave it at that. We are strangers, and I’m perfectly content to let it stay that way. But now we’re strangers with benefits of a rated G sort.

Can I get a high five for persistence?

Good morning!!!!!!

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That Moment When the Hair Stands up on the Back of Your Neck

So, I was sitting at my desk at work. It was a typical day on my drawbridge (if you can call any day on a drawbridge typical). I’d been there for several hours. I was thinking about lunch. That’s when I saw the half-eaten food in the recycle bin.

My first instinct was to be irritated. Not everyone takes recycling as seriously as I do. I sighed, and transferred the food into the regular trash can. But then I realized that the last employee who had been on the bridge was… me.

I had gotten off work at 11 pm the night before, and had returned to work at 7 am that morning. No one had been there in the intervening hours. Let me rephrase that. No one who was supposed to have been there had been there. And yet, there was that food.

I tested the window beside the desk. It was unlocked. We never leave it unlocked. I looked at the lock on the outside of the window. It had been tampered with. (See below.) Someone had been there.

This felt like a violation, as if someone had rifled through my underwear drawer. Granted, nothing of value was taken. Then I realized that some of my food items were missing from the fridge. And I had left the toilet seat up after cleaning the bathroom the night before. Now it was down.

Someone had broken in to get out of the wind and weather, and had made themselves at home, helped themselves to my food, and used the bathroom. Thank goodness they weren’t still there when I arrived in the morning. What would I have done? I wouldn’t have seen them until I reached the top of the stairs, which would have made it awfully hard for either one of us to beat a hasty retreat.

And then I realized that they could still be there.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Suddenly the closed closet door behind me felt like it was radiating heat. I turned slowly. I looked at that door. My heart was pounding.

But surely no one had been standing in there for 4 solid hours, amongst the mops and buckets, as I sat all alone not two feet away, without me hearing a sound. Surely not.

Still…

I slowly opened the drawer where the heavy industrial flashlight was housed. I gripped it tightly. I took a deep breath and opened the closet door.

Nobody. I felt sick with relief. I felt resentful that my safe place no longer felt safe.

And then there were the phone calls and the paperwork and the police report and the debate about best methods to amp up security. Those things kept me busy. Those things prevented me from digesting the experience.

That night, before security measures could be put into place, an employee was posted on the bridge overnight. And at 1 am, someone tried to break in again. My coworker scared them away, but couldn’t give a good description. Great.

Now, a few days out, what strikes me most is how abruptly the atmosphere in that room had changed for me. One minute, status quo. The next… Someone had been there. Someone who shouldn’t have been. In my sanctuary.

And it could happen again at any time.

Tranquility is such a tenuous thing.

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The Drawbridges of Aberdeen and Hoquiam, Washington

Recently my husband and I took a mini-break to Ocean Shores, Washington. During the drive we talked about retirement, even though it’s a very distant long shot for me. So I was in that frame of mind when we drove through the little towns of Aberdeen and Hoquiam, Washington.

We were discussing how the cost of living would be a lot cheaper in these places, and right as that topic was raised, we came across a drawbridge. And then another. And another. I thought, “These bridges are calling my name. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could retire and work part time on them?”

By that time I’d be bringing about 25 years of bridgetending experience to the table, so you’d think I’d be a shoo-in for any vacancies that might come up. So I decided to do a little research. First of all, I excluded the area drawbridges that are owned by train companies. It’s been my experience that these places never hire “civilians”, because a lot of the union workers look at these jobs as ways to finish out their careers in peace and quiet. I could never break through their seniority to wind up as a train company bridgetender at this late date. So I decided to focus on the other drawbridges in the area.

Thanks to the amazing resource, Bridgehunter.com, I learned that there are 5 drawbridges in the area that I could operate. All of them are owned by Washington Department of Transportation.

In Hoquiam, there’s the Hoquiam River Bascule Bridge and the Hoquiam River Bridge which is also known as the Riverside Avenue Bridge. That one is a vertical lift bridge.

In Aberdeen, you have the US 101 Chehalis River Bridge, which is a bascule, and two bridges over the Wishka River: The Wishka Street Bridge is a bascule bridge and the East Heron Street Bridge is a swing bridge. Both of them are shown below, with a railroad bridge in the foreground.

So not only would I have plenty of bridges to choose from, but I’d have three styles of bridges as well. Fortunately I have experience on all three styles, so that would be in my favor, too. Things were looking up.

So I tracked down a contact number for the department that maintains these bridges, and talked to an extremely friendly woman who gave me good news and bad news. She says since these bridges are so rarely opened, they don’t employ full time bridge operators. Boats have to schedule openings hours in advance, and then they send one of their mechanics out to do the bridge openings. In essence, all their mechanics are bridgetenders.

Well, that’s a bummer. But she did give me a further contact number, because when she heard of my experience and my potential plan, she said it would “never hurt to put a bug in their ear.”

I now have that contact on my phone. It would be kind of fun to be an on call bridgetender in my golden years. And I’m sure their mechanics have much better things to do than to drop everything on the occasional moment when one of these bridges requires operating.

I won’t bother the contact now, because my potential retirement is many years down the road, and who knows where we’ll decide to go. But it’s a nice dream. I know I’ll miss this work when and if I ever do retire. It would be nice to keep my hand in the game.

Aberdeen bridges

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Lightning Stories

I find lightning fascinating. From a distance. And from inside a safely grounded shelter. You don’t see much of it here in the Seattle area, though, and I miss it.

But I also have a healthy respect for lightning. At the age of 10, I moved from Connecticut to Florida, and quickly discovered that Connecticut’s lightning is child’s play by comparison. Florida has epic downpours with thunder that rattles the fillings in your teeth and lightning that can render you speechless. In fact, Florida is the most lightning-prone state in the U.S.

That kind of weather gets magnified tenfold if experiencing it for the first time while living in a tent as I did. Back then, I was terrified by Florida storms, and used those unsettling events as an opportunity to wail and howl out my rage and fear about having been rendered all but homeless at a time in life when I had absolutely no control.

With age and an improved living situation, I learned to take shelter and enjoy nature’s free light shows whenever possible.

Once, a friend of mine was visiting from Holland, so I took her to the beach. She wandered along the shoreline as I sat and enjoyed the Atlantic waves. But storm clouds rushed in from the East, and me and the rest of the savvy Floridians took off for the safety of our cars. I was desperately hopping up and down and motioning to the black, looming clouds and waving at her to come the eff on, and you’d think that that, and the fact that she suddenly had the beach to herself, would have been some sort of a clue. But no. She continued to slowly amble down the shoreline. When she finally came back, I explained to her how much danger she had been in, but she simply got angry with me for rushing her. She rarely took me seriously. For a variety of reasons, we’ve lost touch.

Later in life, when I worked for the State of Florida Department of Transportation, I was friends with the district lighting inspector. One of his tasks was to drive around at night and make sure street lights were functioning, and report them for repair if they were not. One night he drove up to a light pole just after it had been struck by lightning. The pole was in sand, and the sand was still glowing. He came back after it cooled and dug up several chunks of multicolored glass from the ground. He gave me one. I still have it. Somewhere.

Another time he showed me a dead turtle, frozen in place, its legs extended, its neck outstretched. He said that it had been struck by lightning before his very eyes. You never knew what you’d see when you worked in the field.

When I first became a bridgetender in Florida, I quickly got used to lightning striking my bridges. All of our structures came with lightning rods which were attached to copper cables that stretched down to the water, but the fishermen often harvested said copper, so you never knew what was going to happen from one strike to the next. But when the lightning was at a distance, I enjoyed the light show, along with the blue glow of transformers being struck on the horizon, with the accompanying patches of dark city skyline.

Nature, man. It’s awesome.

Recently I learned about something to add to my bucket list. The Maracaibo Beacon, also known as the Catatumbo lightning is a phenomenon that happens in Venezuela, where the Catatumbo River meets Lake Maracaibo. Lightning can strike up to 280 times per hour, 160 days a year, for 9 hours at a stretch. It happens so much that it draws tourists, but it also kills residents, and drastically impacts economic pursuits, so scientists are attempting to predict these storms as much as three months in advance. I wish them luck.

There are several theories about these storms. The most reasonable one is that the warm, moist Caribbean air is forced upward into the cold surrounding mountains, causing electrical storms. Another has to do with the methane in area swamps, while a third mentions the uranium in the ground.

It’s hard to say, but it sounds like it would be a fascinating place to indulge in my lightning fetish! I only wish the politics of that country were a little more stable. Maybe someday. Until then, I’ll have to content myself with watching this amazing video.

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Catatumbo lightning

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Because Unions

I saw the recent raise in my paycheck and I felt sick to my stomach. Not sick because I was disappointed at the amount of the raise. No. Sick with relief. For the first time in my life, I’m financially stable. The stress relief that accompanied that realization was leaving me a little nauseated.

You see, for most of my life, I lived in Florida, a “Right to Work” state. I can count the number of raises I have received in that state on one hand. And I had worked there for nearly 40 years. Benefits were paltry at best. I could be fired for any reason at all, or no reason whatsoever. I was unappreciated, unsupported, and I never felt safe. My pay never kept up with the cost of living. I often woke up in a cold sweat, wondering how I’d pay the bills, or what would happen if I became too sick to work. If they needed me to work a 16 hour double shift, I had no choice but to do so. I had no recourse when an injustice was visited upon me. When I was exposed to lead paint and the accompanying toxic fumes, my boss told me (I swear to God), “Just drink milk and you’ll be fine.” The future was very dark.

Now I’m working in the state of Washington, for the City of Seattle, and I’m protected by a union. I get raises. I have health insurance and disability and dental and vision and sick leave, and if the stuff hits the fan, the union will send a representative to sit in on any subsequent meetings. I cannot work more than 12 hours a day, and I am allowed to say no if I only want to work a regular 8 hour shift instead. Can you imagine? I can say no. Such a little word, but it means so much to me.

It’s the same exact bridgetending job that I had in Florida, but I make three times as much money. Do you have any idea how much that means to me and to my life? I eat better food. I don’t suffer from stress-related maladies. I don’t wake up in a cold sweat. I can relax and enjoy my loved ones. I have a reliable car. I don’t live in a ghetto. The future is bright.

Thanks to union-busting federal legislation, I’m no longer required to pay union dues. But I do, and I always will. My union has saved my bacon on multiple occasions.

If you honestly think that your employer will treat you decently without a union having your back, good luck with that. I’ve been on both sides of that situation, and I know for certain that unions, the institutions that gave us the 40 hour work week and did away with child labor, are the only ones who are truly on the side of the 99 percent. They need our support. They are a gift. That gift should never be taken for granted.

Thank you, PTE Local 17, and all the unions out there that still exist, for all that you do. You have given me quality of life. I’m told I’m good with words, but I find myself at a loss to adequately explain how much that means to me.

Union staff have stressful jobs, holding back the tide of inequity, but what they do really, truly matters and won’t be forgotten. Please join me in staying union strong.

Unions

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Pigeon Shims

I’ve been opening and closing drawbridges for over 18 years. With this job comes a dirty little secret. It’s not something that they tell you about during the application process. Perhaps they should.

When you are operating what’s basically about a million pounds of moving concrete and steel, occasionally, there will be consequences. While most of these consequences are unintended, they can be unavoidable. I hate to say it, but I’m kind of used to killing pigeons by now.

It doesn’t happen often, but it happens enough to unsettle your stomach. You’ll be closing the bridge, and it will be slowly going down, down, down… and you’ll see an unsuspecting bird waddling toward a place that will soon only be fit for a tortilla. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Pigeons aren’t known for their intellect. These birds refuse to listen to reason. So, the result is death by drawbridge.

The worst part is when they get far enough into the machinery to clog it up. We call these pigeon shims. Then the bridge can’t be fully closed until the feathery corpse is dealt with, and by then, traffic has backed up for miles, and you have half the city screaming for your head. So you go from killer to potential victim in the blink of an eye. It’s rather surreal.

Yes, I’ve shoveled my share of carcasses. Fortunately, it’s much easier to operate the bridge while someone else does the grizzly part. I’m happy to say I haven’t had to face my dirty deeds head on in many years.

But if you own a sailboat and have ever requested an opening from a bridgetender, please bow your head for a moment of silence for the many pigeons that have given their lives for your pleasant day upon the sparkling waves.

Every job has its dark side. Mine just happens to be the callous murder of innocent flying rodents for your boating pleasure. Sorry about that.

Savannah, GA : Savannah River

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