The Heart of My Drawbridge

I have been opening drawbridges for a living for 18 ½ years. I’ve operated 9 different bridges in three states. I’ve operated bascule bridges, lift bridges, and swing bridges. I’m pretty proud of those statistics. I can only think of one bridgetender in this country who can (by just one bridge) beat that, and he’s now retired.

But here’s something I’ve never done until recently: I’ve never been down below, deep in the mechanical inner workings of a drawbridge, while a bridge opening was in progress. I knew what happened down there, because I have to help maintain the equipment, and I know what each moving part does. But I’ve never actually gotten to witness it in all these years, because it was always me operating the bridge during the opening. You can’t be two places at once.

Well, finally, a few weeks ago, I got to be down below while someone else was doing the driving. I was so excited! And of course I wanted to take videos to share with all of you.

My first concern had to be for my safety. There is about a million pounds of moving concrete and steel down there. Stand in the wrong place, and you can be partially or entirely crushed. That’s why we are always extremely cautious when there are workmen on the bridge, and will not do an opening unless we are assured that each one is in the clear.

So, after assuring my coworker that I was in a safe place, he commenced with the opening. I chose to be standing on a portion of the catwalk that is suspended above the pit where the counterweight sinks into the ground when the bridge goes up. This catwalk does not move, but the entire room basically spins around it.

Wow, what a rush. To see a drawbridge doing its well-choreographed dance everywhere you look is like nothing else on earth. I was suddenly proud that I’ve been part of this dance for all these years. It’s beautiful. I actually got tears in my eyes. Sniffle.

Anyway, I did manage to take these videos for your viewing pleasure. I wish I could adequately explain what’s going on. I know the lighting is poor, and I couldn’t get a good angle that would give you a better sense of where I was and what exactly is going on. I did the best that I could.

In the first one, you see the pinion (a large gear), rolling down the rack during the bridge closure. This is what allows the bridge to move. There’s another behind me, and a set on the north side of the bridge that is doing the same thing to operate the other bridge leaf. The counterweight (to the right) is lifting up, and the bridge leaf (out of sight to the left) is lowering down.

In the other video, I’m standing in basically the same place, but I’ve turned to look out towards the water. This one was taken as the bridge was opening for a boat. You’ll see the bridge leaf lift up, and a sailboat go through. You can also see the other leaf, on the other side of the water, lifting as well. In this one, the counterweight is dropping down behind me, and the pinions are also out of sight, but are rolling to the left and right of me. That’s when I started getting all sentimental. I just love my bridge.

I hope this makes at least a little sense, and that you enjoy seeing a drawbridge from a whole new point of view!

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Bridge Buffoonery

I get it. It’s hot out. And thanks to climate change, each summer is going to be worse than the last. But that’s no reason to check your brain at the door.

Check out this video of a kid doing a backflip off one of the drawbridges here in Seattle, Washington. Well executed. And I bet it felt great.

But this is how to give a bridgetender a heart attack.

  • He could have fallen backward off the railing and been badly hurt, or worse yet, fallen on to one of the millions of bicyclists or joggers that go past, their heads in clouds, and then both would have been hurt.

  • He could have hit his head on the railing while doing the back flip and broken his neck.

  • He could have landed on some unseen debris in the water and been impaled.

  • He could have taken his plunge just as one of the motor boats came speeding through the channel, which happens, oh, about every minute or so. (A diver in Jacksonville, Florida had his face ripped off by a motor boat that didn’t see his dive flag. Now add the person falling from the sky into the mix, no flag in sight, and you get the idea.)

And thank God I wasn’t working on that drawbridge at the time. Here’s the thought process:

  • “Oh sh**, that kid’s going to get himself killed!”

  • “I’m going to be blamed and lose my job.”

  • “Paperwork…”

  • “Now I get to hold up the stereotype of the bridge troll by running those kids off the bridge.”

  • “Never a cop when you need one.”

  • “What if I need to open the bridge and this fool is too busy playing around to move?”

It amazes me that any of us survive to adulthood. Stay safe, everyone.

Ah, the joys of summer.

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&%#$ Drawbridges!

I’ve been making people late to work for more than 18 years. I open drawbridges for a living. And I love my job. Getting cursed at is, unfortunately, part of that job.

Once, a supervisor gave me some sage advice. “If you’ve safely opened the bridge and then you hear someone shout, don’t look. Because you probably won’t like the gesture or projectile that follows.”

It’s true. I’ve been pelted with eggs, rotten vegetables, and once, a full glass beer bottle, which shattered and drenched my clothes. I’ve also been flipped off, threatened, and called any number of unsavory names. Par for the course.

Here’s the thing. (Yes, there’s always a thing.) Bridgetenders are not trying to ruin your day. Truly, we aren’t. There are simply certain rules and federal regulations we are required to follow. Specifically, Coastguard Federal Regulations 33 Part 117. These regulations dictate when a bridge must open, when it can be delayed, what signals we must use, what equipment we must have, how we operate in an emergency.

Not only are we required to follow these federal regulations, but according to 33 U.S. Code 499, if we don’t, we can be fined up to $2000 and/or be thrown in jail for a year. Nothing personal, but I’d much rather make you late to work.

In less legal terms, consider this: Maritime law was around hundreds of years before cars existed. And heavy vessels can’t exactly slam on the brakes or take a side street if some bridgetender doesn’t want to hurt a motorist’s feelings.

So, yeah, from street level it may seem really annoying when one slow moving boat is backing up traffic for a mile. Even worse, the bridge may require an opening for maintenance purposes when there are no boats in sight. It may make you want to curse and throw things. But, you know, you should have thought of that before you chose this particular route. (Harsh, but true.)

So next time you’re waiting impatiently for a drawbridge to close, please remember that the bridgetender’s one and only goal is to maintain the safety of the traveling public. All of them, including you. And that may mean you have to wait your turn. At least try to enjoy the spectacular view while doing so.

For a really interesting podcast on this same subject, check out KUOW’s SoundQs “Um, why does that boat get priority over Seattle drivers?”

St Lucie River Drawbridge

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Positively Inspiring

There is a reason I haven’t given up all hope for the future. It’s that I keep coming across so many amazing young people who identify a problem and then come up with brilliant ideas to try to solve it. One such person is Paige Hunter, of Sunderland, England.

Paige has gone through some hard times herself, so she started to think about those people in despair who choose to jump off bridges. As a bridgetender, I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about them, too. But Paige turned her concerns into positive action.

Some of the messages she attached to the Wearmouth Bridge, along with the phone number to a support hotline for people in emotional distress, include:

  • If you end it now, you will be so deeply missed.
  • Even though things are difficult, your life matters. You’re a shining light in a dark world. Just hold on.
  • When things go wrong, don’t go with them.
  • You matter, you are loved, and people would be worse off if you died.
  • Fight with all you have. Tomorrow is always a better day.
  • Hope is enough (even if hope is all you have.)
  • If you’re reading this, I want to tell you how amazing you are.
  • You have the power to say, “This is not how my story will end.”
  • Look how far you have come… and then keep going.
  • Don’t you dare give up on this life. Not tonight. Not tomorrow. Not ever.
  • Step back. You’re worth it.
  • Pause. Stop. Breathe. There are better options, and so many people love you.
  • This isn’t how it ENDS.
  • Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start now and make a brand new ending.
  • It will be better. Please hold on.
  • It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you DO NOT STOP

What an amazing young lady. Due to her efforts, she got a commendation from the Northumbria Police Department. And this has created a great deal of media attention.

Due to that attention, she decided to do yet another positive thing, and raise funds for mental health. I’ll say it again: what an amazing young lady! Won’t you join me in contributing to her GoFundMe campaign? It’s in British Pounds, but your credit card will figure it out. Lets keep this positivity going!

Paige Hunter, I predict great things from you! Thank you!

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Anticipatory Stress

The 4th of July is the worst day to be an American bridgetender. Drunken boaters and pedestrians are out in force. There’s plenty of stress and aggravation, and a lot of people to avoid injuring due to their own foolishness. While you are out enjoying your fireworks, we bridgetenders are trying to avoid nervous breakdowns.

And yes, I got to work the 4th of July this year. Lucky me. I spent a lot of time politely bellowing at people through the bullhorn. It may not sound like it, but I do it because I care. I’d really rather not kill anyone if I can avoid it.

At a certain point, I realized that a great deal of my tension was purely anticipatory. I knew the night was going to suck. And sure enough, it did. But stressing out over things that have yet to happen is counterproductive at best. Fight or flight should be reserved for the moment when you spot the mountain lion, not for when you’ve heard that there might be one within a 10 mile radius. Caution is great, but becoming adrenalized before the fact does nothing but make you feel exhausted and sick to your stomach.

So I spent a great deal of the night checking in with myself. What is happening now? What are my rational concerns at this moment in time? Breathe…

This takes practice. I never really thought about how much time I waste anticipating disaster. All the more reason to try to stay centered in time.

Hope you had a better 4th than I did!

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What’s the Actual View?

It occurs to me that despite this blog’s name, I haven’t shown you the actual view from one of my drawbridges in quite some time. This view is what inspires my writing, and this job is what gives me the time to write, so I’m very grateful for both.

What follows are some pictures I took on the official opening day of boating season on the Ship Canal here in Seattle this year. As you can see, the fireboat got in on the fun as well.

During boat-related festivals, if a drawbridge is involved, it’s fairly safe to say that there is a bridgetender under an enormous amount of stress while you’re having your good time. Boaters should never mix boating with alcohol, but they often do, and that makes them operate their vessels erratically. And of course these festivals also bring out their fair share of pedestrians, who seem to think that warning signals on drawbridges do not apply to them, or that they’re immortal.

Have fun, but stay safe, everyone.

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Repeating Decimals

The other day I had an experience that made me think of the optometrist’s office that I used to visit as a child. I was always excited to get new glasses. (I must say, though, that looking at old photos makes me question my taste. But I’m going to blame that on my mother. I was just a kid, after all.)

The reason this optometrist’s office sticks in my mind is that his glasses were displayed in a long narrow room, with mirrors along both sides of its entire length. This meant that you’d be in this tunnel of what seemed like infinite reflections. As a child I thought that was very cool. As an adult, my first thought is that the feng shui must have been really off, and I’m amazed he was able to sell any frames at all. How could you focus on the product when there was so much going on, visually?

Ever since then, I’ve always called that never-ending feedback loop experience a “repeating decimal”. When I get into some sort of infinity room, whether it be literal or figurative, it makes me feel like I’m caught observing parallel universes, in a place where time has no end.

The other day I was standing in my drawbridge tower, getting ready to open my bridge for a barge. As it got closer, I realized that the tugboat was actually pushing a pontoon that was part of the old 520 bridge that’s being dismantled in Lake Washington here in Seattle. But even more interesting, it was the section of the bridge that included the drawbridge tower.

I gazed at that tower as it floated by. I thought about the many bridgetenders who had worked in it over the years. It looked like it was still in very good shape. I wondered what was to become of it.

So here I was, in a tower, opening a drawbridge for a drawbridge tower. A mathematical repeating decimal of sorts. I was tempted to look over my shoulder to see if there was another bridgetender looking down at me from above, doing… what, exactly?

I don’t know. And I’m not sure I’d want to know. But it was rather surreal.

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