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.
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.
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.
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.
When I first became a bridgetender back in 2001, I assumed I wouldn’t be dealing with people very much. That was part of the appeal for me. It suits my introverted nature. I don’t really understand a lot of people, especially when they are acting unpredictably. And those are the very people I’m forced to interact with on my job.
So, in honor of Halloween, I thought I’d tell you about some of the people who have scared me over the years. Some of these are kind of funny in retrospect. Others, not so much.
The scariest person I’ve ever come across was the barking man. He thinks he’s a dog. But he’s no golden retriever. He thinks he’s a very large, aggressive, rabid dog. He was someone I dealt with regularly on one of my Florida bridges. He never touched me, but a couple of times he got close enough to where I felt his slobber on my face as he barked and growled. Bad dog. No treats for you.
Then there’s the serial rapist who got out of jail and spent his nights fishing at the end of my bridge. How do I know this? Because I used to have a side job transcribing the interviews of ex-prisoners for a study at the health department, and he mentioned my bridge by name. I heard this while sitting on that very bridge all alone, late at night, and it felt much worse because I had no idea what he looked like.
For some reason, people like to come by and pound on the tower door and run away. It has happened on all 9 bridges that I’ve worked on. This often makes me jump out of my skin. Especially on the graveyard shift. Fortunately, I have a strong heart.
But I nearly soiled myself the time that three young boys came by at three a.m. and rattled the doorknob for 15 minutes, saying, “Come on, lady, let us in!” Yes, I called the police. No, they did not show up while the scofflaws in question where still present. A few days later those same kids showed up and asked how to get a job as a bridgetender. I told them, for starters, not to act like a bunch of juvenile delinquents.
Young males, aged 13-25 can quite often be bad news. You never know what these guys are going to do. They climb things. They like to jump the gap of a partially opened bridge. They shout impatiently. They crawl under the gates. They do backflips into the water. They think they’re immortal, and they must be, because if anyone else behaved that stupidly, they’d probably be dead by now.
When people throw eggs or tomatoes or beer bottles or even, one time, a pumpkin, it sounds like a mortar shell has hit the building. This happened all the time when I worked in Florida. It has yet to happen here in Seattle, and it never happened in South Carolina, either. But I’ve never worked on a bridge that hasn’t had its window shot out at least once. (I hope I didn’t just give someone an idea.)
One gentleman used to like to dress up in a green satin, spaghetti strapped dress, and admire himself in the convex mirror right outside my door. For hours on end. That part didn’t bother me so much. Live and let live. What bothered me was when he’d stand in the road and start screaming incoherently. The police had to escort him off my bridge on more than one occasion, but he’d always make his way back eventually.
Just the other day a guy told me that I’m an idiot who doesn’t know how to do my job, and that he studied engineering at the University of Washington, and therefore was better at judging what was safe and unsafe, and when an opening should be started. He then proceeded to crawl under the gate and cross the bridge before I had even driven the locks to keep it from bouncing up.
One of my coworkers watched someone assemble an IKEA lamp at center span, and then walk away, leaving the lamp sitting there. He thinks of that guy whenever he turns the lamp on, as it goes perfectly with his living room décor.
Another guy was so upset that the pedestrian traffic gate was down and he couldn’t cross the bridge that he ripped it free, bolts and all, with his bare hands. Well, that’s one way of dealing with the situation, I suppose. Another way would be to wait your freakin’ turn.
People abandon rental bikes at center span all the time, too. In hopes that they’ll fall off the rising bridge and hurt someone? I have no idea. But the wheels won’t move unless you provide a credit card, and I’m here to tell you they are really heavy when I have to lift them up to carry them off the bridge. That, and the automated voice that’s telling me not to steal the bike is really annoying.
There’s a lady here that I call the suitcase lady because she has several of them. If you get too close, she curses like a sailor. I’m fairly certain she could beat me senseless if properly motivated, such is the level of her rage. I do my best to avoid her, but one day I happened to step out onto the sidewalk at the exact moment when she was passing by. I braced myself. She jumped toward me. But this time she shouted, “I got a new shirt!” I wasn’t expecting that, so I had no idea what to say. I have to admit, though, that it was a really nice shirt. Red is her color. Good for her.
There’s one guy who likes to cross the bridge while dribbling an imaginary basketball. He seems fairly harmless, but where is he in his mind? And what happens next?
By far, it’s the drug addicts that rattle me the most. I never know what their version of reality might be. What do they see when they look at me? A humble bridgetender, or the devil incarnate who must be disposed of?
People are scary, man. They don’t even need costumes.
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!
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.”
“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.