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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&%#$ 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

A big thanks to StoryCorps for inspiring this blog and my first book.

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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I wrote an actual book, and you can own it! How cool is that?


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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Screwing Up Once

So my phone rang at 7:03 am. I woke up, took one look at the clock, shouted, “Oh, SHIT!!!!” (causing my sleepy dog to give me the hairy eyeball) and answered the phone. I knew it was my supervisor. Before he could say much of anything, I apologized profusely and said I’d be right there. My alarm hadn’t gone off. I had set it for PM instead of AM.

It happens to the best of us. But you have to understand: Bridgetenders cannot, simply cannot, be late. Ever. First of all, if you don’t show up on time, it means the person you are relieving can’t leave. That tends to cause discontent amongst the troops.

But even more importantly, since we are regulated by the Coastguard, abandonment of a bridge can constitute a $10,000 fine and/or 10 years in prison. You just don’t get to impede maritime passage like that. It’s a big no-no. Granted, I’ve never seen this regulation actually enforced, but it is a possibility. It’s why I’ve only been late to work 3 times in 15 years.

Let’s do the math, here. 15 years times 50 weeks a year (allowing for vacations) times 5 days a week equals 3750 days of work. Number of days late: 3. That’s a 0.08% error rate.

You know what that says to me? Congratulations, Barb, you are human. Alert the press.

But instead I got written up. Here, it’s called a “coaching and counseling” and we’re told it does not become a part of our permanent records. They just hold it for 6 months or a year. (The fact that I can’t remember the length shows you how much I care.) I guess they want to see if you are a chronically late person.

Upon receiving my copy, I asked if there was any documentation of the 99.92% of the time that I actually show up 20 minutes early. I was told no. “Well, that’s fair,” I said.

What a destructive policy. All this does is make your staff feel unappreciated. It is a blow to morale. It makes one want to do the bare minimum for an organization that clearly does not care about its employees. Bad business.

This is not the first time I’ve observed companies come down like a ton of bricks on a good employee who screwed up just once. It makes absolutely no sense. It’s the equivalent to setting fire to your own hair. (“Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time…”)

Here’s what I don’t get. I screw up once and get written up. Trump screws up several times a day for 6 months running, and he’s allowed to destroy our governmental infrastructure and our standing in the international community, all while robbing the taxpayers while he golfs, and there are no consequences.



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Where are All the Bridgetenders?

Bridge operators are a quirky group. We like our privacy. We tend to be slow to trust. We like to be kings of our castles, so to speak. Plus some of us (not me, not anymore) work under some draconian rules and have to fear for our livelihood. That’s probably why there isn’t a widespread network of us out there. We aren’t communicating.

I think this lack of community is a pity. Not only would we benefit from sharing our best practices and telling each other about job openings, but it would be fun to exchange our crazy stories. I would dearly love to hear about and see other views from other drawbridges! So if you know anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who opens a drawbridge for a living, please share this post with them, and also invite them to join my Facebook group The View from a Drawbridge, and my other group, Drawbridge Lovers. (Of course, the rest of you can join, too!)

Lets hope this whole 6 degrees of separation thing works, because I’m looking forward to meeting some fellow travelers! Anyone can be a part of Drawbridge Nation! You just have to open up! (Sorry. I couldn’t resist.)

The Fremont bridge opens for a sailboat and a pontoon for the 520 bridge. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Obsolete Jobs

Sometime within the next four years yet another of the drawbridges that I work on here in town will be replaced by a fixed span flyover bridge, thus putting quite a few bridgetenders out of work. Bridgetenders worldwide are becoming as rare as hen’s teeth. The only chance you have of any future in this job is if your bridge is extremely historic and quaint, and if the shore is too built up in the area for new construction. I’m going to miss this bridge when it’s gone.

That had me thinking of other jobs out there that are disappearing.

  • Once upon a time in New York City there were people whose full time job it was to do nothing but keep pigs from wallowing in the muddy streets so as not to block the horse drawn carriages. Can you imagine?
  • When’s the last time you saw a milkman make a delivery? Same with ice men, rag collectors, coal deliverymen, and knife sharpeners.
  • Fuller brush salesmen are a thing of the past, as are encyclopedia salesmen and vacuum cleaner salesmen.
  • It used to be that a “computer” was a person who sat around making calculations.
  • I know someone who used to run a VCR repair shop, and someone else who was trained in computer punch cards.
  • And what about those people who went around emptying coins from payphones?
  • You don’t see nearly as many human beings directing traffic or taking tolls on the highways. Most of that is mechanized now.
  • The number of trained librarians has been reduced worldwide, and I think that’s a tragedy.
  • Newspapers seem to be disappearing, and ethical, unbiased journalists are nearly extinct.
  • I’m sure there must have been a whole industry making iron lungs for victims of polio.
  • I can’t remember the last time I saw someone delivering a telegram.
  • Are there any gas stations left where you don’t pump it yourself?
  • Drive in movies, and thus the people who worked in them, are for the most part a thing of the past.
  • It’s a lot harder to find a travel agent these days, and good luck coming up with a doctor who makes house calls.

For every career that goes the way of the Dodo bird, there are large numbers of people who have fond memories of it. These people are left scrambling to find work or retrain themselves, and many of them never fully recover. The march of progress has a tendency to trample anyone standing in its path.

Dodo Bird

The Dodo Bird — Poster child for obsolescence.

[Image credit: Wikipedia]

Remembering Dave

I used to work with a guy named Dave. When you work on a bridge that requires multiple bridgetenders and you are stuck in a small room with someone for 8 hours at a stretch, you get to know them pretty well. When you don’t get along, it can be pure hell. When you do, as I did with Dave, it can be a pleasure.

Dave impressed me right from the start. He was always kind, courteous, and had an easy smile. (Those qualities can be rare in a bridgetender. It is easy for us to become grumpy old trolls, so I’ve often thought that that myth, at least, was based on fact.) But what really fascinated me about Dave was that when we first met, he was teaching himself Spanish. Just because. Since Spanish is my second language, he often had questions for me.

Having seen this before, I assumed it would be a passing fancy, and that he’d quickly move on to other pursuits. No. Dave studied Spanish for about a year and a half, entirely self-motivated, and for the pure pleasure of it. I have never seen such determination, focus, or drive before or since. I kind of had a mini don’t-think-about-it-too-much-because-he’s-a-coworker-for-crying-out-loud crush on him because of this. Oh, and he was nice looking, too.

And then (and my apologies to Dave’s memory if I get any of the facts wrong here) his mother died. And then a week later his girlfriend died quite unexpectedly. And a week after that his dog died. Overnight, Dave seemed to age about 20 years. He even looked like he had shrunk. It was heartbreaking to witness.

Despite the over-arching sadness that seemed to permeate his existence after all of this, he never lost his dignity. He still was courteous and he would still grace you with his ready smile. He still liked to listen to other people and cared about their lives. That, too, impressed me. He could have become self-absorbed and insular and completely focused on his own misery, but that wasn’t the path that he chose to take.

About a year after that, Dave discovered that his brother had terminal cancer, so he quit his job and moved to Texas to care for him in his last days. That’s the kind of upstanding guy he was. That’s what you do for family.

Dave and I kind of lost touch after that, but he would occasionally call the bridge and say hello. I’d get updates from coworkers and sometimes even get to talk to him myself. He always made me smile. The last I had heard, he’d gotten married. Although that popped my fragile little crush like the soap bubble it always was, I have to say it made me admire him all the more. Dave was all about embracing life in spite of having more than his fair share of adversity.

And then the other day, quite by accident, I heard that Dave had passed away. Brain Cancer. Just like that. Just. Like. That.

I’ll always remember him looking down at me from the catwalk, all angles and smiles and tanned skin, as I walked up the bridge. Most of the world has no idea what it has lost, but it has lost much.

Rest in peace, dear friend.

sunset bridge

Sunset from the bridge where I worked with Dave.

Dead Woman Walking

Last night I looked into the face of death, and the scary thing is that she looked like me. Or rather, how I would look if I had made much worse choices in life.

I was working on a bridge that is so large that it requires three bridgetenders per shift. Two of us act as flagpeople, standing on opposite ends of the bridge so that idiot drivers don’t crash the gates and drive into the drink when the center span is being lifted vertically by the third bridgetender. This means that as a flag person, I’m stranded on the street level as the bridge rises, and I have nowhere to go if a weirdo comes along. And we do get our fair share. This can be fun at one in the morning. Not.

So I was down there, doing my thing, and out of the shadows walks a skeleton. I got on the radio and called my coworkers.“Uh, guys? Keep an eye on me, will you? I’ve got a crazy.“ They can see me on camera. Not that they can do anything, but at least they can bear witness.

This woman was my height, but she couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds. Her skin was stretched so tightly that I could see the bones in her skull and elbows. Her hair was brown like mine, but so dry it seemed like it would crack and fall off if touched, and she had sores on her face and arms. She was probably my age, but she looked 40 years older.

She weaved her way toward me and kept saying, “I’ve got to go.“ And I was wishing she would go. Far away from me. Because she was a heroin addict, and I knew, without a doubt, that I was looking at a dead woman. She was beyond help. She was lost.

That was one of the longest bridge openings of my life. And before it came down completely, she had climbed over the sidewalk gate. One million pounds of steel could have easily crushed her foot, and I knew there was nothing I could do about it. She was way past listening to reason, and I wasn’t about to wrestle her to the ground. All she was worried about was getting to the methadone clinic on the other side of the bridge. Apparently she didn’t know it had been shut down months ago due to lack of funding.

Someone must have been watching over her last night, because she retained her limbs and went on her way. But as I watched her stagger off into the darkness, I couldn’t help but think that she was someone’s child, maybe someone’s sister or mother, and for all intents and purposes she was dead already. It was very sad.

Most of us don’t ever have to look death in the face. We keep that sort of thing at a distance from the general public. But last night I looked it right in the eye, and I hope to never have to see it again.


This looks just like the woman I saw, only she was even farther gone.

(photo credit:

Caught up in Captioning

Most bridgetenders watch at least a dozen movies a week at work. There isn’t much else to do. On any given week I’ll watch anything from Fellini’s “Amarcord” to “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes”. (Tell me I’m not well-rounded. I dare you.) And when you have to drown out the roar of traffic and the crackle of the marine radio (not every call is for us, after all), you get into the habit of turning on the captions of the movies in question, so as not to miss anything.

I never really thought about the person who actually creates the captioning for those movies until I became one of them myself. I now have a side job as a captioner.  Oh, I haven’t hit the big time yet. I do cartoons, not feature films. But still.

The beauty of this work is that I can do as much or as little of it as I want, from the privacy of my own, uh…home, of course. The downside is that one is paid by the job, not by the hour, and I think I’ve gotten as good at it as I will ever be, which means I’m averaging about $2.65 an hour. Peanuts, yes, but mighty convenient peanuts, and I have to say it’s a lot of fun. If it weren’t so much fun, I probably wouldn’t bother.

I’ve done a couple of really strange cartoons from countries with such cultural differences that I couldn’t really grasp their appeal, but I have settled on one series that is a modern British version of The Magic Roundabout, and it’s delightful. I’ll be sad when I’ve run out of episodes.

And what is happening is magical, indeed. Since I have to concentrate to do the captioning, I feel as though I’m right in there with the characters, almost as if I’m part of the family. I’ve gotten to know each personality, and can anticipate how they’ll think and react. That helps me figure out what they’re about to say. Being able to practically finish their sentences has increased my captioning speed a great deal.

And I love the idea that I’m actually helping people. Somewhere out there, someone is improving their reading or English skills, or someone who is hearing impaired will read my captions and it will allow them to enjoy the show in question as much as the rest of his or her friends and family.

I want to make sure they get the full experience. I take it very seriously. I want to emphasize the right words using italics. I want to break sentences in logical places, taking into account the way the words are flowing from the speaker’s lips. I want my sound effects to really give you a sense of the sounds. I want the captions to pop up at just the right moment and remain on the screen for a sufficient length of time to be comfortably read.

One thing’s for certain. I’ll never look at captioning in the same way again. Now I’ll always think of the person who did it, and how they’re trying to make a living in a very creative way. I’ll appreciate it when they take pride in their work, and sometimes I’ll say to myself, for example, “I would have dealt with that sound differently.”

It’s kind of an art form, when you think about it.