Observations in the Field

Before I became a bridgetender, I was a Maintenance Management Systems Engineer for the State of Florida, Department of Transportation, based in St. Augustine. I loved the work, but I hated the job, because the morale in that office was abysmal. The tension there was so thick that you could cut it with a knife, and management, to a man, was insane at worst and irrational and paranoid at best. One of the best things I ever did for myself was to become a bridgetender, but for several years there I just had to keep my head down and muddle through in a job I didn’t want to go on most days.

Fortunately, much of my work was out in the field. I jumped on every opportunity to get out there, away from the office, away from the idiots. I function best when I’m left alone to do my job.

I was tasked with doing crew studies, to ensure that work crews were making efficient use of materials, equipment and time, and that they were correctly completing their paperwork to account for same. It always made me inwardly laugh when they’d see me coming and immediately stop leaning on their shovels and actually work. I wasn’t the crew police. I wasn’t there to get them in trouble. I was more of an efficiency expert. But they never seemed to relax around me.

Another one of my duties was taking road inventory. This was driving along the state roads, determining the number of signs, pipes, road markings, drainage ditches,  deliniators, attenuators, and raised pavement markers per mile, so that we could better determine how much to budget in order to maintain those things. Geek that I am, I actually found this rather fun.

The counties in my territory were extremely rural. I often had the highway to myself. But I spent many hours out there, and I saw quite a few really strange things in my time. Here are a few:

  • A pickup truck’s wheel came off, with the axle still attached. Needless to say, the truck came to an abrupt halt, but the wheel and axle rolled an unbelievably long way (about 200 yards) before it finally came to rest in a ditch.

  • A woman’s black lace thong on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, next to a potato field.

  • A leatherback turtle trying to dig a hole to lay her eggs, right next to a busy highway. I had to stop a guy who was waiting around to take the eggs, and I had to relocate the turtle (per advice from the Fish and Game Department) before she started laying. She was not at all pleased with me.

  • I used to do road inventory near a rural Border Collie Rescue facility. I had to walk down the road, measuring stuff. About a hundred Border Collies would run up to the fence line and silently walk with me, the entire length of the field. (I really looked forward to working that stretch of road, but didn’t get to do it very often.)

  • Several water moccasins chasing my van as I was measuring the circumference of a retention pond. (They were extremely persistent. I was grateful that the van didn’t stall or get stuck or it would have been grounds for a really bad movie. Snakes on a Van.)

  • A cop car blasted past me, sirens wailing, out in the boonies. Turns out he was in a hurry to get to the bar-b-cue place 2 miles further down the road, where I, too, stopped to have lunch. (Can you say abuse of power?)

  • People putting superglue in our padlocks on retention ponds that were 15 miles away from civilization.

  • An unmelted scoop of ice cream in the middle of a hot summer road, with no one in sight.

  • A burning rag on the side of the interstate during fire season.

  • A terrified chihuahua running down the interstate.

  • A guy trying to cut the tail off a dead alligator with a Swiss Army knife. I suspect he’s the one who ran it over.

I sure have seen some things. You’d never guess how exciting the middle of nowhere can be. Fieldwork can be a fascinating adventure. I miss it.

Rural Florida Highway

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“It’s How I Was Raised.”

I was remembering a conversation I once had with a coworker when I worked for the Florida Department of Transportation. We were doing highway inspections out in the middle of nowhere. I mean, there was nothing or no one around for miles except fields of potatoes, and for some reason he chose that moment to say something really racist.

I had to call bullsh**, as I am wont to do in these situations. I don’t know why I bother. It never ends well. But I can’t just sit back and let ignorance like that pass.

“Dude, I can’t believe you just said that. I can’t believe you believe it, let alone say it out loud.”

“I can’t help it. It’s how I was raised. I was taught—”

“Excuse me? You’re a freakin’ ADULT!!!  You don’t have to march in lock step with your parents. You’re not a potato. You don’t have to stay where you’re planted.  You’re not a stupid man. You get to decide what your morals and values are. I’d find it refreshing if you took ownership of your hate, and stopped blaming your parents for it. It would be even more refreshing if you got a clue.”

It was a long, quiet ride back to the office. Did it do any good? Probably not. But some things just have to be said.

potato field

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Best Kept Secrets

I don’t know how I got so lucky, but I seem to have stumbled upon two of the Seattle area’s best kept secrets. The first is the neighborhood where I just bought my house. It’s a hidden little hamlet that most people do not even realize exists. Therein lies its charm. We don’t get a lot of visitors. The hubbub is kept to a bare minimum. It’s the kind of place where everybody knows everybody, and you feel like you can keep your doors unlocked. (But I resist that urge, in case you’re wondering.)

When I get within a quarter mile of home, it’s like I’ve entered an oasis after having spent weeks in a desert, and I’m about to plunge into a crystal blue spring. It feels good to scrub off the dust of the trail, figuratively speaking. Bliss.

The second is a public park within walking distance of my house. I never see many people there, and once you’re about a block off the highway, even though we’re not that far from the bustle of Seattle, it’s as if you’ve plunged into a forest primeval. Nature just runs right up to you and cradles you in its arms.

It is a place where you can soak your feet in a cool mountain stream on a hot summer’s day, or lie in a field, gazing up, up, up at old growth forest. I can’t begin to tell you how thrilled I am to have a getaway like this, practically in my own back yard. It takes my breath away. I can’t wait to see how it changes with the seasons!

And if you think for one second that I’m going to tell you where these gems are, you are out of your mind. Finding serenity and peace in this area is as rare as hen’s teeth. If you have a place like this, guard it with your life.

Forest.jpg

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Why Did You Become a Bridgetender?

One of my faithful readers/new friends asked me that question recently, and I realized that I’ve touched on the subject in this blog in the past, but never really addressed it in full. So here goes.

I’ve been working and/or studying since I was 10 years old, and I’ve had 23 different jobs. Some of them I’ve liked quite a bit, and others I’ve loathed. But bridgetending is the first job I’ve loved.

Before this job, I worked as an employee of the State of Florida in various positions for 14 years. The last position was Management Systems Engineer for the Florida Department of Transportation. It paid well, and the benefits were great, but the morale in that place was beyond toxic. Frankly, I hated every minute of it, except for the times when I could get out of the office and work in the field either alone or with just one of my staff. I greatly prefer to work independently, and very few jobs give you those kinds of opportunities.

Often during those field days we’d work on or around drawbridges, and I’d always look up and think how cool that must be. No office politics, no dress code, no insane supervisor breathing down your neck all day, no stupidity. That was my definition of heaven.

One day during my commute I thought, “I could be hit by a bus today, and the first thought I will have had that day is, ‘I don’t want to go to work.’” That would be tragic. I mean, seriously, too much time is spent on the job to be miserable there. What a waste of life. So I went in and I quit. Just like that.

In retrospect that was kind of insane and impulsive, because I still had a mortgage, I still had to eat. But the economy was much better back then. And I knew that if I didn’t just do it, I’d be stuck there, unhappy, for the rest of my life.

Next, I found out who did the hiring on the bridges, and I contacted him, but it was three scary months before a bridgetending position opened up. During that time I did a lot of freelance editing work. That kept the wolves from the door, but it wasn’t a viable long-term solution.

In Florida, the bridges are operated by subcontractors, so it’s not a government job. This meant that I took a 1/3 cut in pay and had no benefits to speak of. But you know what? I was happy. And you can’t put a price on happiness.

I truly believe that most people go about determining their career path in exactly the opposite way that they should. Most people think about the pay and the subsequent lifestyle that pay will afford them, then take a job and try to sort of force happiness out of it.

Instead, what you should do is determine what qualities you need for job satisfaction, then choose a career that will provide you with those qualities. If your primary motivator is money, then by all means, become that lawyer. But I suspect that with deeper thought, many people will realize that they need other things even more. For example, some people get their satisfaction from being in a helping profession. Others take pride in producing something with their hands.

What I need in a job, more than anything, is what a friend of mine calls “a whole lot of leave me alone.” That’s why I’m a bridgetender. And after 15 years, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

ups-and-downs
The same goes for drawbridges.

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