I Broke My Bridge

No good deed goes unpunished.

It was the day after Seattle got more snow in a 24 hour period than it usually gets in a year. There was 4 to 9 inches of the stuff covering most of the city. Most people had the good sense to stay put.

Not me. I’m a bridgetender. I have an obligation to be there. But driving 25 miles in that crap did not appeal to me, so my husband was kind enough to get up with me at 4 a.m. and drive me there in our truck. (He’s a keeper.)

The commute took 3 times longer than usual, but we made it on time, and I trudged up to the tower door of the University Bridge in calf-high snow, losing a glove in the process. If I had known how the day was going to go, I’d have stayed in bed.

For starters, I had to shovel the snow off the sidewalk and bike lanes, on both sides of the entire length of the movable span. I had been told there would be help coming, but none came. So I shoveled, and shoveled, and shoveled, for 2 solid hours, moving hundreds of pounds of snow, until I thought my heart would explode. And even after that, I had only cleared a partial trail from both sidewalks. Under that, it was so hard packed and icy that it would have taken a blow torch to remove the stuff.

Pedestrians kept stopping to thank me. One even gave me an almond croissant. They couldn’t believe I was trying to tackle this project on my own. “Doesn’t the city have a snow blower?” Yup. But we weren’t allowed to use it for some insane reason.

I never shoveled the bike lane. I called someone further up in my chain of command and told him I needed help. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack. He told me to shovel no more, and that he’d send help. None arrived.

And then a sailboat asked me for an opening. What a sailboat was doing out in that weather I’ll never understand. But ours is not to question why. So I opened the bridge for him.

I gave the bridge a full opening, in hopes that some more of that snow would slide off. I even “bounced” the bridge a tiny bit in hopes of shaking the snow off. But no. It was like concrete.

The sailboat successfully transited, and I closed the bridge. Well, sort of. Once the bridge is properly seated, the next step is to drive a lock that’s kind of like a slide bolt underneath a bridge. This keeps the bridge leaves from bouncing up individually as cars cross. You don’t want that. The next car could have a nasty surprise.

The controls said the bridge was seated. I double checked as I always do. It looked seated. So I drove the locks.

It wasn’t seated.

Imagine trying to drive a slide bolt home when it isn’t properly aligned. Something is going to break. And something sure as heck did. The two shafts split like hot knives going through butter.

The mechanics said it was bound to happen sooner or later. The lock was fabricated in 1933. It’s been sliding home for millions of openings, in the heat of summer and the chill of winter, every day since then. Metal fatigue, anyone? I just happened to draw the short straw, and be present for the opening that finally did it in.

Of course, nobody was sure that the lock was broken at first. Which meant I had to crawl down beneath the bridge, on an ice-coated, metal grate catwalk suspended 42 feet above the frigid canal, to try to manually crank the lock closed. Meanwhile traffic started to back up for miles.

When I reported back about my total lack of success, it was assumed that I didn’t know what I was doing. As with every male dominated workplace, it wasn’t until they arrived on the scene and couldn’t get the locks to budge either that they finally realized there was more to the problem.

The last time a lock was broken here in town, it was on the Ballard Bridge, and it cost the city about $50,000 to replace it. (It’s not like you can run down to the nearest Home Depot and pick up a replacement part.) But this time it was two shafts, not one, so I shudder to think how much this will cost.

The locks won’t be repaired until at least April. Meanwhile, we still have to open the bridge for vessels and then lock it to make it safe for traffic, so we have to employ pinsetters to run out to center span for every opening and shove a heavy metal pin in between both leaves and lock them together. This means the openings take a lot longer, and require much more team work. But you do what you have to do.

(Oh, and I tried to set the pins when the bridge first malfunctioned, so that the traffic could cross while we were trying to figure out what was wrong. The on call supervisor assumed that I didn’t do that right either. But you can’t set a pin on an improperly aligned bridge. So I climbed that ladder and lifted the 15 pound pin over my head, all while freezing to death, for absolutely nothing, not even appreciation for the effort.)

By the end of my shift, I was exhausted. My husband picked me up. I was so glad I wouldn’t have to drive home.

As I was getting into the truck, my ice-caked boots slipped off the running board and I fell face-first into a snow bank, wrenching my already aching back. I really earned my pay that day.

So imagine my shock when I returned to work a couple days later to hear that several of my coworkers accused me of not shoveling at all, and breaking the bridge due to my own negligence. Mind you, none of them had been there, and didn’t have a clue as to what had transpired.

No good deed goes unpunished, it seems.

 

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Drawbridge FAQs

So, there’s actually a person making the bridge open and close?

Yep. I get that a lot. Nice to meet you. While there are some automated drawbridges out there (mostly railroad bridges in remote locations with little or no pedestrian traffic), the vast majority of drawbridges have a human operator. Safety is our primary concern, and they have yet to invent a computer with an algorithm to adapt to the unpredictable behaviors of pedestrians, motorists, bicyclists, and boaters. Every few years some fool decides to spend a taxpayer’s fortune to do a study about automating bridges, and it always turns out to be a really, really bad idea.

Don’t you get bored? What do you do between bridge openings? Don’t you go stir crazy? Do you sleep a lot?

I can’t speak for every bridgetender, but it’s a point of pride with me that I never sleep, and it frustrates me when people assume that I do. It’s insulting. I take my job very seriously. There’s a lot more to the job than simply sitting there and waiting for a boat to come along. There’s more paperwork than you’d expect. Opening statistics. Accident reports. Long opening reports. Maintenance requests. Log books. Safety lock outs. Supply requests. Many of us are also required to do maintenance, such as the greasing and/or cleaning of various pieces of equipment, the constant battle with pigeon poop and rat abatement, general cleaning, and inspections.

But yes, there’s plenty of down time, too. If you are the type to go stir crazy, you won’t last long on this particular career path. Everyone has their own way of keeping entertained, and every bridge has different policies as to what’s allowed. Some provide TVs and DVDs and/or allow you to bring your laptop to work. Some bridgetenders read books or newspapers or do crossword puzzles. Some of us are writers. I once knew someone who knitted a king sized blanket while listening to the radio. I sometimes sit here and pay my bills.

I also used to know of a bridge that didn’t allow its employees to do anything at all. That, to me, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and those bridge operators slept all the time. I think it’s much better to keep busy and alert, and continually scan the waterway for approaching vessels.

How do you know when someone needs an opening?

Generally they will call us on the marine radio or give us a horn signal. Others will just come up to the bridge and sit there, but since we’re not mind readers, they will most likely sit there for quite some time. If you have a boat, it’s very important to familiarize yourself with the Coastguard Federal Regulations, particularly as they pertain to communicating with drawbridges.

Is the bridge manned 24 hours a day? How many hours a day do you work?

That varies from bridge to bridge. The Coastguard regulates when each bridge is not required to open for vessels. Some bridges do not have a graveyard shift. Some bridges share one employee who drives from bridge to bridge to do openings as each vessel transits the waterway. Some bridges over water that ices up are only opened seasonally, or by appointment only. Most of us work 8 hour shifts, but I do know of a few who work 12 hour shifts. Some bridges only allow part time employees to avoid providing benefits.

How much money do you make?

It’s unbelievable how much variation there is from region to region. Some bridgetenders only make minimum wage and get no benefits whatsoever. I’ve known some railroad bridge operators who make 45 dollars an hour and have retirement and every benefit under the sun. The primary difference seems to be whether you have a union or not. I strongly urge unionization to every bridgetender. Power to the people!

How do you get a job as a bridgetender? Do you need special training?

Let’s face it. This isn’t rocket science. If you can read and write, and have functional arms and legs, and good hearing and eyesight, you can be trained on the job. Some important skills to emphasize in an interview are taking safety seriously, customer service, and reliability. Since some bridges are operated by states, some by counties, others by cities, and still others by subcontractors or railroads, it’s best to just approach a bridgetender on the job and ask them who to contact. (Just don’t sneak up on us. We hate that.)

How often do you open the bridge?

That varies greatly from bridge to bridge, and from season to season. Some bridges only open a few times a year. Here in Seattle, I can go several days without an opening in the dead of winter, and then get 15 openings in a shift on a summer holiday weekend. My alltime record was opening for 225 vessels in an 8 hour shift in Florida. Granted, I let several boats through each time, but still, I didn’t get to eat lunch, and  had to get kind of rude just to take a bathroom break.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Witnessing suicide attempts. And it happens more often than you might think.

Why is there such a long delay between the time the bridge closes and the time the traffic gates go up to let cars through again?

Patience, grasshopper. Once the bridge is seated, a lock has to be driven along the underside of the structure so that the bridge doesn’t bounce open while you drive over it. From the point of view of a car, it may seem like nothing is happening at that time, but we cannot raise the gates to let you through until those locks are driven.

If you have any other questions, feel free to ask them in the comments section below!

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How Rumors Get Started

The other day I saw something really strange go under my drawbridge. It looked like a sailboat mast, only… there was no sailboat beneath the mast. Maybe a really, REALLY tall periscope? An optical illusion? I’m just going to have to accept the fact that I’ll never know the end of that story. And maybe I need to get more sleep. Or update my eyeglass prescription. Or perhaps, like Scrooge, I was digesting a bit of underdone potato.

And then a friend sent me a link to a website about Willatuk, Seattle’s equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster. Jeez, glad I didn’t know about that before I went kayaking a few weeks ago. I’d have been rather creeped out.

Willatuk

While I always have and always will view stories about sea monsters with a healthy level of skepticism, the Willatuk website did suck me in for a second. Not in terms of believing the creature actually exists, but in terms of believing that other people believed it.

But then a few red flags popped up. First of all, the website mentions a Wonkatilla Tribe, which I’d never heard of, and couldn’t find on line except in relation to this website. It also mentions a tunnel 5 miles beneath the surface of Lake Washington which lets out into Puget Sound, and is supposedly the passage that this creature takes. Uh… Lake Washington is only 214 feet deep, folks.

And one couple supposedly saw Willatuk transiting through the locks. I think the people working the locks would have noticed that. And shut him in. And made a fortune off of him.

Upon further investigation, I discovered that the timeline of Willatuk sightings is a purely fictional creation of the guy who made the film Willatuk: The Legend of Seattle’s Sea Serpent. He also happened to make the website. This kind of gave me a giggle.

But it also irritates me a little, because not everyone will follow through the way I did. So I suspect that we’re now going to hear about the occasional Willatuk sighting, and eventually people will forget that it all started off as a work of fiction, and maybe 200 years from now fiction will be viewed as fact and… well, you know, that’s how rumors get started.

I leave you now with the (really bad) Ballad of Willatuk, which was also created for the movie. Because I love you, dear reader, I actually sat through the movie myself for research purposes, and it’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back and will always regret. No one has even bothered to rate it on the Rotten Tomatoes website, which is kind of a distinction in and of itself.

Exploring Seattle – Part One

There are a million things to see and do in my new home, and I intend to go exploring every chance I get. When I do, I’ll take you all with me. Here’s the first of what I hope will be many installments.

I got my credit card bill today. 9,000.00 dollars in relocation expenses, and that doesn’t even include my first and last month’s rent. And my Indigogo Campain seems to have died out. (Check it out here if you can help.) I felt like crying. Or having a panic attack. It will be several years before I get ahead of this debt.

But crying is no fun at all. So instead I went out and explored the city a bit. May as well fiddle while Rome burns! You never know when you’ll get another chance to fiddle, after all.

My first stop was the Ballard Locks, also known as the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. This amazing feat of engineering is what allows vessels to pass through the Ship Canal, and it’s quite interesting to see them operate firsthand. I have been gazing at them from a distance from the Ballard Drawbridge, and my curiosity got the better of me.

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What makes the experience even better is that there’s also a really beautiful Botanical Garden in the same location…

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and another feat of engineering, the fish ladder, which allows the salmon to bypass the locks. You get a close up look at these salmon as they struggle their way upstream.

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I was really impressed. And now I have a craving for salmon. This is a lovely way to pass a sunny Saturday.

Alas, these sunny Saturdays are rare in Seattle, so I couldn’t just linger at the locks. I want to get all this outdoorsy stuff checked out before the weather turns. So next on my list was Discovery Park, which, to me sounds like a Disney attraction. But in fact it was a gorgeous, HUGE park with a 2.8 mile loop trail. At the information center they said it was basically flat and not very strenuous.

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To that I say, “Pish!” This Florida girl could explain a thing or two about the whole flat concept. The trail nearly killed me. I’m so out of shape that pregnant women, pregnant women were passing me on the trail! At least it’s through mostly shady woodland, full of the moss and rocks and ferns that brought me back to my childhood. But while I was muttering to myself about the hike, I rounded a curve and came across this:

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Which of course made it all worth it.

The weather was so clear I even caught my first glimpse of Mount Rainier, which completely took my breath away. I can’t wait to go there now!

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But anyone who wants to see Seattle in its natural state definitely needs to explore Discovery Park.

Where should I go next? Any suggestions?

Ways to Increase Your Safety

I take the issue of safety very seriously, perhaps more so than the average person. Due to some abuse I experienced in my childhood, I have been diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). It gets triggered when I feel as if people in positions of authority don’t have my best interests at heart, or when I don’t feel safe for whatever reason.

Given my history, I could have chosen to live my life in fear and hide from the world, or I could have become clingy, assumed a victim mentality and placed my security in the hands of others, but I choose not to hide behind some man. First of all, you can’t always count on the fact that one will be there when you need him. Second, if you spend all your time cowering behind someone else, your view ahead is very limited. You could miss a lot of good stuff that way.

So here are some tricks I’ve picked up over the years, either through safety classes put on by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, instructional videos, common sense, or learning from the mistakes of others. I hope these tips help others live more independent lives as well.

  • Make sure you have efficient locks on all your windows and doors, and adequate lighting. Put a chain on your door that isn’t too long.
  • Never open your door to a stranger. Talk through the door if necessary. If you know you’re going to have to open the door, for example, if you’re expecting a pizza delivery, shout loudly over your shoulder, “I’ll get it!” You never want someone to think you’re alone.
  • Never sit in your car in a parking lot with the doors unlocked.
  • If someone walks up to you and you’re getting a bad vibe, before they’re too close, say, “Don’t I know your mother?” Criminals do not like to be known.
  • If you aren’t feeling comfortable, and you can have a friend watch out for you when you’re walking to your car, for example, don’t be hesitant to ask. You would do the same for them, wouldn’t you? Don’t let your pride override your instincts. But also don’t live your life counting on that person to be there. Accept your limitations, but also try to reduce them whenever possible. Your safety is your own responsibility.
  • Avoid “sliders”. This is a new phenomenon. When pumping gas, many women leave their purse on the seat in the unlocked car. Sliders will drive up beside your passenger side, hop out, quietly open your passenger door and steal your purse. So when pumping gas, keep your purse with you or lock your doors.
  • Never open your door to leave the house before first looking out the window or peep hole. You never know who might be standing there.
  • Carry keys in your hand. Don’t fumble for keys at your door. Keys can also make an effective weapon when interwoven between your fingers.
  • If you can avoid carrying a purse, do so. Pockets are better than fanny packs, which are better than purses. If you have to carry a purse, keep the zipper closed, the flap turned inward toward your body, in front of you and away from the street, and rest your hand on it as you walk. Never leave a purse hanging behind you on a chair in a restaurant.
  • If you have to carry a large amount of money, divide it up and carry it in several compartments.
  • Never enter an elevator with a stranger who makes you feel uncomfortable. When you do ride in an elevator, locate the alarm button in case you need it. Stand next to the control panel. If you suspect trouble, push that alarm button and as many other buttons as possible. Trust your instincts. Allow the other passengers to push the button for their floors, THEN push yours. If you’re feeling at risk, get off at an earlier floor if necessary.
  • When you leave a store, pause at the door and scan the parking lot before heading toward your car. Parking lots are high crime areas.
  • If you’re approached when you’re in your car, lay on the horn, long and loud. Flash your lights. Rev your engine. Step on your brakes. Put on your flashers. Set off the alarm. Do anything to draw attention.
  • Carry a flashlight at night.
  • If someone taps your shoulder, turn, yes, but keep walking, backward, away from him. Talk with your hands up at shoulder level so you can take action if necessary.
  • Always carry a well charged cell phone.
  • Never assume that clean cut young man is a good guy. Bad guys come in all shapes and sizes. The vast majority of criminals, however, are males between the ages of 15 and 25, so pay particular attention to them.
  • If someone pulls a weapon on you and says, “Give me your wallet,” by all means, give it to them. But don’t just hand it over. Throw it and run in the opposite direction.
  • Take self-defense classes if you can. There are all sorts of nifty wrist releases that you can learn that are beyond the scope of this blog entry. There are also a ton of wrist release and self-defense videos on Youtube. Check them out and practice with a friend.
  • Don’t be afraid to use your voice. Scream. Sadly, you’ll be more likely to get attention if you scream “Fire!” as opposed to “Help!” or “Rape!”.
  • People assume women will be quiet and polite. More than once I’ve turned to a potential bad guy and shouted, “BACK OFF!!!” They all practically soiled themselves while running away.
  • People also don’t expect a “normal” looking person to act crazy. So don’t be afraid to babble, foam at the mouth, twitch, even rub dirt in your hair and eat grass if you have to. It will freak them out, which will give you the psychological upper hand.
  • If someone grabs you, don’t struggle with the grabbed hand. While it’s holding you, you are also holding it. Worry about the other hand.
  • If someone pushes you, they will expect you to resist the push. So don’t. Pull. It will throw them off balance. Similarly, if someone pulls you, don’t resist the pull. Push.
  • Strike straight ahead if possible. It will block their vision. And go for the chin and nose.
  • Anything can be a weapon. A rolled up magazine to the Adam’s apple or a credit card or some folded glasses to the eyeball can do a lot of damage.
  • If your car breaks down and a stranger approaches, tell him or her that someone has already called the police and they’re on their way. Keep your cell phone to your ear and pretend to be talking on it. Or, if you let a good Samaritan change a tire for you, they shouldn’t be offended if you stay in the locked car while they do so.
  • Whenever possible, vary your routine. Try not to be predictable. But at the same time, if you’ll be doing something unusual, let someone you trust know where you’re going and how long you’ll be gone.
  • If your state has a sex offender database, look up the locations of the sex offenders in your neighborhood. If you live in an urban area, you’ll most likely be horrified. I have 15 living in a two mile radius of me. Mostly these people like to prey on small children. But lawbreakers are lawbreakers, and some sex offenders like to steal identities so they can hide. Get to know their faces.
  • If you have a chance, chat with the beat cop who works in your neighborhood. He can tell you about hot spots, gang activity, crime trends, things to look out for. It never hurts to be on a first name basis with your beat cop.
  • If you ever have to give your car key to someone, like a parking attendant or an oil change clerk, ALWAYS remove the key from your key chain. Never hand your house keys to anyone. They can be copied.
  • Create the illusion of multiple occupants in your home. People are less apt to break into a home if there’s a chance that someone is there.
  • Put a sign by your doorbell that says, “One person in this house works nights and sleeps during the day. Please do not disturb.”
  • Leave some old muddy work boots on your front porch. (Although I have to say that the last time I did this, the boots were, ironically, stolen.)
  • If you go out at night, leave some lights on in the house. You can even get timers so they will go off and on at preset times.
  • Get a dog. It doesn’t even have to be a big one. Just a noisy one. Bad guys hate noise. If you can’t have a dog, create the illusion of one. Put up beware of dog signs. Leave a BIG water bowl and a heavy duty chain in a visible place. Buy some toys, have a friend’s dog chew on them so they look used, and then leave those toys scattered in the yard.
  • If you can’t afford a security system, you can buy a motion detector alarm from Radio Shack, and place it high enough up in a room that it won’t be triggered by children or pets, but it will alert you if anyone enters the front part of your house while you sleep.
  • Keep your shades down at night.
  • If you have a remote entry to your car, you can always trigger your car alarm from inside the house if you need to draw attention.
  • If you have keyless entry to you car, make sure you block the keypad with your body so no one nearby can see your entry code. And of course do the same thing at the ATM machine.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. Scope out potential hiding places: shrubs, parked cars, blind alleys, dark corners. Give them a wide berth. Be alert. Don’t get distracted by your cell phone. Look around and also use your peripheral vision. Listen for movement behind you, too. If you can’t avoid dangerous places, have your tear gas in your hand and ready to be used.
  • Talk to your friends and family about safety. Share ideas. Share this blog entry. And if you have any other safety tips, please include them in the comments section below. Knowledge is power.

Remember, only you can assume complete mental and physical responsibility for your well-being. I can’t guarantee that any of the above ideas will work, but I certainly hope they’ll reduce your risk. It would be nice if there were always some big strong guy to come to your rescue, but relying on that creates a false sense of security. If you put your welfare solely in someone else’s hands, you’re living in a fool’s paradise. Be alert. Be safe.

Female self defense

[Image credit: rawfitnesssaratoga.com]