Things I Miss About Florida

It occurs to me that I trash-talk Florida quite a bit in this blog. I never thought I’d say this, but there are things I miss about the Sunshine State. After all, I lived there for 40 years. Granted, I spent most of those years trying really hard to get the hell out of there, but you can’t stay in a place that long without it making some sort of an impression on you.

Obviously, I knew I’d miss people. In fact, I miss quite a few of them. But things? That surprised me.

In terms of food, I miss really good tomatoes, and bananas that actually have flavor. God, do I ever miss decent fried chicken. People out here have no idea.

I miss the Historic Riverside neighborhood of Jacksonville, with its granite curbs and prairie style homes. I miss the Riverside Arts Market, and the garden of the Cummer Museum, where I used to go on free Tuesday evenings to read a book under the gigantic live oak tree. (Although it appears that the garden was extensively damaged by a hurricane and is closed until further notice. That breaks my heart.)

I miss lazy days in Willowbranch Park. I also miss the grand old, oft overlooked Treaty Oak. I miss the winter Luminaria, when my whole neighborhood would light up with candles. I miss the occasional visit to historic St. Augustine.

I miss working at the Ortega River Bridge, with its spectacular view, and the fact that it was only about 4 miles from my house. What a heavenly commute that was! I miss the night heron and the gator that used to keep me company. (I don’t miss the pay, the immoral management, or being pelted with eggs, though.)

I definitely miss the house I used to own there, even though it was falling apart. By now, I’d have had it all paid off. I can’t even imagine what that must feel like. It was big, and had a working fireplace, and a park right across the street, and a great back yard. The public library was a half block away.

I miss the slower pace, and the open, friendly vibe. You don’t get those things in Seattle. But I don’t miss the incessant heat or the conservative politics.

I miss lizards and skinks. I didn’t expect to miss lizards and skinks. I miss fireflies. I miss the birdsong. (The birds sound great out here, too, but very different, so it always reminds me that I’m in a foreign place.) You can keep the snakes, scorpions, cockroaches, and spiders, though.

I long to be able to swim in the ocean again without freezing my patooties off. I miss soft, sandy beaches. I miss inner tubing down the Ichetucknee River while school is still in session so I have the place to myself. I miss swimming with manatee and dolphins. I miss having my sister only a 4 hour drive away, and the Blue Ridge Mountains only a day away.

I miss the powerful, frog-choking, thunder-laden rainstorms, as long as I was safe inside. They’d get it out of their system and then go on about their business, allowing me to go about mine. None of this lingering for months on end and quietly spitting at you. I miss the sunrises and sunsets. I do not, however, miss the hurricanes or tornadoes.

So yeah, I guess Florida isn’t all bad. If I could make the same money I make in Seattle and have my Florida cost of living, I’d be, as they say, in high cotton. But would I ever live there again? I’ve learned to never say never, but I will say that I sure hope not. I’d miss even more about the Pacific Northwest.

Lizard

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Working a Tropical Storm

We’ve had our fair share of natural disasters this year. But when you pair that with an increasing disregard for workers, you get a toxic combination. People are getting fired for having to mandatorily evacuate and therefore being unable to show up for work. People have been forced to work in extremely unsafe situations, leaving their families at times when they’re needed most. When human life stops being the most important factor, we have reached a new low.

What follows is a letter I was forced to write back in 2008, when I was a bridgetender in Jacksonville, Florida, and the Florida Department of Transportation put my life at risk. As per usual with them, I never got any response, and there seemed to be no consequences. I hope they are treating bridgetenders more fairly now, as these disasters increase in frequency. But I doubt it.

Dear Mr. XXXXXXXX:

Hurricane season is once again upon us. As a bridgetender who had to work at Ortega River Bridge in the early morning hours of Friday, August 22nd during the very worst of Tropical Storm Fay, I feel compelled to give you some insight as to what that was like.

I had to drive to work in 50 mph winds, detouring around downed trees and power lines, and then walked up the bridge to the tenderhouse, getting drenched in the process, and nearly being blown into the street on more than one occasion, only to find out that the coast guard had closed the bridge to boat traffic. I was informed that FDOT was aware of this, but since your wind meter did not match the speeds registered by the one in the tenderhouse, you decided we had to work.

Every weather channel said that the winds were going to be at least 50 mph. Clearly the Coast Guard believed this and took boater safety very seriously. Apparently, we were only there to monitor the radio, but the only transmissions I heard all night were the many Coast Guard announcements that informed boaters of the bridge closings, because no boater in his right mind was out in that weather. No cars were out either, except for the bridgetender who was compelled to relieve me at the end of the shift.

During the entire length of my shift, surrounded by electrical equipment, I was forced to mop water down the hatch and bail as it literally poured in the doors, windows, and through the air conditioner. At one point the heavy traffic cones and life ring blew into the street and I had to wrestle them indoors. Not only should the traffic gates be secured in such weather, but also the traffic cones, life rings and convex mirror should be stowed indoors to avoid becoming projectiles. Apparently that was left up to me during the height of the storm.

When my bladder could no longer hold out, I was forced to venture outdoors and across the street to the bathroom in a downpour, and once again I was nearly blown off my feet. Had I been hurt, no one would have known for hours. Not once did anyone call to check on me.

In the meantime, the power was continually going off and on, which caused the generator to kick in as I watched transformers exploding on the horizon. I found out the next day that water spouts were spinning up on the river. The wind shook the building and the waves crested over the fenders.

When it was time to go home, I once again had to walk down the bridge, and the wind was blowing so hard that the rain was physically painful. Once again I was drenched as no rain coat in the world can stand up to those conditions, and by the time I detoured around even more downed trees and power lines to get home, my lips were blue from the cold and I had to stave off hypothermia by taking an extended hot bath. Thank God my electricity was not out or I would probably have been hospitalized.

The worst part about the whole experience, sir, was that I spent the entire shift afraid, and my family was afraid for me. And the whole time I kept thinking, “I haven’t had a raise in 5 years, and I have $5,000 in medical debt because of substandard health insurance. Must I risk my life, too?”

I can’t speak for other bridgetenders. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to climb the ladder at the Main Street Bridge under these conditions. I’m sure my life would have been flashing before my eyes.

I hope you will take this letter into consideration when making decisions in future storms. I hope I never have to have another experience like that as long as I live.

                                      Sincerely…

Tropical Storm Fay
Tropical Storm Fay. Would you have expected your employees to work in this?

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My Career from Above

I’ve been opening drawbridges since September of 2001, and I love it. I’ve opened 9 different bridges in three different states. I only know one other bridgetender with better statistics than that, so I’m kind of proud.

I’ve been going down memory lane quite a bit lately, so I decided to check out all my bridges on Google Maps. Ah, what memories.

Mainstreet from the sky
Main Street Bridge, Jacksonville, Florida

My first bridge was Main Street Bridge in Jacksonville, Florida. That’s the only lift bridge I’ve operated to date, and it was kind of fun. It’s like being on the world’s biggest elevator. The tenderhouse was suspended about 25 feet above the roadway and it would rise with the bridge. It would also shake and sway when traffic was going over the bridge. I’ll never forget the sound of all our padlocks clanking on our lockers.

The down side to working on this bridge is that they required three bridgetenders per shift because the court ordered it after a drunken sailor drove his car into the drink when the bridge was open. So two bridgetenders spent a lot of time climbing up and down the ladder to act as flagmen at street level during openings. Quite the workout. This three person operation meant that you had to sit in a little room with two other people for 8 hours. That was fine when you got along, but when you didn’t, it was hell. Some of the drama and foolishness that happened up there could constitute a blog all its own.

Ortega from the sky
Ortega River Bridge, Jacksonville, Florida

From there I went to the Ortega River Bridge in Jacksonville. I loved that little bridge. It was a one person operation, but the tenderhouse was smaller than your average walk in closet, so a lot of people couldn’t take it. You had to step outside to change your mind. But it suited me just fine. I liked that I was sitting on sidewalk level, so I got to know a lot of the people in the area. You sort of felt as though you were part of a community. The downside was the bathroom was across the street, which was no fun in the pouring rain or the bitter cold. (Yes, it does happen sometimes in North Florida, believe it or not.)

Eventually, though, the horrible pay and the worse benefits started to get to me, so I decided to go back to school for a third degree. Part of that time I still worked at Ortega. Then for a brief period I moved to South Florida to be closer to school. But even then, bridgetending was in my blood. My employer asked me if I’d like to go spend the summer working the Ben Sawyer drawbridge just outside of Charleston, South Carolina.

Ben Sawyer from the Sky
Ben Sawyer Bridge, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina

I jumped at the chance! I’d never been to Charleston, so when I wasn’t pulling a 12 hour shift on that bridge, I was exploring the city. What an amazing place! And what an amazing bridge! It’s the first time I operated a swing bridge, and the octagonal tenderhouse was right at the pivot, so when you did a bridge opening, it was such a smooth operation that it felt as if you were standing still, and the world was revolving around you. (Finally, some vindication in that belief!) I loved that bridge. I miss it. But it was only a temporary job, and alas, school was calling.

Once I got my third degree, it became painfully obvious that it was going to be as useless as the first two, so I came crawling back to Jacksonville with my tail between my legs and begged for my old job back. Fortunately I had left on good terms, and I was back working at Ortega River Bridge in no time. I also worked a few days a week at Sisters Creek Bridge.

SistersCreek from the Sky
Sisters Creek Bridge, Jacksonville, Florida

This drawbridge no longer exists. It was replaced by a flyover, and that’s a shame because it was a nice quiet bridge. It spanned the Intracoastal Waterway way out in the middle of nowhere, north of Jacksonville, so mostly you opened for barges and the like. But I really got to focus on nature out there, and found a great deal of peace. The only negative thing about that bridge was the long commute.

The horrible pay was killing me, though, so when I heard of a job opening here in Seattle, Washington, for 3 times the pay and more benefits than I know what to do with, I jumped at the chance. Westward ho!

Fremont from the Sky
Fremont Bridge, Seattle, Washington

When you are a bridge operator for the City of Seattle, you get trained on all 5 of their bridges. So I was trained on the Fremont Bridge, which is the most stressful bridge I’ve ever worked on because pedestrians and bicyclists take scary risks, and it opens quite a bit.

Ballard from the sky
Ballard Bridge, Seattle, Washington

And I also trained on Ballard Bridge. I love that bridge because you get to watch the locks, the commute is short for me, and the view is a delight, but walking to your car at night can be scary.

spokaneStfromthesky
Spokane Street Bridge, Seattle, Washington

And I trained on Spokane Street Bridge as well. That’s a very unique swing bridge, and the tenderhouse (here they call it the tower) is so high up you practically get a nosebleed. It’s the only bridge I’ve ever been in that has an elevator. It’s a complicated bridge to operate. I haven’t been there in so long that I’m not sure I’d remember how to do it.

But now, the two bridges I work most often are South Park Bridge—which is state of the art, but a very long commute…

SouthParkfrom the sky
South Park Bridge, Seattle, Washington

… and University Bridge, which I absolutely love. I love the neighborhood, the community, the view, the tower, and it’s busy enough to keep me interested, but not so busy that I get stressed out.

UNI From the Sky
University Bridge, Seattle, Washington

So the next time Google takes its satellite imagery, maybe I’ll pop my head out the window and wave. It’s pretty cool to look at all these places from the sky. I can imagine a little tiny me sitting inside, making the bridge safe for the traveling public. I have a lot of great memories.

Drawbridge Style

It has been my privilege to be one of the few bridgetenders on the planet to have had the opportunity to operate all three of the most common styles of drawbridges. So here is an extremely basic primer.

 Ortega RiverBridge

This is a bascule bridge. These come in the form of a double span, like the Ortega River Bridge in Jacksonville, Florida…

 Draw bridge

Or a single span like this one in Mystic, Connecticut.

 IMG_7824

Here’s why all those movies where you see cars jumping over opened bascule bridges are pure fiction. When the span opens, a hole appears at the base. The only way a car can get on an opening span is if it drives on when the bridge has only just started to open…

 BridgeUniversal02.JPG

… or if the bridgetender isn’t paying attention and starts the lift when the vehicle is stopped on the span, as happened in Wisconsin.

 stupid drawbridge woman

Bascule bridges are responsible for the vast majority of drawbridge deaths and injuries. If you hear the warning signals and see the flashing lights and watch the gates lowering, you should have the sense to get out of the way, but you’d be amazed. It’s even more critical for pedestrians to be careful  nowadays because some of these bridges are operated remotely. If you want to read some very sad stories, just Google “Drawbridge” and “Dead” sometime.

 copy of Van Gogh picture and copy "Langlois Bridge" vangogh draw

This is probably the most famous bascule bridge, just outside of Arles, France, immortalized by Van Gogh.

 pride-of-baltimore-going-under-the-main-street-bridge_as

The next style is the lift bridge, like the Main Street Bridge in Jacksonville, Florida. These have counterweights in the towers that are attached to the span by cables. To open the bridge, brakes are released, allowing the counterweights to lower, which pulls up the span. Each one of the counterweights on Main Street weighs over a million pounds. Riding up on a lift bridge can be a heady experience, but it’s so big you don’t get that stomach lurching elevator feeling.

sunset bridge

You just get a spectacular view.

Scale Lane Bridge, England

Lastly, we have the swing bridge. These can pivot at the end, like the Scale Lane Bridge in Kingston upon Hull, England…

 swing bridge missouri, mississippi river

…or they can swivel on a central point like this bridge in Missouri which spans the Mississippi River. These bridges often have oval gears below deck level, which lift them up slightly above the fixed portion of the bridge before they turn.

 sullivansislandbridge

Incidentally, it’s always a good idea to have very good locking mechanisms on bridges. We learned that the hard way after Hurricane Hugo hit the Ben Sawyer Bridge in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina.

There are a variety of creatively designed drawbridges out there, but these are the most common types. Of all three styles, the swing bridge is my favorite to operate. When on it, you don’t feel like you’re moving. It just looks like your surroundings are rotating around you. And since the world does revolve around me, that’s only fitting.

If you are as fascinated by drawbridges as I am, please join my Drawbridge Lovers Facebook page here.

When in Doubt, Blame the Bridgetender

Recently they did a long overdue rehab of the Ortega River Bridge here in Jacksonville, Florida. It took about 9 months. During much of that time the drawbridge was in the open position. Boats could come and go, but the road was closed to traffic. Not only were there big orange and white reflective barricades with flashing lights, but there was a huge sign saying that the bridge was closed, as well as heavy concrete barricades the likes of which you see on interstate construction sites stretched in front of the span, and of course you couldn’t miss the 25 foot high span sticking straight up in the air, now could you? Or could you…

 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

(This is a photograph of a photograph, by the way. That’s why you see duct tape on the sides.)

Late one night a man drove his car through the barricades, past the flashing lights, past the signage, another three hundred yards and obliterated the concrete barriers before hitting the bridge itself. He must have been going at an incredible rate of speed to do this type of damage. When the police arrived a crowd had gathered, but no one was owning up to being the driver. Using deductive reasoning, though, and seeing the blue jeans beside the car (you can see them in the photo), he quickly determined that it must be the highly intoxicated man standing in his boxer shorts.

The man wasn’t hurt at all. He walked away without a scratch. He said he took his pants off because he had soiled himself, and that he had been driving across the bridge, minding his own business, when the bridgetender opened the bridge right in front of him with no warning at all.

We bridgetenders simply cannot be trusted.