Friday, January 12, 2018

The Bridge

The sun heats up another working day
Coffee, tea, and I’m on my way
Try to beat the traffic
And maybe yesterdays time
Try to make a little progress
In what’s lookin like a lateral climb.
                                         -“Lateral Climb”, lyrics by Robben Ford

At his last station my son was assigned to the Staten Island Coast Guard unit in NYC and lived in military housing near Fort Wadsworth, under the long shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. From there it’s difficult to get a good line-of-sight on the structure since it seems to melt into NYC's turgid skyline. The bridge connects the boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island and was completed in 1964. It is still, after 50 years, the longest suspension bridge in the world.

During the construction, a young reporter, Gay Talese, wrote a series of articles for The NY Times and a subsequent book, The Bridge. Mr. Talese went on to great acclaim and was instrumental in the “New Journalism” school of journalism. He recently updated the book for the 50th anniversary of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and a wonderful book it is. The photos throughout the book are worth the purchase.

His writing impresses, both in ways small and large. He can write with economy – describing someone speaking with “whisky words,” that fills the situation perfectly - and encapsulating the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in the 60s when it was “marriage before sex.” If a deeper profile of the bridgemen is needed, he gives it:

“In appearance, boomers usually are big men, or if not always big, always strong, and their skin is ruddy from all the sun and wind. Some who heat rivets have charred complexions; some who drive rivets are hard of hearing; some who catch rivets in small metal cones have blisters and bloody burns marking each miss; some who do welding see flashes at night while they sleep…Many boomers have mangled hands and fingers sliced off by slipped steel. Most have taken falls and broken a limb or two. All have seen death.”

Depending on the need, he writes inside a large or small strike zone. If this writer had played baseball, he’d be a lifetime .380 hitter and in Cooperstown. He’s that good. I read somewhere that Mr. Talese commissions custom-made slippers from Italy at $500 a pair and unfailingly writes in them.

That must be it, the slippers.
                                                           (google images/NY Times)
 And as you can tell from the above quotation, the book, at its center, is not about the Bridge or the engineering, politicians, or bureaucrats involved. It’s about the body and soul of things; the inspiration and creation. The heart of that body and soul is the men who pieced it together.

The bridge: It ties 2 city boroughs across a 2 ½ mile span. Started in 1959, it was completed in 5 years and provides a road for 190,000 vehicles a day. The N-V doesn’t bring attention to itself because it’s hard to get a good line-of-sight on a structure that crosses, then melts into New York’s skyscrapers. The Verrazano may not possess the romantic naturalism of the Golden Gate or the impressive pedigree of the Brooklyn Bridge, but it did what it was created to do without fanfare. It is the type of bridge your mother would want you to marry.

You want numbers? Gay Talese supplies them. More than 8,000 homes were leveled to make room for construction; the four main construction cables came in at 38,290 tons and comprised 36 miles of wire; 2 anchors hold back that wire with 240,000-pound pull tension. The 2 towers at each end are 10 story structures comprised of 47,000 cubic yards of concrete. And so on.

The thing is big.

The Men: I’m taking some liberties here, but the bridgemen, or boomers as they were called, can be lumped into four construction groups. The most skilled were the “connectors”, the men who placed and secured steel sections of the bridge working at unsupported heights up to 400 feet above water. Next came the 4-man rivet gangs, each one cooked, then threw hot rivets to others who caught them in metal mitts. The author writes the gangs tossed those rivets up to 50 feet through the high air as gracefully as infielders. On average, one thousand rivets were driven into the bridge every day. Then came the “punks”, runners who climbed the catwalks and brought materials to other bridgemen. Lastly, were the “pushers” or semi-supervisors who prodded the crews.

The boomers were paid every Friday in cash envelopes by 4 clerks who traveled up and down the catwalks to distribute the pay while the bridgemen worked. As you can imagine, some lost their pay to high wind when bridgeman understandably opened his envelope to verify the paymasters count.

Many of their names and titles given to their situations are colorful and descriptive: Ice Water Charley, Hard Nose Murphy, Benny the Mouse, Cinderella Man James Braddock (yes, that James J. Braddock), Keeping the Wheel from Benny, and The Rabbit. The Rabbit is quoted as saying:  “Windy days, of course, are the hardest. Like you’re walking across an eight-inch beam, balancing yourself in the wind, and then, all of a sudden, the wind stops – and you temporarily lose your balance. You quickly straighten out – but it’s some feeling when that happens.”


No bridgemen were invited to the opening day ribbon-cutting ceremony in 1964. After completion, they eventually scattered to other jobs - other bridges, nuclear power plant construction, and walked the high steel of new skyscrapers. As I was finishing up the book, I thought of Jimmy Breslin’s gravedigger at JFK’s funeral, working in the background and performing the most important task of the day before going unnoticed by the crowds.

When I look back at my working life, I’ve never been involved with projects of a permanent nature. I managed or was paid to provide services that left no permanent wake. I tried to take pride in what I did and during the workday strove to limit my small mistakes and expand the good decisions. But unlike my father, his brothers, and my uncle - shipyard workers all - nothing concrete has followed me into retirement. I envy those who can look over their shoulder and point to their work.

[….all of them building something big and permanent, something that can be revisited years later and pointed to and said of: “See that bridge over there, son – well one day, when I was younger, I drove twelve hundred rivets into that goddamned thing.]  Page 5. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

Random Thoughts on a Long Pedal

I’ve turned over a new leaf, or new spoke, in that I bike on the NC Triangle’s Tobacco Trail once or twice a week.  It’s a converted rail track that spans about 24 miles and is straight and flat. I do about 16 miles which is the limit of my artificial ankle and a goodnight’s sleep.  Most times I go with my friend, Larry Williams, aka Kayak Larry. We pedal next to each other down the path starting in New Hill for about 5 or 6 miles as I regale him why everyone is against me and that life has never, ever given me a fair shake. Oh, the injustice! But after 30 minutes or so, Larry accelerates down the trail without me like the Roadrunner does in those cartoons; then waits for me at a cross street or rest station in the next town. What can I say, my name is mud.

But lately Larry has been on a long sojourn in Italy followed by hikes in Western NC on the App Trail and Blue Ridge Parkway. I miss him, but the solitude and my ITunes playlist make it bearable. During the week when everyone is working, the trail is lightly traveled, and November is almost the end of summer so autumn is the perfect time to pedal. Solitude meets low humidity.

With my playlist punched in, I scissor down the path with an Elise Robineau Adagio. I imagine I’m riding on the crushed stone path that belts around Lake Lucerne in an early morning mist, then “Billy’s Theme” by Jessica Williams, puffing the perimeter of Manhattan’s Central Park. Three miles in, I thumb a short Zydeco tune – the perfect bike music. The Creole music is brief because in the middle of the woods, I don’t want to reach even the lowest edge of Tachycardia. With “Bye, Bye Boozoo” by Beau Soliel, I’m pedaling on the flat expanse next to Bayou Teche in Louisiana. Then Stephane Grappelli in Paris and Oscar Peterson almost anywhere. What fun! I’m positive everyone I passed must have admired my form. In the music, I pedaled like a dizzy snake. We can’t always go through life riding the break.

I also biked with happy thoughts knowing I finally solved the ointment issue. Men, unlike women, develop certain medical issues when biking (okay, okay…chafing). As you know, unlike the female, men have outside plumbing…I’ll say no more. On previous rides, I’ve tried an ointment from our medicine cabinet that Donna had recommended a week or two before.  It had a long name that I thought started with the letter “m”. She told me afterwards that I used the wrong ointment on two consecutive occasions – the tube I applied had the opposite medicinal remedy, i.e., skin tightening.  Of course, this must be all her fault. In her defense, Donna told me, somewhat unconvincingly, she left the appropriate tube by our sink. My defense is that the “m” tube I chose looked important, and besides, I wasn’t paying much attention to her when she was advising me, and besides that the print on the tube was too small to read. No matter, I forgive her.
Third time is a charm though. I wrote bike in bold magic marker on the correct ointment and brought it with me in my bike bag.

But that got me thinking. Why do men have outside plumbing and women the reverse? In other words, why does God like women more than men? Any argument to the contrary will provoke a question by me, “Have you ever been in a baseball catcher’s stance and missed a fastball without the benefit of support? Well, have you?”

That’s a question only God can answer. I kept thinking, though, and started to put the playlist in the background and wonder about God. With age I try to seek the experience of God instead of just reading what others have written. In a paradoxical way, that experiencing leads back to thought. After several mile markers on the trail, the Our Father suddenly popped in my head and I started reciting it. It’s my go-to prayer from Matthew. I always say it as a first gesture of worship when I go to Mass. Perhaps because it’s so grand in scope, so full of God’s purpose. I thought about how many times I’ve said that prayer (6 times in the rosary…6 times forever) and not focused on the 2 words in the title. If I’d thought about it at all, it was in an ethereal way. If you’re a Christian, you believe that God is the Father of the trinity, the Creator, and through inference, our father. John says God is love; He is with us always, comforting, teaching, guiding, correcting, and hoping we obey His will.  Hard to see for us sometimes, although easier to see in other people’s lives.

 I know that, but the thing I ran through my mind on the Trail and became a deeper realization. He is my father – he sent Bud and Millie to be my parents (and great parents they were!), but in the bigger picture, His love encompasses all His creation – and by creation, I mean all of us. Bud and Millie were my and my sister’s parents and He, being our father, was theirs. Just as my sister, Nancy, and I, are parents now, and so on and so on. He is our father in fact and not just spiritually. See what I mean? My bike goes in a straight direction, but my thoughts go circular.

On the one hand regarding worship, I thought about the fact that I’m an alcoholic and alcoholics have large egos – it’s baked in. I can easily veer from intimacy and worship of God to my own self-importance – and I’m cognizant of that danger. I can make myself the biggest profile on God’s tapestry of faith – so a push-back occurs, and I strive to humble myself, limit myself to being one link on the theological chain and a small one at that. It may make me humble, but if I raise the guardrails too high, I make God humble as well. And God is not humble.

No He’s not.

On the other hand, my worship can be filled with another tension. As I get older, I realize more and more that we’re in the post-modern age of relativism where culture cuts God’s anchor chain of truth, and we consequently substitute ourselves as the last word on morality. Even many believers do this at times, and I’m not excluding myself. During the ride, I think about my time left in this world, and to retrench and use it to follow God. To obey…even when I don’t understand, even when it’s hard, even when I don’t agree, or think it’s just, even when I don’t understand. I will do it imperfectly, but I will try.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Donna Gets Better

NURSING - Glowing Neon Sign on stonework wall - 3D rendered royalty free stock illustration.  Can be used for online banner ads and direct mailers..

I found the following email in a draft file from last summer that I planned to share on FB...but, ahem, forgot to do so. It's from June, 2016.

We were heading out to a ballgame when Donna told me that she had  symptoms that mimicked heart trouble. She ended up having a cardiac catheterization – she then was discharged with good numbers and no discernible heart issues. She was in the hospital for 4 days.

I was in her room most of the time – talking, reading, writing, and observing the nursing staff…and it was a sight to behold. I have never seen a more caring group of people. Donna had 3 RNs and 2 Techs who were outstanding, each in a unique way. They shared competence, hugs, answers, follow-ups, and unlimited re-assurance. They saw Donna’s anxiousness and addressed it. They comforted while dispensing. They were wonderful.

I had time to think a lot while I was in the hospital room. I had been to my mechanic, Mike, a few days earlier. He put on two new tires for me. One tire had reached the end of its tread life, and the other had open steel belts that glided on the asphalt without the benefit of rubber – a kind of automotive arthritis. Mike is honest and gives me a fair price on parts and repairs – always has the car ready when he says it will be. He gives a good account for himself at work, and I’m sure in life. He likes fixing things, but he is no nurse.

He doesn’t have to talk to the car or be concerned for its feelings or anxiety. He doesn’t have to deal with the car’s family wishes, or take any blame. The car doesn’t care.

The nursing staff at Rex hospital in Raleigh are special. I saw them leave at the end of the day, and they left everything on the field.

In whatever afterlife they believe in – they will get the floor seats. No question.

Donna and I went out yesterday, spent some money, and bought each one of them a box of expensive chocolates (not the dinky ones at the end of the aisle in CVS. No Sir!) and attached a personal card. I gave Donna a list of each person’s attributes as a suggestion of what to write. I know, I’m awful.

We wanted to acknowledge and honor their work. I hope that chocolate gains altitude and jets into their hearts and heads and stays there for a while. Although being chocolate, that time may be abbreviated.

During her stay, too many people were texting Donna in the hospital. I finally made a suggestion…with tongue firmly planted in cheek…indicating to all the texters she would love a home-made apple pie (my favorite, not hers) to help in her recovery.

 Those folks know me, know I’m kidding, and know apple pie is my favorite. So viola! We come home and there are 2 pies at our front door!

I spoke with my friend kayak Larry, and when I stated my shock, he said, “We never know when you’re kidding.”

I feel real guilty about it. Maybe I’ll feel better... if I have another piece.

Next time I’m just asking for money.