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.
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.