CHAPTER SIX - Love me Tender
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, you know, I guess we just took over the place. Stupid? Maybe, but it sure was fun.
We were in South Carolina somewhere. I can’t tell you where because I don’t want to get this guy in trouble, okay? Anyway, it was really early, like 6:30 a.m. or something, We had just left a little marina and I had been gawking at all the boats – not the huge ones, but ones that were a little bigger than ours, kind of dreaming about cruising in one of them instead of the Stolen Gun, you know? Don’t you do that? Wish you had a bigger car or house or something? Anyway, Marley put up with my drooling for a while and then she has to give me her two-cents.
“That’s mean,” she said.
“Mean? What?” I replied
“Well, you’re coveting other boats. Not very nice to yours.”
“Coveting? I said. “Wha…”
“Don’t you know how useless that is? No matter what size boat you have, there will always be a bigger one – see that guy on that 36-footer?”
“Looks more like a forty…”
“Whatever,” she said. “You know what he’s doing right now? Dreaming about that yacht next to him. It’s useless, and it hurts the boat’s feelings.”
“Boats don’t have…”
“Doesn’t matter,” she plowed on. “It changes the way you treat your boat, the way you take care of her, handle her, maintain her. It changes your expectations and the joy you get out of just being with her.”
“But I don’t… do I?”
“Pretty soon, your boat just can’t live up to any of the foolish expectations you have created because you build them on little pieces from every other boat you admire!” I had never seen Marley so excited. “Then one day your poor boat is just going to give up and leave you, and you will blame her, won’t you?”
“I, I don’t… Marley,” I said, "all I wanted was a boat with, well, a peppier engine, nicer lines and a bigger bow.” That’s when I realized what she was talking about, and that’s all I guess she had to say about relationships.
So, we were cruising along pretty well, and had just found the sweet spot with the propeller trim. See, if you tilt the outdrive just a few degrees when you're on plane, you can lift the bow out of the water a little. Less boat in the water, the less drag and you can get a few more miles per hour out of the same RPM.
Anyway, I was pretty happy with that, when, sure enough, we were approaching a bridge and had to come down off plane to idle speed with no wake. That’s what you have to do at all bridges, except for the really tall ones - just a safety thing, you know.
Well, Marley likes to chat with the bridge tenders on the VHF. Actually, I think she kind of flirts with them – gives her a thrill, I guess. Anyhow, it’s harmless enough, even though they don’t like you using the radio like that. She says; “Hey bridge tender, wanna open wide for my little boat?” And they see us and I guess they think she’s a little kid, so they just say; “not today, young lady.” One guy snarled and threatened to call the coast guard, and she thought that was pretty funny.
So, she calls this bridge tender and there’s no answer. Strange, because she has always gotten a rise out of them – little pun there, I think. I barely noticed, but Marley got all concerned.
“Let’s dock the boat over there,” she said, pointing to a municipal boat ramp under the bridge. I protested.
“We don’t have time,” I said.
“Of course we have time,” she said. “Where do we have to be?” Well, she was right, again, and I needed to use the bathroom anyway, so I pulled the boat up to the dock and she jumped off and secured our lines. She’s gotten really good at that, let me show you how she does it without any knots.
First, you have two lines, each about 10 feet long with a loop braided on one end. She’ll take that loop and pass it through the center of a cleat on the boat and pull that loop back around both ends of that cleat, and that takes care of that end of the line. Then she’ll wrap the other end around the dock cleat twice, and she’ll flip a loop of line around one end of that cleat, and then flip another loop around the other end. Simple and perfect – will never come undone.
So, anyway, I shut off the engine and we hung the bumpers. I went to the restroom while she ran up on the bridge. Well, I took my sweet time, and when I got back, Marley looked very concerned.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Something’s wrong, I think.”
“There’s no one in the little room up there. Shouldn’t somebody be up there?”
“Maybe he’s just taking a break,” I said. "Let’s go.”
“But the bridge is supposed to open every hour on the hour, and the hour just passed. Doesn’t seem right.”
“Doesn’t bother me,” I said. “Let’s go.”
“Oh c’mon,” she said. “let’s take a look around.”
Well, if you knew this girl, you’d know I didn’t really have much choice. Not that she would bug me about it for the rest of the day – well, she might – but, well, it’s uncanny, but darned if she can’t smell trouble. That’s all I know, and if I left, it would just bug me the rest of the day. So we both climbed onto the bridge and up to the tender’s office.
She was right – there was no one there. Door was open, and a few things lying around, but no one home. Curious.
“I wonder where they are,” Marley said.
The scene was odd, like an exhibit you’d see in the corner of a museum. Wood floor, wood walls, about eight feet square – looked like it was built in the early 1900s and hadn’t changed since. Windows all around, and along one wall was a bench with several controls. A couple of chairs had worn their places right into the flooring, which was brighter in places where feet polished it, and real dark in the edges and corners.
The way the sun was coming up through the windows was beautiful, almost made you want to quit your job and work a bridge, you know? Anyway, we just stood there for several minutes, taking it all in and trying to decide what to do, when Marley walked over to a calendar on the wall.
“Bob,” she said. “Looks like Bob is the man who isn’t here today.”
It was simple enough to contact Bob, we thought, as there was an old note scotch-taped to the wall above the bench with several names and phone numbers on it - Bob was at the top.
“Should we call him?” Marley asked.
“You kidding? And do what?” I said. "Tell him we’re trespassing on his bridge?” Long pause as we took in more of the scenery. Beautiful view from up there, you know? Bridge tenders have it made. Just sit up there with a great view all day.
“He could be in trouble,” Marley said. “Looks like he’s worked here a long time – at least that paper with his name on it sure is old – and I bet he’d be here if something wasn’t wrong.”
“So?” I said. “That’s his business…”
“Well, yeah, but we could…” That was just like Marley, let me tell you, always wanting to help. Always wanting to get into things she didn’t know anything about. Well, fact is, in the brief time I had known her, she had become my better half and I had spent the better part of that week wondering how I had lived for so long with just my worse half. I pulled out my phone and dialed Bob’s number. Marley looked at me with intense anticipation as I put the phone to my ear.
No answer, and a few rings later it went to voice mail. I held the phone out so Marley could hear it before I shut it off.
“Text him,” Marley said.
“What - crazy?” I said. “What the heck?” She took the phone right out of my hand and started texting. Well, I knew better than to try and take it back, and well, I was kind of curious.
“We’re at bridge. Where R U? R U ok?”
We waited. We sat for a while and I looked over the equipment before us, just for fun trying to figure it all out. It didn’t look all that complicated, but was more than I could readily make sense of. It was 35 minutes past seven, and a sailboat was approaching us from the north - maybe three miles away. Marley started digging through some old magazines and manuals - she does that.
I let myself be lulled by the peaceful scene and rhythm of the traffic going over the bridge, tires growling over the steel gridwork. I had about nodded off when my phone chirped with a text message.
“Who R U?” I gave the phone to Marley - her game, after all. She read it and set her thumbs flying.
“Im Marley. we’re boaters. stopped 2 chat but no 1 here. R U ok?” The reply came quickly.
“Crap. my shift? I’m 3 miles offshore. budz took me fishing last nite and wont bring back.”
No kidding, I thought. This guy probably got drunk with his friends late last night and they decided to go fishing and now he’s stuck. He’s too far out for a phone call, but texts are getting through. Another text came.
“What’s that mean?” Marley asked. I had no idea, but that didn’t stop me.
“It means they’re chasing some big fish and they don’t want to come back in,” I said. "At least his friends don’t want to and it might be their boat.”
Another text: “Can U help?”
“He wants us to help him,” Marley said, and the way she said it meant that she wanted to help him. I know, crazy, right? Me? Operating a freakin’ drawbridge? Nuts.
“We can’t do that!” I said. "What if we get caught?”
“Caught? We’re doing this for the bridge master,” Harley said. “We’re… subcontractors."
Another text; “plz” I took the phone and replied.
“How?” Notice my perfect spelling. We waited, but not for long.
“Open bridg every hour on th hr. Easy”
“How long?” I texted, kind of skipping the small details of how to operate this massive thing. Marley was trying to keep quiet, but was bursting with glee. You would think that her biggest dream ever since she was a baby was to be the person who raises the bridge.
“3pm,” came a quick reply. I gave Marley a “this is not a good idea” look, and held the phone away from her instigating, prying, trouble-making, texting little hands. Fact is, our day was wide open and I was looking for something interesting to do... That’s when we heard someone’s voice.
“Third Street bridge tender, this is the Madrigal, heading south toward you. Two miles away, ETA 10 minutes. Will you open on the hour?” It was a call over the VHF radio from the sailboat we could now easily see. I gave Marley a “no way” look, which by now I guess is sort of a game we play. Then another text came in.
“$200” Well, that kind of changed things. I took the microphone.
“This is… ah, the…”
“Third Street bridge!” Marley whispered.
“Third Street… tender. Yeah, on the hour. Roger.”
“Thank you,” came the reply. “Will wait for you.” I put the microphone down and picked up my phone for a text.
“How does this thing work?” But Bob was a step ahead of me and I got four texts coming in just as I hit Send.
“1. Stop traffic - Flag Switch DOWN”
"2. Raise bridge - UP buton”
"3. Lowr bridge - DOWN but”
"4. Go traffic - Flag swich UP —— EZ!"
I moved the “Flag” switch down, and bells started ringing. Traffic started to slow down. Wow, I thought - what power.
“No!” Marley said. “Not yet.” She was right, as the sailboat was about a mile away and we still had 10 minutes before the hour. I flipped the switch back and bells stopped ringing, traffic sped up.
Marley dug into the pile of magazines like she was on a mission, and soon pulled out a thin manual. “Draw Tender’s Guide: Bascule Bridges.”
The manual was mostly about maintenance, which I’d hoped didn’t concern us, and the operation part was pretty simple, just like Bob texted. Apparently “bascule” is a french term for drawbridges that use a counterbalance, which most of them do. Well, this was going to be fun, as long as we didn’t get caught and nobody got hurt.
We waited and waited for it seemed like forever, but 8:00 a.m. came around and we had to get to work - if you can call it that. I moved the Flag switch to the down position and watched below. Bells rang for about 10 seconds and the swinging barriers lowered to block the road in both directions. I guess now came the important part; making sure everyone had stopped and that nobody was going to drive off an open bridge.
I pressed the big, red UP button, but wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to hold onto it or if it had some kind of automatic feature like a garage door opener or something. I let go of the button just for fun, and sure enough, the bridge kept going up. I just hoped it knew where to stop, which of course it did. Marley and I stepped out of the office and stood on the platform 100 feet above the water and watched the sailboat pass through. Cool.
Well, the 9 O’clock raise went well, with three sailboats passing through, but I got into a little trouble at 10 o’clock.
Kind of funny, I guess, now that I look back, but I thought I was supposed to raise that bridge every hour on the hour. Well, at 10 o’clock sharp I rang the bells, lowered the gates, and started raising that bridge, and people started honking their horns, like some kind of big deal, you know? And I heard this; “Hey you! Bridge Guy!” I looked out the door, down to the bridge deck and I saw this guy standing outside his car.
“What the hell you doing?” he shouted.
“I’m raising the bridge,” I said, not really caring if he heard me.
“There’s no freakin’ boats! Why the hell you opening the bridge if there’s no freakin’ boats?” Marley looks at me like, “yup, he’s right!” and I went back inside and lowered the bridge. Hey, it was my first day on the job, okay?
We raised the bridge three more times that day, and it was about the coolest thing I’d ever done. Between raises, I sat at the controls, a master and his universe. Marley sat in the doorway in the sun, reading a magazine. Sometimes she would come in and talk with the boaters on the VHF, and flirt with them a little – gives her a thrill.
The Bridges around Manhattan, New York.