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Authors: Gay Talese

The Bridge

BOOK: The Bridge
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"Only a writer in love with his subject could have produced so charming a narrative about a bridge. There are many stories
within the story of
The Bridge.
All are worth reading."

Houston Post

"Talese has spun a fascinating, engrossing account of the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. This is an absorbing
drama; superbly written."

Times Union

"No finer tribute in print will ever be found than this book."

Wilmington News Journal

"Talese tells warm, funny and tragic stories of men, women, steel and concrete. This book is fine reading."

Denver Post

"Fine writing and story-telling. . . . Superbly well does Talese tell his story, one that combines sadness, high humor, bawdiness,
danger, death and poignancy in one fine package that readers will find hard to put down."

Arizona Republic

"Talese is a shining example for all writers. He gets the drift of the story. . . . A complete, informative and fascinating
account of the bridge."






To the ironworkers—


especially Gerard McKee and Danny Montoor

Preface and afterword copyright © 2003 by Gay Talese

Text copyright 1964 by Gay Talese

Lili Rethi illustrations and all photographs copyright © 2003 by

MTA Bridges and Tunnels Special Archive

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from
the Publisher.

First published in the United States of America in 2003 by Walker Publishing Company, Inc.

Published simultaneously in Canada by Fitzhenry and Whiteside, Markham, Ontario L3R 4T8

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Walker & Company, 435 Hudson
Street, New York, New York 10014

Original captions for Lili Rethi's on-site illustrations by H. George Decancq, Resident Engineer, Field Office, Ammann and

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publishing Data

available upon request

eISBN: 978-0-802-71913-3

Book design by Maura Fadden Rosenthal/

Visit Walker & Company's Web site at

Printed in the United States of America

2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1


A great bridge is a poetic construction of enduring beauty and utility, and in the early 1960s I would often don a hard hat
and follow the workers across the catwalk of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and watch for hours as they crawled like spiders
up and down the cable ropes and straddled beams while tightening bolts with their spud wrenches; and sometimes they would
give a shove with their gloved hands against a stalled spinning wheel, or would bang a shoulder against a two thousand-pound
piece of framework dangling from a crane—the framework representing one of millions of links in the rainbow-shaped roadway
that would extend for two and a half miles horizontally across the Upper Bay of New York to connect the boroughs of Brooklyn
and Staten Island, spreading discontent and trepidation among residents of both places.

I was less interested in the mundane matters of expanded land development and increased auto traffic and the potential of
unwanted new neighbors than I was in observing the process by which artistry is achieved in the air through the fusion of
drawing-board ingenuity and steely nerved bridge builders, both groups of men leaving a lasting impression on the skyline
of New York and enhancing its spirit of grandiosity. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the longest suspension span in the nation,
is dominated by two towers each seventy stories high, and from these vantage points one can survey the panorama of the city—the
Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the venerable Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883, the spires of Wall Street,
and, until September 11, 2001, the 110-story twin towers of the World Trade Center.

When I first moved to New York, a half-century ago, I often asked myself: Whose fingerprints are on the bolts and beams of
these soaring edifices in this overreaching city? Who are the high-wire walkers wearing boots and hard hats, earning their
living by risking their lives in places where falls are often fatal and where the bridges and skyscrapers are looked upon
as sepulchers by the families and coworkers of the deceased? We often know the names of the architects or chief engineers
of renowned structures, but those men whose job it is to ascend to high and dangerous places—the kind of men who erected and
connected the steel on the Empire State Building or spun the cables across the Brooklyn Bridge—are not identified by name
in the books, archival materials, or other written accounts concerned with the construction of these landmarks.

I kept this in mind when I decided, in 1962, to write about the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge construction; it would include the
names and biographical information about the workers, establishing their rightful place in the history of this grand undertaking.
Now I am particularly gratified that nearly forty years after the hardcover publication of
The Bridge
in 1964, a paperback edition is being made available. Several of the individuals featured in the original work are dead, while
other hard-hatted veterans of the Verrazano are not only alive but are still earning their living on high steel. I have included
additional information about these men and other individuals who were involved with the story in an after­word following this
edition's final chapter.




They drive into town in big cars, and live in furnished rooms, and drink whiskey with beer chasers, and chase women they will
soon forget. They linger only a little while, only until they have built the bridge; then they are off again to another town,
another bridge, linking everything but their lives.

They possess none of the foundation of their bridges. They are part circus, part gypsy—graceful in the air, restless on the
ground; it is as if the wide-open road below lacks for them the clear direction of an eight-inch beam stretching across the
sky six hundred feet above the sea.

When there are no bridges to be built, they will build skyscrapers, or highways, or power dams, or anything that promises
a challenge—and overtime. They will go anywhere, will drive a thousand miles all day and night to be part of a new building
boom. They find boom towns irresistible. That is why they are called "the boomers."

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 body burns marking each miss; some who do welding see flashes at night while they sleep.
Those who connect steel have deep scars along their shins from climbing columns. 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.

They are cocky men, men of great pride, and at night they brag and build bridges in bars, and sometimes when they are turning
to leave, the bartender will yell after them, "Hey, you guys, how's about clearing some steel out of here?""

Stray women are drawn to them, like them because they have money and no wives within miles—they liked them well enough to
have floated a bordello boat beneath one bridge near St. Louis, and to have used upturned hardhats for flowerpots in the red-light
district of Paducah.

On weekends some boomers drive hundreds of miles to visit their families, are tender and tolerant, and will deny to the heavens
any suggestion that they raise hell on the job—except they'll admit it in whispers, half proud, half ashamed, fearful the
wives will hear and then any semblance of marital stability will be shattered.

Like most men, the boomer wants it both ways. Occasionally his family will follow him, living in small hotels or trailer courts,
but it is no life for a wife and child.

The boomer's child might live in forty states and attend a dozen high schools before he graduates, if he graduates, and though
the father swears he wants no boomer for a son, he usually gets one. He gets one, possibly, because he really wanted one,
and maybe that is why boomers brag so much at home on weekends, creating a wondrous world with whiskey words, a world no son
can resist because this world seems to have everything: adventure, big cars, big money—sometimes $350 or $450 a week—and gambling
on rainy days when the bridge is slippery, and booming around the country with Indians who are sure-footed as spiders, with
Newfoundlanders as shifty as the sea they come from, with roaming Bebel riveters escaping the poverty of their small Southern
towns, 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."

They tell their sons the good parts, forgetting the bad, hardly ever describing how men sometimes freeze with fear on high
steel and clutch to beams with closed eyes, or admitting that when they climb down they need three drinks to settle their
nerves; no, they dwell on the glory, the overtime, not the weeks of unemployment; they recall how they helped build the Golden
Gate and Empire State, and how their fathers before them worked on the Williamsburg Bridge in 1902, lifting steel beams with
derricks pulled by horses.

They make their world sound as if it were an extension of the Wild West, which in a way it is, with boomers today still regarding
themselves as pioneering men, the last of America's unhen-pecked heroes, but there are probably only a thousand of them left
who are footloose enough to go anywhere to build anything. And when they arrive at the newest boom town, they hold brief reunions
in bars, and talk about old times, old faces: about Cicero Mike, who once drove a Capone whiskey truck during Prohibition
and recently fell to his death off a bridge near Chicago; and Indian Al Deal, who kept three women happy out West and came
to the bridge each morning in a fancy silk shirt; and about Riphorn Red, who used to paste twenty-dollar bills along the sides
of his suitcase and who went berserk one night in a cemetery. And there was the Nutley Kid, who smoked long Italian cigars
and chewed snuff and used toilet water and, at lunch, would drink milk and beer—without taking out the snuff. And there was
Ice Water Charley, who on freezing wintry days up on the bridge would send apprentice boys all the way down to fetch hot water,
but by the time they'd climbed back up, the water was cold, and he would spit it out, screaming angrily,
"Ice water, ice
and send them all the way down for more. And there was that one-legged lecher, Whitey Howard, who, on a rail bridge one day,
did not hear the train coming, and so he had to jump the tracks at the last second, holding on to the edge, during which time
his wooden left leg fell off, and Whitey spent the rest of his life bragging about how he lost his left leg twice.

Sometimes they go on and on this way, drinking and reminiscing about the undramatic little things involving people known only
to boomers, people seen only at a distance by the rest of the world, and then they'll start a card game, the first of hundreds
to be played in this boom town while the bridge is being built—a bridge many boomers will never cross. For before the bridge
is finished, maybe six months before it is opened to traffic, some boomers get itchy and want to move elsewhere. The challenge
is dying. So is the overtime. And they begin to wonder: "Where next?" This is what they were asking one another in the early
spring of 1957, but some boomers already had the answer: New York.

New York was planning a number of bridges. Several projects were scheduled upstate, and New York City alone, between 1958
and 1964, planned to spend nearly $600,000,000 for, among other things, the double-decking of the George Washington Bridge,
the construction of the Throgs Neck Bridge across Long Island Sound— and, finally, in what might be the most challenging task
of a boomer's lifetime, the construction of the world's largest suspension span, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

The Verrazano-Narrows, linking Brooklyn and Staten Island (over the futile objections of thousands of citizens in both boroughs),
would possess a 4,260-foot center span that would surpass San Francisco's Golden Gate by sixty feet, and would be 460 feet
longer than the Mackinac Bridge in upper Michigan, just below Canada.

It was the Mackinac Bridge, slicing down between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan and connecting the cities of St. Ignace and
Mackinaw City, that had attracted the boomers between the years 1954 and 1957. And though they would now abandon it for New
York, not being able to resist the big movement eastward, there were a few boomers who actually were sorry to be leaving Michigan,
for in their history of hell-raising there never had been a more bombastic little boom town than the once tranquil St. Ignace.

Before the boomers had infiltrated it, St. Ignace was a rather sober city of about 2,500 residents, who went hunting in winter,
fishing in summer, ran small shops that catered to tourists, helped run the ferryboats across five miles of water to Mackinaw
City, and gave the local police very little trouble. The land had been inhabited first by peaceful Indians, then by French
bushrangers, then by missionaries and fur traders, and in 1954 it was still clean and uncorrupt, still with one hotel, called
the Nicolet—named after a white man, Jean Nicolet, who in 1634 is said to have paddled in a canoe through the Straits of Mackinac
and discovered Lake Michigan.

So it was the Nicolet Hotel, and principally its bar, that became the boomers' headquarters, and soon the place was a smoky
scene of nightly parties and brawls, and there were girls down from Canada and up from Detroit, and there were crap games
along the floor—and if St. Ignace had not been such a friendly city, all the boomers might have gone to jail and the bridge
might never have been finished.

But the people of St. Ignace were pleased with the big new bridge going up. They could see how hard the men worked on it and
they did not want to spoil their little fun at night. The merchants, of course, were favorably disposed because, suddenly,
in this small Michigan town by the sea, the sidewalks were enhanced by six hundred or seven hundred men, each earning between
$300 and $500 a week—and some spending it as fast as they were making it.

The local police did not want to seem inhospitable, either, and so they did not raid the poker or crap games. The only raid
in memory was led by some Michigan state troopers; and when they broke in, they discovered gambling among the boomers another
state trooper. The only person arrested was the boomer who had been winning the most. And since his earnings were confiscated,
he was unable to pay the $100 fine and therefore had to go to jail. Later that night, however, he got a poker game going in
his cell, won $100, and bought his way out of jail. He was on the bridge promptly for work the next morning.

It is perhaps a slight exaggeration to suggest that, excepting state troopers, everybody else in St. Ignace either fawned
upon or quietly tolerated boomers. For there were some families who forbade their daughters to date boomers, with some success,
and there were young local men in town who despised boomers, although this attitude may be attributed as much to their envy
of boomers' big cars and money as to the fact that comparatively few boomers were teetotalers or celibates. On the other hand,
it would be equally misleading to assume that there were not some boomers who were quiet, modest men—maybe as many as six
or seven-—one of them being, for instance, a big quiet Kentuckian named Ace Cowan (whose wife was with him in Michigan), and
another being Johnny Atkins, who once at the Nicolet drank a dozen double Martinis without causing a fuss or seeming drunk,
and then floated quietly, happily out into the night.

And there was also Jack Kelly, the tall 235-pound son of a Philadelphia sailmaker, who, despite years of work on noisy bridges
and despite getting hit on the head by so much falling hardware that he had fifty-two stitches in his scalp, remained ever
mild. And finally there was another admired man on the Mackinac—the superintendent, Art "Drag-Up" Drilling, a veteran boomer
from Arkansas who went West to work on the Golden Gate and Oakland Bay bridges in the thirties, and who was called "Drag-Up"
because he always said, though never in threat, that he'd sooner drag-up and leave town than work under a superintendent who
knew less about bridges than he.

So he went from town to town, bridge to bridge, never really satisfied until he became the top bridgeman—as he did on the
Mackinac, and as he hoped to do in 1962 on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

In the course of his travels, however, Drag-Up Drilling sired a son named John. And while John Drilling inherited much of
his father's soft Southern charm and easy manner, these qualities actually belied the devil beneath. For John Drilling, who
was only nineteen years old when he first joined the gang on the Mackinac, worked as hard as any to leave the boomer's mark
on St. Ignace.

John Drilling had been born in Oakland in 1937 while his father was finishing on the Bay Bridge there. And in the next nineteen
years he followed his father, living in forty-one states, attending two dozen schools, charming the girls—marrying one, and
living with her for four months. There was nothing raw nor rude in his manner. He was always extremely genteel and clean-cut
in appearance, but, like many boomers' offspring, he was afflicted with what old bridgemen call "rambling fever."

This made him challenging to some women, and frustrating to others, yet intriguing to most. On his first week in St. Ignace,
while stopped at a gas station, he noticed a carload of girls nearby and, exuding all the shy and bumbling uncertainty of
a new boy in town, addressed himself politely to the prettiest girl in the car—a Swedish beauty, a very healthy girl whose
boyfriend had just been drafted—and thus began an unforgettable romance that would last until the next one.

Having saved a few thousand dollars from working on the Mackinac, he became, very briefly, a student at the University of
Arkansas and also bought a $2,700 Impala. One night in Ola, Arkansas, he cracked up the car and might have gotten into legal
difficulty had not his date that evening been the judge's daughter.

John Drilling seemed to live a charmed life. Of all the bridge builders who worked on the Mackinac, and who would later come
east to work on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, young John Drilling seemed the luckiest—with the possible exception of his close
friend, Robert Anderson.

Anderson was luckier mainly because he had lived longer, done more, survived more; and he never lost his sunny disposition
or incurable optimism. He was thirty-four years old when he came to the Mackinac. He had been married to one girl for a dozen
years, to another for two weeks. He had been in auto accidents, been hit by falling tools, taken falls—once toppling forty-two
feet—but his only visible injury was two missing inside fingers on his left hand, and he never lost its full use.

One day on the north tower of the Mackinac, the section of catwalk upon which Anderson was standing snapped loose, and suddenly
it came sliding down like a rollercoaster, with Anderson clinging to it as it bumped and raced down the cables, down 1,800
feet all the way to near the bottom where the cables slope gently and straighten out before the anchorage. Anderson quietly
got off and began the long climb up again. Fortunately for him, the Mackinac was designed by David B. Steinman, who preferred
long, tapering backspans; had the bridge been designed by O. H. Ammann, who favored shorter, chunkier backspans, such as the
type he was then creating for the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Bob Anderson would have had a steeper, more abrupt ride down,
and might have gone smashing into the anchorage and been killed. But Anderson was lucky that way.

BOOK: The Bridge
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