In Case You've Wondered

My blog is where my wandering thoughts are interspersed with stuff I made up. So, if while reading you find yourself confused about the context, don't feel alone. I get confused, too.

If you're here for the stories, I started another blog: scratchingforchange.blogspot.com

One other thing: sometimes I write words you refuse to use in front of children, or polite company, unless you have a flat tire, or hit your thumb with a hammer.

I don't use them to offend; I use them to embellish.

jescordwaineratgmail.com

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Shadows and Fog


I’d seen evenings like that one before, but never from that vantage point. I was leaning on the concrete bridge rail, 140 feet above the ship channel and watching the darkness slowly settle for the night.

I looked toward the water. The deepening darkness and low wind made it appear as though it was deep purple oil. Small ripples reflected the sky glow and the reflection of the few clouds was a scintillating, brilliant dark orange.  The surreal beauty was mesmerizing.

 In the distance, a small push boat was in the process of tying up for the night. The engines would race for a moment, pause and race again as the skipper maneuvered the fuel barge against the dock.  I could barely discern the deckhand as he wrestled the ropes along the deck.

The squawk of a brown pelican broke my concentration.  A small flock flew under the bridge, headed toward the bank and landed in the salt water marsh along the bank.  I examined them for a moment and returned to my observation of the evening.

To the south, I could see the solid gray of the approaching bank of fog. It would take a few hours, but not long after nightfall, the bridge would be covered and the only point of reference would be few street lights penetrating the heavy, damp blanket.

Years ago, I’d worked on this bridge. Like all bridges, it needed some maintenance, which we’d accomplished over a long week.  It gave me time to examine the bridge, which I still found amazing.

The bridge was hollow. The main center span was precast concrete sections that were buttered with epoxy and bolted together. Shipped to the site, the huge sections were lifted into place, large cables were attached to the sections and the cables were draped across the two huge towers on both sides of the channel.  As one section was added, another was added on the other side of the tower to balance the weight. Huge bolts were attached to hold the sections together, until the cables were post-tensioned with huge jacks. The joints were buttered with epoxy, which you’d never see, unless you went inside the hollow sections. From the outside, the joints were fine, barely discernible lines. From the inside, where cosmetics didn’t matter, the epoxy that was squeezed from the joints was still visible.

Eventually, after all the sections were attached, jacks were used to align the sections at the center and the bridge was finally a complete span. Cables were run in hollow tubes; both exposed and hidden in the concrete. Jacks pulled the cables to the correct tension and the tubes were filled with grout.

So, why was I here? I was the night watchman. I was retired, but I was asked to watch by the superintendent. He knew I would do what I could, if necessary, and would call if I had any problems. I had nothing better to do, and the change was good.  My only stipulation was to have someone else to help. With one lane closed on the bridge, one drunk could knock down enough barrels where I would need someone to help.

Traffic was still somewhat heavy, but would soon become light.  After a few hours, it would reach the point where minutes could pass without any cars. That’s when I felt my helper could handle his job of doing nothing well enough and I could walk through the inside of the bridge. It gave me time to examine the work, which was epoxy injection of cracks. All concrete cracks, but cracks aren’t good for the reinforcement in the concrete. The epoxy would keep the salt laden air from attacking the reinforcement and shortening the life of the bridge. They were almost through, so my job was soon to end.

I had a few minutes before my helper arrived, so I went back to watching the evening. The passing traffic stirred the damp air, which was now becoming colder. After dark, when the fog rolled in, the wind would pick up and I’d be looking for my heavier coat.

I heard my helper pulling behind the barrels, so I looked to make sure he didn’t block the access like every other night before.  I was surprised. He left the shoulder lane open and parked where he should. Maybe he was learning, although I doubted he’d remember for long.

He climbed from his pickup and slowly walked toward where I stood. Again, I was amazed a young man could be so out of shape. He was at least one hundred pounds overweight and generally kept a slovenly appearance. One shirt tail was out and flapped as he walked. The large drink he carried bore the name of the fast food restaurant where he stopped for supper. I could only imagine how much he super sized his order and really didn’t want to think about it.

He made his usual greeting, which was “Hi John.”  After that, he just stood with me by the rail and stared at the disappearing horizon. He hadn’t shaved, so the fuzz on his face only added to his disheveled appearance.

“Evening, Tink.”

Tink was short for Tinkerbelle. I was curious about the nickname, so I asked. When he was around eight years old, his mother decided he needed to understand the fine arts, so Cameron was enrolled in dance. From what I could gather, it was a disaster. His father, who was raised by an old-school engineer (who I knew from various projects), remarked how his son looked like a faggot Tinkerbelle.  It was all downhill after that. The nickname stuck, which he didn’t really like, but his usual story was about how he liked to tinker with things. I managed to get the real story when I hounded him for a few hours one night. My contention was that the only thing he really liked to tinker with had two all beef patties, special sauce and a sesame seed bun.  I guess he felt guilty.

“It looks like this might be our last night. They’re almost through and should pull barrels tomorrow.”

Tink didn’t say anything. I could tell be his expression he’d hit another quandary. He was on the second year of his first year of college.  He’d spent more time deciding on what he didn’t want to major in. At the rate he was going, he’d retire before deciding on a career.  He had decided on what careers he wouldn’t follow. The list was enormous.

“I talked with the superintendent before he left. He’s worried the fog will lead to accidents, so his instructions were to stay away from the barrels unless it’s absolutely necessary.  We can call if too many are knocked over.”

“I guess I’ll be looking for a job again.”

I didn’t say anything; I doubted he’d try very hard. From our conversations, I gathered his initiative was a little lean; unlike his appetite. 

“Yep, and I’ll be back to retiring.”

“You need to walk to the end of the setup and check the barrels before the fog rolls in.”

It was now almost dark; although not so dark I couldn’t see his pained expression. Walking to the end of the setup was over 500 feet.

“Put on your vest first and bring your radio.”

“Oh yeah; I forgot.”

I just stared at him. He looked at me with a sheepish expression and headed toward his truck. He was back in a few minutes.

“Check. Check.”

His radio was clear. I responded and he started his “long” journey to the end of the setup. The headlights from passing traffic were reflected from his vest. I’d be able to see him clearly, until he walked past the crown of the bridge. Playing it safe, I’d walk a few hundred feet behind until I could see the end of the setup. 
If something happened, I’d be able to help almost immediately.

I gave him a good head start before I followed. When I reached the crown of the bridge, I stopped and watched a push boat with a long string of barges pass underneath the bridge. They were ahead of the fog, but not by much. My guess was they didn’t have much further to go, or were planning on pushing the barges against the bank in the turnaround basin. They’d wait there until the fog lifted tomorrow.

The sound from the twin engines oscillated between a steady tone and the tremolo when the engines were out of phase. I’d heard it thousands of times before and it still caught my attention. My first experience with the sound was riding in crew boats offshore. I’d spent many hours fighting the urge to sleep as the lullaby of the engines eventually defeated my effort.

There was nobody visible on the deck of the push boat. The radar antennae steadily turned and only the navigation lights were lit. The streetlights on the bridge reflected off the damp deck and the wheelhouse windows. Behind the window were a few visible lights, which made the skipper look like an apparition.

The sound of a horn made me jump. An obviously drunk young man yelled: “Get to work” as they passed. I quickly looked down the bridge for Tink. He was walking back; they honored him with a honk and the same words as they passed.

Tink turned as they passed and kept walking. I had to give him credit for not giving them the finger and answering. Drunks were unreasonable to start with. Giving them a reason to become more unreasonable was foolish.

I was now rattled. The loud horn had placed my nerves on edge and I knew it would take awhile before the jagged edges were smoothed out again. I’d worked in traffic for too many years. I’d heard the same honk before as a driver slammed into a truck and narrowly missed the crew.

“What a bunch of asses.”

I turned to find Tink had arrived.

“Yep; it’s ladies night down the road and I’m betting there’ll be more.”

He returned to the rail where I stood and we watched the fog as it rolled in. The distant lights disappeared, a few tendrils of fog appeared in the light and the fog eventually completely enclosed the bridge. The crash truck at the start of setup was now only a dim shape and barely visible in the street lights.

We spent the next few hours talking, or making a trip to the end of the setup. Our conversations varied, and I really don’t remember much, except when I had a fatherly moment, while we discussed women.

Tink was amazed I’d been married much longer than he was alive. He asked how I’d met my wife, which I explained. We’d met while working for the same company. We were friends long before we were married, which I explained was more than important than the romance. He just shook his head and commented on how he had few girlfriends, much less one that he could marry.

“Tink, women like a man that is neat and appears confident. You’re sloppy in your habits, you don’t shave as often as you need to and being out of shape only makes you less desirable.”

I could tell I’d hurt his feelings, but I knew what I was saying was important. Maybe his father had told him the same things, but if so, they didn’t sink in. Maybe the advice of a near stranger would help. He needed all he could get.

After awhile, we just stared into the darkness. Tink eventually commented: “I’m getting hungry. Is it time?”

Looking at my watch, I realized it was a after one in the morning, so I asked: “Did you bring a lunch?”

“No. I’ll have to go get something.”

I was a little irritated. I’d suggested he bring his lunch the night before. Pulling back into the setup was more dangerous than he realized. An inattentive driver might follow him in and cause a wreck.

“Before you pull back into the setup, turn on your flashers and give anyone behind time to go around.”

“Okay. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

I watched as he climbed into his pickup, drove through the setup and disappeared into the fog. I’d worry until he was back.

While he was gone, I ate the lunch I brought. After I finished, I stood at the rail and stared into the darkness. 

A loud noise caught my attention from above and a seagull feel onto the deck a few feet away. I was rattled again. To make matters worse, it flopped around for a few moments, tried to fly and fell over the side. I heard the “plop” when it hit the water. Looking down only revealed a roiling mass, which looked like a thick soup; the sodium vapor lights made it a sickly yellow.

The seagull had flown into one of the stay cables, which stretched above my sight into the fog. Judging by what happened, I figured it didn’t survive, which bummed me out for a few moments.

The sound of someone laying on their horn startled me. Within seconds, I looked to find Tink pulling into the setup, without his flashers. The car behind swerved to avoid crashing into Tink, hit a barrel and sped off across the bridge. The barrel hit me before I could dodge and knocked me to my knees.

Disoriented, I paused a few seconds before I tried to stand up. I knew there would be a bruise and I was too shaken to get mad.

I slowly stood; made sure nothing was seriously injured and looked toward Tink. He hadn’t noticed anything, since he was busy preparing to eat his burger and fries.  I walked toward the truck.

As I went through a few ranges of emotions, I finally settled on being calm. I walked to his truck, tapped on the window – which made him jump – and told him: “I’m going to go into the bridge and check the equipment. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

He nodded between bites and I left him to his meal.

The access manhole was in front of the crash truck. They’d placed the truck about fifty feet from the manhole and there was a small rail section around the entrance. I carefully stepped onto the ladder and climbed down into the bridge.

I shone my flashlight on the three -way switch mounted next to the short stair and turned on the lights. Instantly, the darkness was broken by the long row of lights that stretched from one end to the other on the ceiling. I could only see the lights in the section I was in, but the ambient light in the next section showed they were working, also.

I edged down the short slope to the “floor”, which was a combination of walkway, huge connection bolts and the cables that stretched through the bridge. Looking through the bridge, I could see the long row of lights that disappeared into the distance beyond the crown of the bridge. There were two other manholes in the bridge. One was as the center and the other was hundreds of feet away in the last span of the main bridge sections.

The set epoxy still looked new along the joints. Time didn’t remove the external luster of the gray plastic, which looked as though it was just applied. The epoxy had squeezed from the joints when they tightened the bolts and was left where it set. No effort was made to remove the excess, which now was as hard as the concrete it held together.

I carefully stepped across the staggered bolts and tension cable conduits. As I walked toward the end of the bridge section, my flashlight caught eyes beyond the expanded metal grating that was mounted across the access hole to the bridge cap.

Stopping, and a little unnerved, I spent a few moments trying to determine what the eyes belonged to. It didn’t take long. A raccoon had climbed the long telephone conduit mounted to the columns and was looking for a meal.  From past experience, I knew they would eat the eggs of the pigeons that nested on the flat sections of the bridge cap.

I stared for a moment and the raccoon did the same.  It moved away from the opening and back to foraging. I started examining the new construction.

Over the next hour, or so, I examined the epoxy injection locations. The cracks were almost all filled, which was the objective. The excess epoxy was ground smooth with the surface. All that was left were the injection ports on the last section, which were mounted by epoxy to the surface. Tomorrow, they’d place a low viscosity epoxy into the ports under pressure. As one port filled and the other started weeping epoxy, they’d shut off the nozzle and move to the next port. This process would continue, until they were through.  The final job was grinding away the ports with the excess epoxy. After that,  the only thing left was demobilizing. That wouldn’t take long, so they probably would finish tomorrow.

With my curiosity satisfied, I called Tink on the radio: “Come in Tink.”

I waited and tried again: “Come in Tink.”

He answered: “Go ahead.”

“I’m just checking. Am I clear?”

“Yep. You’re loud and clear.”

"Is everything okay?”

“Yep. It’s quiet”

He sounded like he’d been sleeping, which didn’t surprise me. I’d caught him sleeping at least once. He was bored and I didn’t really care, as long as I could reach him on the radio.

I decided to walk through the bridge. I’d done this before, and I always found it interesting.

The center part of the bridge had three sections. The section I was in had one end that rested on a bridge cap that rested on long concrete columns, which went to the ground. It stretched to the first of the main support sections on the side of the ship channel. The center section, which stretched across the channel, was the longest section. It hung from the main support structures.  The far end was the same. All of the main center part of the bridge was suspended with cables that ran from one section, across the main supports and to the other section on the other side. Stairs allowed inspection of the jacking points above the deck in the main support structures. Below the bottom of the precast section was inaccessible without a ladder. Even though they were hollow to right above the water line, no ladder was ever provided. If required, temporary ladders could be placed for inspection. Uncontrolled access was not considered safe, or advisable from a security standpoint.

I walked to the first access hole through the main support section and climbed through to the center span. As I crawled through the opening, I looked at the small piece of plywood that covered the manhole into the structure. If it was rotten, the drop of around one hundred feet would be more than surprising. I tapped it with my foot before I proceeded.

As I climbed into the center span and stood, I remembered why I really liked to walk through the bridge. It was amazing. The arch of the bridge was definite and the lights stretched into the distance, until they disappeared below sight. I paused and just took in the moment

The draft through the bridge was now substantial as the wind increased outside. The passing of a truck overhead, with the gentle sway of the bridge gave me vertigo for a moment.  I’d experienced this before and was glad I wasn’t prone to being seasick.  It was then I had a strange feeling.

I felt like I was being watched. Turning back from where I came didn’t reveal anything. I thought it was the raccoon back to observing from the grate. I found nothing, so I looked all around. The feeling was strong, yet there was nobody, or anything to be found. Shaking off the feeling, I continued my path through the bridge.

When I reached the middle, I stopped and looked at the plaque mounted to a small platform. Covered with Plexiglas were the signatures of all the people that were working on the bridge when they completed the center span.  There were a few dozen, with four circled with red ink. I knew the names and knew the reason.

At the very end of the project, at the final cleanup stage, a five man crew was involved in an accident that killed four of the workers. After they finished removing the last of the equipment from the bottom of a main center structure, the ladder they were climbing collapsed. The only survivor was the man steadying the base of the ladder. Severely injured by the collapse, he only remembered the other four were almost to the top, when he felt the ladder shift. He was hit by sections of the ladder and laid for almost an hour before they were found. He was conscious, described how he heard the last breath of his friend and couldn’t do anything. 

Some people blamed him. They said he did something to shift the ladder, since they were all known to horseplay on the job. The truth was never known and the worker spent a few years with the stigma. They found his car one morning at the top of the bridge. They found him about three miles downstream.

As I examined the names, I felt a deep chill like the temperature had dropped below freezing. For a few moments, my breath was visible. As quickly as it started, the chill went away. Again, I had the feeling I was being watched.

I don’t know why I didn’t retrace my steps, but I decided to complete my trek through the bridge. I felt I was being foolish and wasn’t going to succumb to my fear.

I finally reached the far main support structure. After testing the piece of plywood, I crawled through into the far section. For some reason, I decided to pull the plywood away and look down into the large open space below. I had a good flashlight, so it revealed what I’d seen years before.

Far below was a double stand of scaffold. Beside the scaffold were numerous scaffold frames and a few other objects too large to fit through the manhole. In the final phase of construction, some things were needed that would remain forever.  Careful consideration kept these things to a minimum, but some things were required that would never be retrieved.

As I was replacing the plywood, something pushed me away from the opening. Immediately, the lights went out and all I had was the narrow cone of light from my flashlight. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I noticed movement by the manhole. Turning my light to the movement revealed a man on his knees pulling a rope from below. As he pulled the rope hand over hand – as though he was raising something from below – I examined him closely. Something was wrong.

There was no color to the man or his clothing. He was all grays, blacks and lighter grays. The muscles in his forearms flexed as he lifted his heavy load. As he worked, I could see his lips move, as though he was talking to someone below.

The hair on the back of my head bristled. The chill I felt was beyond description and my only thought was to retreat.

Backing, I tripped over a bucket left by the construction crew. Falling, I quickly retrieved my flashlight and turned it back toward the apparition. He was looking directly at me, and spoke: “Be careful old man.”

The voice was soft and sounded as though it was from far away. Without thinking, I turned and ran toward the access ladder below the manhole in this section.

I found the manhole was closed. Pushing up barely budged the lid. Placing my back against the lid, I pushed with the strength  stark terror brings. Within seconds, I pushed the heavy lid away, scrambled through the opening and found myself on the far side of the bridge. Without hesitating, I pushed the lid back toward the opening and was satisfied when it slammed in place.

Trembling, I waited a few moments to see if the lid would rise and something crawl through the opening. 

Seeing nothing happen, I turned and ran across the bridge to where Tink was waiting.

Tink spoke as soon as I arrived: “That’s not funny.”

“What’s not funny?”

“Rocking the truck and then hiding.”

I only stared at him. I was trying to catch my breath, sort my thoughts and processing this new information. Something rocked the truck and it wasn’t me.

“I’ve been in the bridge. I didn’t rock your truck.”

Tink’s eyes grew wide as he digested what I said. Quickly regaining his composure, he responded:  “I don’t think it’s funny.”

Something in my expression must have changed his feelings. I can only imagine what I looked like, but I know how I felt. Spooked doesn’t even come close to my feelings. I was terrified and wondering what to do.

Tink’s eyes grew wide again before he spoke: “Who’s that?”

I turned and found nobody. Looking back at Tink, I realized he was now not seeing anybody either. Before I could say anything, he was gone. He reached his truck before it could all sink in, started it and raced away into the fog.

I was now alone on the bridge, mind racing and still trying to calm down from my experience. Before I could decide what to do, a police car pulled behind the barrels with the flashing lights on.

The officer pulled up, stopped next to me and said: “I’ve had two complaints tonight, so you need to stop what you’re doing.”

I was now really confused. I could only ask: “What do you mean?”

“Two motorists reported they almost hit workers carrying boards on the bridge. It’s dangerous enough working at night, without fog. You need to wrap up and stay out of traffic. Don’t make me come back.”

Before I could respond, he drove away.

For some reason, I needed to know the time. Looking at my watch, I found it was 4:00 in the morning; one hour before the superintendent was supposed to show. I don’t know why, but I decided to stay.

Over the next hour, I stayed near my pickup. I was ready to leave but unwilling to run. Any sound or movement would put me on edge.  As the hour wore on, I became less tense and found I was exhausted. 

The sound of a diesel truck forecast the arrival of the project superintendent.

“Good morning, John.”

“Good morning, Jesse.”

“Quiet night?”

“Yep; only a few drunks and hardly any traffic.”

“Where’s your helper?”

I paused. I wasn’t really sure what to say, but knew anything out of the ordinary wouldn’t do.

“He ate something that didn’t agree with him for lunch. I sent him home an hour ago.”

“You look tired, John.”

I imagine I did. That and still freaked out about what I’d seen.

“That’s what you get when you get old. Even an easy shift is tough.”

“I’ll leave you a message, if we need you tonight.”

“That works for me.  I’ll see you later.”

I quickly climbed into my pickup and started the engine. The windshield was covered with moisture from the fog.  Before I could run the wipers, I noticed something different on the passenger window. When I realized what it was, a chill ran up my spine.

I recognized four signatures. They were the same as the ones circled in red on the plaque. I didn’t recognize the fifth signature, but had a good idea who it belonged to. I turned on the wipers and they disappeared.

Placing my truck in gear, I checked the rear view mirrors; saw it was clear and quickly accelerated through the barrels. Within a minute, I’d cleared the bottom of the bridge, which now disappeared into the foggy darkness.

I don’t know if they needed me again the next night. If they called, I never answered; I turned my phone off. I wasn’t going back and never crossed that bridge at night again.

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