2011-12-16 / Columnists

It’s My Turn

By Edward Johnson Jr.

Edward Johnson Jr. is a longtime Rockaway Beach resident, and retired ironworker, Local 197, NY. He wanted to share this story as the Verrazano Narrows Bridge approaches its 50th anniversary. He felt others would enjoy reading this story, which honors the dangers and triumphs men faced when working on bridges, especially in the 1960s and earlier.

The Rescue of Charlie Green: The Challenges and Triumphs I Faced while Building the Verrazano Narrows Bridge

It’s been 48 years since I worked as an ironworker on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge (VNB), but in the last five years I drive back and forth over it once a week to visit my grandchildren. When I glance up quickly at the cables, I still take a deep breath of pride knowing that I had a small part in it.

The lane dividers are filled with rust just as my body is filled with scars. It’s the one place I don’t mind being stuck in traffic. One day recently I was stuck in traffic for about an hour on the VNB upper level Staten Island bound. I was able to look up very clearly at the VNB cable shaped like a bow (as in bow and arrow) coming down from the tower and the memories unfolded before me as if it were yesterday.

I remembered Jimmy Braddock. On a few occasions when Jimmy Braddock’s shift was done, he would ride up the elevator to the top of the catwalk and walk down to the first wicket. He was a very humble man who talked only of how much he appreciated the simple things in life, such as the view we had from our station.

I did not know how humble he was until decades later when I watched the movie “Cinderella Man” and realized Jimmy Braddock was “the” James Braddock, former heavyweight champion of the world. While not as famous as winning the heavyweight championship of the world, I also remembered the many close calls and heroic acts performed during the dangerous work of building the VNB, especially one traumatic event that a small group of “Bridgemen” handled like a frontline combat mission.

My story about the building of the VNB starts with the beginning of the cable spinning phase. After shaping Local 361’s union hall from mid- January to the first week of April, I was assigned to the Staten Island side for further assignment. I was an apprentice “S.D.” An S.D is a journeyman ironworker who specializes in the handling and setting of all precut and natural stone.

The work was fairly routine. A large wheel about five times the size of a bicycle tire but with the tire removed and in its place, two steel wires about ¼ inch in diameter would be pulled across on the tramway very quietly like a thief in the night.

As a matter of fact, it was so quiet that a cow bell was attached to the middle of the wheel so you would hear it coming and so as it passed, you would pull down the accompanying wires it was transporting and tie them together and place them in their designated spot on the wicket.

I was stationed at the first wicket coming down from the Staten Island tower with a partner named Jack Leonard, who was to become a lifelong friend of mine.

A “wicket” is not a Broadway musical. A wicket was like a giant Menorah in the windows of Jewish households during the feast of Hanukkah with six slots in which to keep the steel wires separated until they were tied in place accordingly.

At least three times a month too much tension on the wheel caused the ¼ inch diameter steel wire to snap. A deputy foreman in the tower would yell through a bullhorn, “Broken wire!” My partner Jack and I would be the first to get the warning as we were closest to the tower. At first you would hear a whirring sound as the wire started cascading down the catwalk. Then it would curl up into bigger and bigger waves gaining speed like a tornado taking anything or anybody in its way. A better analogy would be a Slinky with one person pulling on each end of it until it straightened out and let go on one end.

There were a few options to take in your defense. Mine was to stretch out on the catwalk, defying its power, clutching the wire mesh with a death grip until and if it passed by harmlessly.

There were a lot of close calls in this phase of the project that were never publicized, such as the time Jack Leonard pulled me to safety after a broken wire threw me into the guardrail which separated me from “Thy Kingdom come.” To this day, he tells me “I owe him big time,” and rightfully so. This kind of incident happened many times I am sure to other “punks” (the nickname for apprentice ironworkers) when the “Broken wire” yell from the tower was called but just as in an NYC schoolyard basketball game, “No harm, no foul” and the game continued.

One day around mid-summer, the wheel stopped suddenly somewhere around the center of the catwalk. We knew instinctively something was wrong. There was silence for a few minutes and then about a handful of ironworkers came running down from the Staten Island tower with a litter intact.

Being trained as a combat medic, I put my training into practice. Seeing we would have to transport a seriously injured man on a litter up a very steep climb to the top tower, I suggested to my partner to run down to the next wicket and relay a message to send one man to the next station and start walking up because we would need fresh legs especially for the final climb. When the litter team came to us with the injured man, Charlie Green, I was glad a few more men had come down from the tower.

The catwalk now seemed like walking on a trampoline. The top of Charlie’s head was full of blood and looked like a meat cutting machine had sliced off a thin piece. I held the front right corner of the litter and had a close clear look at Charlie, who was in shock, repeating, “Oh my God… oh my God.” We had leg cramps with still about 50 yards to the tower. I screamed for God to give us the strength to pass the baton. We got a second wind as I reminded the men it wasn’t our decision to decide Charlie’s fate, just to get him out of harm’s way as quickly as possible.

Our legs were now like walking uphill on a circus trapeze net as our tanks were completely operating on empty when we hit the team at the top tower where a scale box was waiting to take Charlie down to terra firma and where an ambulance was waiting to take him to the hospital.

In minutes we heard the ambulance sirens speeding off to the hospital where time was of the essence. Everyone on the relay team was completely exhausted and very anxious to find out his prognosis. No matter what the outcome, we knew that we did our part, as if we practiced it everyday.

I hated to leave the bridge job which was now in my blood but my apprenticeship was complete and I was now a journeyman stone derrickman (Local 199). I stayed at the VNB until September 27, 1963 before starting a new job out of my own local a week later helping to build the Spanish Pavilion at the New York Worlds Fair at Flushing Meadow Park. How did I spend my week off you may ask. Well, on September 28, 1963, I married the most beautiful girl in Brooklyn, Kathleen Frances Byrnes. We’ve been married for 48 years and counting.

A few years later, I was working on the Madison Square Garden job in Penn Station. We were laying out pontoons with a large Caterpillar crane (Local #197) to support the LIRR station below us. Jack Leonard brought a man over to me to say hello and it was, to my astonishment, a fully recovered Charlie Green.

He had a full head of hair which covered all the surgical scars and probably skin grafts. He had a big smile from ear to ear when he saw my reaction. I thanked God we did not falter on our steep climb and it made me so proud that we had made every minute count in getting him out of harm’s way and into doctors’ care.

After speaking for awhile, I went back to my job and he returned to his job erecting steel (Local #40). I haven’t seen him since that day.

My nephew Robert recently gave me a book titled “The Bridge” by Gay Talese. It is about the construction of this magnificent engineering feat, the VNB. I strongly recommend it because its many photographs and artistic renditions of each phase of the erection of this masterpiece gives a vivid picture of its construction.

Talese talked of walking the catwalks and listening to stories from old time Bridgemen telling of their glory days and tales of bridges built in the past, and how proud they were of their work. He also goes into the tragedy of Gerard McGee, and the frustration and anguish of Edward Ianiecci, whose pain and anguish must still be with him. However, unlike Talese’s stories of Gerard McGee and Edward Ianiecci, I am happy to say my story of Charlie Green had a happy ending.

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