“The Great Wait” and the music of Industry. Marla-size catfish and suicide jumpers.

This is my fourth day of sitting on the banks of the Ohio River. Today is my last opportunity, before we return for a weekend of celebrations with family, to see this bridge span lifted.

Madison-Milton Bridge Project

I keep saying this experience is like watching paint dry, if the paint made a lot of noise and had other spectators to share the experience. The paint would also need commentary, like the stream of voices that flow in and out of four days of bridge-watching on the riverbank. There is a pretty, subtle lilt to the southern quality of the voices around me. I feel like I’m crashing the reunion of a good ol’ family, but luckily for me, they’re all welcoming of a new friend.

Twins Karen Jester and Sharon McCloy were great company on Monday as we sat near each other watching the inaction across the water. Their friends, Steve and Nancy Grant were equally friendly and engaging, even offering to hold Baxter while I snapped a few photos.

Karen Jester, Sharon McCloy, Nancy and Steve Grant (holding Baxter)

I moved around the area quite a bit and didn’t get to know all the spectators, but still enjoyed conversation and camaraderie as we all waited…day after day…for the lift to take place.

Sometimes the conversation I hear is about the bridge and the process:

Spectators on June 27, 2012

“It’ll lift about 13 feet an hour when it finally goes.” / “That can’t be long enough. Do you think it’s long enough? I don’t think they could’ve measured right.” / “I don’t think it’s as wide as the one that’s up there, and there’s supposed to be a walkway on the side of it. How are they gonna’’ do that?” / “I tell you what, they got more of a mess down there now than they did with that other bridge, when it was put down to one lane.”

Sometimes it’s about politics:

“Them people don’t give a hoot about us. They don’t want us meddlin’ in their business anyway.” / “There is big news coming out this morning, the supreme court ruling about that Obama-care.” / “Everything you put on there’s just more money, and somebody’s gotta’ pay.” / “What’s killing us is Medicaid…especially if you’re bringing in all these people from another country. Now that’s just not right.”

Spectators on June 27th, 2012

Other times, more entertainingly, it’s about the monstrous fish in the river. A mother duck and ducklings provide a half hour’s worth of warnings from onlookers that she shouldn’t be so carelessly taking them toward the center of the river. “They’ll get picked off by a bass, or a catfish for sure.” I inquire about the size of fish in the waters near Madison, and am greeted with shocked looks that I haven’t heard the stories.

“There’s catfish out there, big as me!” The woman was about my height, and I imagined encountering a Marla-size catfish, wandering the Ohio, hungry for ducklings. This epic catfish was confirmed orally over a few days of bridge-watching. One man did say he saw a fella’ who caught one, and held it by the mouth and it reached to his chest.

One person said the size is because of all the farm runoff. Another said it’s because of the power plant. Another said they’ve been bigger than that before people got here, and we just never saw them, and what’s all the jawin’ about it anyway, ain’t I never seen a big fish before?

On the fourth day, a retired cop stated he had photographic proof—of a 76 pounder he caught near the bridge we’re watching. That said, I have not yet seen a photo of any fish in the water of the Ohio River here the size of me.

Sometimes, conversation ran morbid:

“You know, they still ain’t find that fella’ what jumped off the bridge.” / “You can’t be too sure. It’s still early yet.” / “Oh they won’t find him. He’s buried in the mud b’now.” / “They’da find him if he’d been stuck in the mud. They had divers.” / “Divers ain’t gonna’ find nothin’. He done jumped and shot straight underneath.” / “That is what they say happens.” / “He wan’t wearin’ no clothes, either.” / “I heard that.” / “Laid all his clothes and shoes in a pile on the bridge and jumped nekked.” / “I’d wear clothes. I wouldn’t jump. But if I did, I’d wear clothes.”

This conversation was one of many over the course of several days. How people jump, why they jump, but mostly, the details of how they most likely get stuck in the mud at the bottom of the Ohio.

Death conversation extends to the bridge project itself, having already lost one of their fellow workers earlier in the project. Reports of other injuries run the rumor mill in Madison, but nothing substantiated. The speculation climbs with the heat. Today is supposed to be over 100˚F, and stay that way through the holiday and next weekend’s Regatta. I wonder how these workers can push themselves through the heat and grueling schedule.

My dad worked construction as a carpenter for awhile, but what I remember most are his days teaching at a mining equipment school in Pennsylvania. I once did a report on all the machines related to coal mining, and he took me on a tour to climb the drilling and excavating equipment. Some machines were turned on, others left silent. What was left in me was a nostalgia and appreciation for the machines and the people of industry.

My husband is a safety man in the construction industry now, and some days there is no end to the questions I have about equipment and tools. He doesn’t (can’t) have the same kind of fraternity with the union guys that my dad’s family always had. Blue collar and white collar construction just don’t really mix that way. But like me, he’s always had an appreciation for what those guys can do. On this bridge, the majority of men are ironworkers.

Baxter, my bridge-watching buddy

Ironworkers are a tight knit group of hard-working, hard-living people. It takes a special breed to dress in hot, heavy construction gear and climb around on the top of the bridge span we’re watching. They would most likely hate that I sit on the banks, making a pretty symphony of their labor.

Over the last few days, with the help of my own construction-site husband (he’s at the power plant, not on the bridge project) I’ve been identifying these noises I hear. And what I hear on the shoreline is muted by distance, carried by water and wind, shaped by my own aesthetic.

There is the hum of tugboat motors, shuttling people and barges between the Kentucky and Indiana shores. The clanking echoes across the water as the ironworkers work on parts of the new span. Snatches of poem flit around as the workers themselves become iron.

Clank. Clank. Iron-on-Steel. Iron-on-Steel. Clank. Iron. Clank. –on. Clank. –Steel.

The JLG moves to the sound of its warning noise, a steady, high pitched, pawp!pawp!pawp! The crane starts up and repositions like the sound of a diesel truck, but its boom moves silently, swinging across the deck, across the new span. Sometimes it holds a bucketful of men, stopping to deposit them atop the end of the new span.

Small yellow and orange dots to the naked eye change with binoculars: ironmen climbing gussets. Welding sparks glare pink in the distance, while air arc gouging sparkles white. Pfft. Pfllt. Pft-pft-pft. Pflffft. The sound of the gouging, what they call “air arc’ing” is an air-filled spit carrying across water. I pair it with the sound of a speedboat whipping past the bank, slowing barely for the “No-Wake” sign around the construction area. Boat splits the water, hissing, and makes a mating call back and forth with the air arc’ing. Pfflt. Pft-pft-pft. Pflfffft.

I hear sounds by association, and like a rollercoaster climbing, clink-clink-clink-clink, rapid metal rising to the crest, I hear the impact wrench in the distance, tightening a bolt in the rapid metallic sounds only heavy-duty tools can make: clink-clink-clink-clink.

“Let’s go!” cuts my reverie, as a bridge-worker hollers in the distance. This is the first shout I’ve been able to distinguish. Others have come and gone, not so disharmonious from the pouding and arc’ing, tightening and tugboat motors. Somehow, they all create an appealing sound. There is music in association—industry, employment, my father, my husband.

I don’t know if I will get to see this bridge lifted. We are deep into the morning of the fourth day and retired workers around me point to things I don’t know enough to notice: cables not yet attached, areas being inspected, placement of machinery. My husband and I will leave at 5pm for our 6-hour drive back to Pennsylvania, not returning until Monday.

It’s hard to leave the concert early, but I think I’m satisfied. I’ve been to the show. I have a ticket for my scrapbook. I heard songs of the spectators about Madison, about the country, about Marla-sized catfish. I’ve heard instrumental accompaniment of labor and machine. They’ve already played my favorite music and I guess it’s time to go home.

Love, Marla

6 Comments on ““The Great Wait” and the music of Industry. Marla-size catfish and suicide jumpers.

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  3. Amazing writing! Thank you for your wonderful description of our town. Oh, just so you know, the jumper they were referring to didn’t jump from that bridge, but from the Prestonville bridge in Carrollton, KY (a little bit upstream from us in Madison). He actually survived.

    • Wow, thank you Jennifer. And thanks for letting me know. I love a happy ending. And thanks for letting me know about which bridge it was. I have another few weeks of getting to write about Madison and I’m looking forward to more adventures!

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