Bridge operator marks 19 years on the job
FALMOUTH, Mass. (AP) — There are benefits to being the bridge tender at Eel Pond Bridge: Sometimes, said Michael Botelho, fishermen stop by with fresh-caught bluefish, stripers, or lobster, just to thank you for operating the short, 40-foot drawbridge that allows boats to pass from the blue expanse of Vineyard Sound into the protected harbor of Eel Pond.
“That’s the thing about being the tender,” said Botelho, the bridge’s full-time operator for the last 19 years. “You don’t have to go to the fish market. They’re pretty good to you.”
When the weather is warm, Botelho leaves the door to the gray-shingled shack where he works open to the tourists who stream along Water Street, judiciously dodging the most frequent question he’s asked: What’s the best place to eat around here?
“I say, they all have menus on their buildings, why don’t you check them out?” Botelho said, adding that he doesn’t want to play favorites.
By the door, he keeps dog biscuits, which repeat customers have come to anticipate on their morning walks across the bridge. “Some will scratch at the door if it’s closed,” he said.
While most of the boaters who pass under the bridge are regulars — such as a retired doctor piloting his three-engine motorboat, and scientists from Marine Biological Laboratory aboard the Gemma research vessel — there have been some celebrity sightings, too. Former secretary of state John F. Kerry once moored a skiff, with a red canister in his hand.
“Where’s the nearest place for gas?” he asked.
“I’ll never forget it,” Botelho said. “I was shocked (by) how tall he was.”
A weather station with a spinning anemometer sits atop the shack. Below it hums the greasy machinery that raises and lowers the bridge, rebuilt in 2009. A 188-ton counterweight allows the bridge to move with just a 15-horsepower electric motor.
After Hurricane Sandy flooded the motor in 2012, the town enlisted four large men to manually crank the bridge open twice a day.
Botelho will open the bridge every half an hour, as long as a boater signals ahead by radioing him on channel 13 or blasting on the boat’s horn four times. Then, he swings into action, using a console on his desk with green, orange, and red lighted buttons.
With one button, he turns the traffic light on Water Street red. Then he manually swings closed the gates on either side of the bridge, preventing cars and pedestrians from passing.
Back inside, he presses his foot down on a rubber strip on the floor known as a dead-man’s switch — it completes a circuit and engages the motor with a satisfying mechanical click. With a few more buttons, he retracts the sliding bolts that lock the bridge in place, and raises the span.
In wintertime, when the Cape is empty, weeks can pass without a boater asking Botelho to open the bridge, so he occupies himself by watching sports on TV. In the summertime, the bridge opens 30 times a day, letting as many as a dozen boaters through each time, while cars and tourists jam behind the gates on either side of the bridge. Most wait patiently, and the bridge itself has become a tourist attraction, highly rated on TripAdvisor.
Botelho has taken a philosophical approach to the typical stressed vacationers who lean on their horns, unable to bear the eight-minute wait for the bridge to open and close.
“You can’t satisfy everybody,” Botelho said. “If people slowed down a little, it would make a whole better world.”
Botelho, 57, usually works eight-hour shifts but gets called in to work overnight during winter storms. His job then is to make sure the pumps keep the motors dry, and manually switch on the backup pumps if they fail. He doesn’t much like sitting in the shack at 2 a.m. as a snowstorm with gale force winds bears down across Vineyard Sound.
“Oh, my God, it’s so eerie, it’s scary,” he said. “The only thing I can think of is a Stephen King novel — that’s what it’s like. You just know that something’s approaching.”
But Botelho said he wouldn’t trade the job for anything. His favorite season is fall, when the crush of summer traffic has waned, the weather is still warm, and he can leave the door open to the crisp, ocean breeze.
“I love the fall,” he said. “The weather starts to change and that’s when the boaters start to leave the pond,” headed for storage on dry land. It’s the perfect pause, he said, before the long, lonely winter.
Information from: The Boston Globe, http://www.bostonglobe.com