If you’ve never spent time on welfare during a Vancouver winter, you won’t understand my motivation. It can rain hard for three weeks at a time. You get wet no matter what you wear or how careful you are. The sky can be dark grey with massive clouds for more than a month with never a peek of sunshine. They say the suicide rate is the highest there. I believe that is the reason.
Everyone who has lived there knows about the advantages of Vancouver, but the depressing winter rain is not mentioned so much. It’s hard to take, day after day.
I had finally left the house in Kitsilano where the longest, poorest, wettest, greyest, most depressing Vancouver winter had driven the guys living there to desperation.
We met the winter before on the False Creek seawall job. The bosses were permanent city truck drivers. They trucked in millions of boulders, needed them dumped by wheelbarrow down the sides of False Creek.
Four of us lived in a house in Kitsilano. Soon we were broke. The winter we spent in that house in Kits was so depressing that, by spring, I knew I had to get out. I found a bachelor apartment on 16th Avenue.
Les had worked on the Lion’s Gate bridge in years past, encouraged me to apply for the job.
When I got up in the morning on 16th Ave., I could see the tops of the Lion’s Gate towers above the surrounding roofs, snow caps of mountains called The Lions, beyond.
The pay, on being hired by the highway department, seemed astronomical after the past winter.
Ron was the boss. He was a tall, slim, grey haired man with an English accent. They said he could climb like a monkey. He made a remark about “getting stuck with the choirboys” in the morning meeting on the first day.
Apparently, the crew on the Second Narrows bridge had inherited more experienced men from the personnel department and he wasn’t happy about it. Apart from that he was civil to me. He only came up on the bridge once a day to see how things were going. The rest of the crew, having worked there for years, appreciated that.
They put me with Tim, the sandblaster, for the first two weeks. He was a big, bald guy who worked in a three sided building where he sandblasted all day. He did plows, grader blades, all kinds of things for the department of highways. I loaded the sandblaster drum for him, moved things around until he got me doing the sandblasting.
In the hot summer, with all the equipment a sandblaster has to wear, it’s not a pleasant job. No matter what you do, the tiny grains of silica get into every crevice and crack.
The day finally came when they told me I was going up. I followed the rest of the crew up the sidewalk from the North side of the bridge. The view gets more spectacular as you walk.
At the first tower you climb the protective barrier between the sidewalk and one leg of the tower. It is then that you first step across a little space which provides a clear view of the sunlight dancing on the water, two hundred and fifty feet below.
My job was to prepare the steel for the painters to spray. They gave me a wire brush, a paint scraper and a needle gun. You plugged the needle gun into an airline wherever you needed it. You scraped the steel clean of rust before the red paint was applied. There was a lot of bird droppings. Some areas needed more work than others, but they all had to be done because when the spiders arrived from above, the painters wanted the surface cleaned and primed.
The painters attached their spiders near the tops of the towers, descended to prepare the surfaces unreachable otherwise, then spray painted the whole structure with several coats.
The logistics of the painters’ jobs, their five gallon cans of paint, spray guns, lines and spiders, make it a long process. No one can go onto the bridge to work if there is precipitation. They’re lucky to get one half of the bridge done in one summer.
When we climbed up from the road level to the next work area, the men left their lunches, threw their safety belts into a pile in the corner. I did the same. The safety belts were too much trouble. Every time you moved, you had to unhitch the belt.
Sun filled, windy days on the Lion’s Gate made you feel alive and strong and in the right place at the right time. The trials of life were always waiting when the day was over, but those summer work days were irreplaceable.
The constant swoosh of traffic hummed below, ships sailed the Burrard Inlet, sun shone, ocean breeze blew. Snowcapped mountains stood in the distance. When you looked West, you stared straight out to sea.
As the weeks went by, I repressed the unspoken fear of danger. I gained courage. I became used to the casual disregard for safety, took the others’ confident actions on the job for granted. They were sure they wouldn’t fail. They could do anything they had to on the job: there was no possibility of them falling to their deaths. Anyone who doubted them was a fool and this was no place for fools.
I didn’t work at the top of the tower because it was done in the past summer but, some days, I climbed the ladder inside the tower to eat lunch with the painters. The towers at both ends are attached to each other by a steel walkway in an x configuration which spans the roadway. There are two walkways, the painters ate in the top one.
I don’t know who saw me, Fred or Jimmy. I got a warning from Ron himself. My friend, Les, who told me about the job, was angry. It just seemed logical at the time.
One day, near the end of summer, we had worked our way into an area in the middle of the bridge which was too far from the towers to go back to them for anything. We took everything with us. After needle gunning, scraping and wire brushing all of the rusty areas out in the middle, it was time to paint them with the red primer. After this they would be painted by the painters from bosun’s chairs.
I carried my can of primer and the brush with me, doing what I had been doing all summer, crawling, climbing, struggling along the side of the bridge. The bulk of my work had been where there were a lot of girders to hold onto.
I watched Les walk along the top of the bridge barrier, brush in one hand, paint can in the other. He moved along at a steady, relaxed pace, arrived quickly at the place where we were working. It would take me a long time to cover the same distance, my way. I decided to do it his way, climbed up onto the bridge barrier.
There, standing up, with nothing on either side to hang onto, I started walking along the external barrier. The water below sparkled, the wind whispered, the sun shone warm on my back. The ledge was a foot and a half wide, a crisscrossed pattern of flat, steel pieces fastened to the big girders on either side by rivets.
I saw the blur of vehicles on the road to my right, twenty feet below me, the waves of the inlet, more than two hundred feet below me, on the left. I walked on, carrying my paint can, scraper and wire brush in the pockets of my coveralls, careful to avoid the rivets.
A big cruise ship passed under the bridge at that moment. It emerged beneath me, on my left. I stopped to watch it. I was mesmerized by the slow motion. The breeze carried Les’s voice to me. He told me to move. I did.
I made it all the way to the work area, but that hesitation got me into trouble. It created a moment of worry, a sliver of unease in someone. They told the boss. He gave me a lecture about not doing a circus act, just doing the work. It must have looked worse than it felt.
It was either Fred or Jimmy who told him.
Fred was an older guy who showed me how to hold a brush properly for that kind of painting. I found out later that he used to be a boss like Ron. He was demoted when he and the crew were caught playing poker and drinking on government time too many days in a row. Fred probably told the boss in a sincere effort to save my life.
Jimmy was a big, tough biker who painted from a spider. He used to come to work hungover with his knuckles skinned from fighting in his favourite Surrey bars. He had a picture of his father doing a handstand on the flagpole on top of the Surrey city hall. Jimmy always had a smile and a laugh, even with a hangover. He probably told the boss because he thought I might fall off the bridge and embarrass the crew or cost them money.
I left at the end of the summer, got hired onto a highway crew which replaced railroad ties on the bridges to Squamish.
I saw Les later that month. He said that they’d had one more job after I left. Ron had taken a couple of the guys, climbed up to the very top of one tower, changed the light.
When you look at the Lion’s Gate Bridge and see that red light at the top, that’s the one they changed. When they came down, after doing it, Ron told them they had done a good job, bought them a beer.
There were a few men lost over the years. One conversation I heard was about the death of a man they worked with. Some said he shouldn’t have gone up that day, there was too much moisture. Others said he jumped into the Burrard Inlet because of problems at home and “bad nerves”. His body was never found so there was even a suspicion that he had taken the opportunity to disappear from his current life for mysterious reasons.
The Vancouver rain started again that Autumn, winter approached. I tried to get a job on a freighter. I heard that there were regular shipments of lumber from BC to Australia.