Fraternal hobby: First in war, first in peace, and first in the Lincoln Tunnel

January 29, 1995|By Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

It was Feb. 1, 1945, and Michael Katen was freezing.

For four days, he had huddled in a drafty 1939 Pontiac waiting for his chance to pay the first toll on a new section of the Lincoln Tunnel, which links midtown Manhattan with New Jersey.

His coffee had frozen. His meal of spaghetti and meatballs had frozen. So had the doors on his automobile.

But patience and a 50-cent toll won him a place in history.

On Wednesday, the 82-year-old Margate, Fla., resident will relive the event -- minus the four-day wait -- at a special 50-year anniversary celebration of the landmark tunnel's north tube.

Only this time, the toll will cost Mr. Katen $4.

"Some people think I'm a nut," said Mr. Katen, who, with his brother Omero Catan, has spent decades being "first" at hundreds of things, including the opening of Miami's Metrorail and the Sawgrass Expressway in Florida.

"My brother started back in 1931 with the George Washington Bridge. We've been at over 600 openings all over the United States," Mr. Katen said.

The three tubes of the Lincoln Tunnel link midtown Manhattan with New Jersey, forming part of New Jersey Route 495.

The tunnel opened in three stages, each bringing a new first.

Mr. Katen -- who lived in the Bronx at the time -- made the effort in the Lincoln Tunnel north tube, in part, because his brother was in an Army hospital in London and could not be there.

In 1937, his brother was the first to go through the middle section of the tunnel.

Mr. Catan again was the first when the south and final tube of the tunnel opened in 1957.

"[Omero] wanted to maintain his record," said Mr. Katen, who moved to Florida 13 years ago.

"It was his hobby. He had decided to be the 'first' on bridges, tunnels and other historic events. I accompanied him a lot and also took his place when he could not go."

His brother lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but will not make the trip for the tunnel's latest anniversary.

(Mr. Katen declines to discuss why he and his brother spell their last names differently, characterizing it as a "long story.")

Mr. Catan, however, attended the 50th anniversary of the tunnel's main section in 1987, said Terry Benczik, spokeswoman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

She said Mr. Katen contacted the Port Authority to tell them he had plans to come to the 50th anniversary of the north tube.

"We're glad he contacted us," Ms. Benczik said. "We weren't sure how to find him."

Back in the 1940s, Mr. Katen was working as a mechanic for Trans World Airlines.

He took time off from work with the support of his boss to wait for the tunnel opening.

He said ultra-wealthy airline president Howard Hughes brought him coffee, sandwiches and blankets while he waited.

"I wish I'd known then what I know of Hughes today," Mr. Katen said.

Ms. Benczik said Mr. Katen will drive through the toll booth at noon on Wednesday, escorted by police.

"He wants to go through and pay the toll again, which we thought that was very appropriate and very sweet," she said.

"He will meet with the assistant manager of the Lincoln Tunnel and he will receive a plaque and have his photograph taken for our records."

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