Bliss at the end of the world

Editorial Notebook

July 01, 2006|By BILL THOMPSON

Long hours. Low pay. Life doesn't get much better than this.

Three mornings a week, Jeff Barron crawls out of bed at 4:30, drives 22 miles to Tilghman Island and settles into his "office" for a 13-hour stretch of some of the heaviest lifting around the Chesapeake Bay. For this he earns a little more than the minimum hourly wage. And he loves it.

Mr. Barron is the drawbridge tender at Knapps Narrows, purportedly one of the busiest drawbridges from Maine to Florida. According to the State Highway Administration, which oversees this and 17 other drawbridges around Maryland, the Knapps Narrows Bridge in Talbot County opens for boats about 10,000 times a year. That's nearly half the number of ups and downs the previous bridge experienced - it was replaced by the current higher structure in 1998 - but it's still more than double the openings of the Cambridge drawbridge, the state's second-busiest.

Steady boat traffic isn't the only reason Knapps Narrows can be hectic. It is one of the last remaining bridges to follow the old maritime "rules of the road" that give the right of way to vessels and not to highway traffic. Most other drawbridges open on predetermined schedules, meaning that boats with masts or antennae taller than the bridge clearance must bide their time until the tender sets the gears in motion.

During active boating seasons like we have now, Mr. Barron can spend two hours without a break standing at a computerized console, pushing brightly colored buttons that control the movements of the bridge. Generally, the day begins with a parade of work boats heading out to catch crabs. By mid-morning, pleasure-boat captains start tooting horns or calling the bridge tender on marine radio to let him know they'll be approaching. Watermen return about 2 in the afternoon. Mr. Barron can tell how much luck they've had by counting the bushel baskets filled with crabs.

Part of the tender's routine is to jot down the names and types of boats that pass under the raised bridge. Like pet owners, some boat captains have personal reasons for naming their vessels. On a recent day, boats named Teacher's Salary, Golden Parachute, Blue Heaven and Just Cause sailed by.

Although bridge tending can be periodically demanding and motorists impatient to drive onto or off the island can be abusive, Mr. Barron relishes the work. A Baltimore native, he worked in New York for 20 years as a director of operations for CNN. As soon as he retired, he and his wife moved to the Eastern Shore. He didn't want all his days to be idle, and like a lot of people who suddenly find themselves out of the rat race, he checked the local newspaper classifieds for something to do. That's where he spotted a want ad for a bridge tender.

"I thought it would be neat to try," he says. That was five years ago. When he's not raising or lowering the bridge, Mr. Barron can sit back in a comfortable chair and read the paper or watch a cable program on the color TV. The air-conditioned tender's shack has more amenities than most CEO offices and is outfitted with a microwave, a refrigerator, a water cooler, a coffee maker, a full-sized restroom and even a planted fern. At night or during the slower winter season, tenders can nap on a narrow daybed shoved against a wall.

But for Mr. Barron, the best part of the job has nothing to do with sleeping or watching the tube. Any retiree can do that. "It's the environment," he says. "It's always changing, in any weather, in any day, in any time of the year. The water keeps flowing. The sky changes. You can track the sun in different seasons. Depending on the time of the year, I can watch the sun rise and then I can watch it set. I don't consider the work to be an intrusion."

As the country's baby boomer generation nears retirement age, many people will be looking for something that will make them want to get out of bed every day. They should all be as lucky as Jeff Barron.

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