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Raising the bridge from an old green recliner

DCN Correspondent

Behind the hoisting of Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge is, oddly enough, a man in a La-Z-Boy pushing a big green button labeled "RAISE."

This morning, Ryan Beamer is that man.

Beamer, the Aerial Bridge supervisor, is sprawled out on the battered green recliner, a purchase to which he personally contributed. He is dressed in an equally worn red and green striped polo, black jeans, and black shoes.

The pilothouse in which Beamer and the other operators spend their eight-hour shifts is a single room with walls the dull navy blue color of Lake Superior in the rain, broken up by huge windows on all sides. In stark contrast from the windy 18 degrees just outside the door - it's 76 degrees in the pilothouse. The floor is gray and uncarpeted, and a small table holds a coffee pot, a tub of Folgers 100% Colombian, and a Ziploc bag of chocolate chip cookies.

"My mother-in-law made them," Beamer says. "They're pretty good."

The City of Duluth's Job Description Database declares the purpose of the bridge operator clearly: "Ensure safe passage of ships, pedestrians, and motorists by operating and maintaining lift bridges, foghorn, and related equipment."

Beamer says that the operators do whatever needs to be done, including the cleaning, maintenance, and electrical work. Two operators work at a time. The first operator runs the bridge, and the second operator answers phones, writes in the log, and visually checks the sidewalks.

The bridge's control board is straight out of a movie with its huge round buttons in bright blue, orange, and green. The emergency stop button is fire engine red and conveniently larger than the rest. The raise button is pushed when the ship is half a mile from the bridge. There are two identical control panels: an east control and a west control. Only one is used to raise the bridge, but if it fails, the operator can use the other.

"If both sides break, then we grab the radio and yell," Beamer says.

Beamer was an electronics technician on submarines in the Navy for nine years before his 10 years on the bridge.

"You can't just go to school to learn how to operate a bridge," Beamer says. "As far as bachelor's degrees, nobody down here has one. It's really a jack-of-all-trades draw."

One such "jack" is Dick Shaul.

According to Beamer, Shaul has operated every movable bridge in the twin ports, save one.

"How do you not hire a guy that's a bridge operator, you know?" Beamer says with respect.

Shaul accepts the praise silently, with an expression free of either embarrassment or smugness, from his black swivel chair in the corner. With his salt-and-pepper hair, kind eyes, Harley Davidson t-shirt, and well-used tennis shoes, he is at ease here. He has been working since 11 p.m. last night, but with one of the operators out sick, he will be here covering another shift until 3 p.m. today.

"It's a good job," Shaul says. "It's decent pay, decent benefits. Pretty much a dependable job; not apt to get laid off."

The bridge has been run manually since its construction in 1905, according to former Aerial Bridge supervisor Steve Douville.

"There's too many variables just to have a garage door opener," Douville says. "It doesn't work that way."

Like Beamer, Douville was in the Navy before finding a job on the bridge.

"A relative of mine said, 'Hey, here's a job you could do!'" Douville recalls. "I said, 'What do I want to do working for the city?' And he said, 'Give it a try.'"

Douville tried it, in fact, for 33 years.

Beamer says he suspects that all of the operators have dreamed about the bridge.

"I've had weird dreams where the bridge is stuck at a 60 degree angle, and I've got my hands in the grating, trying to climb up to the pilothouse to try to level it," Beamer recalls. "The bridge goes up and turns into a giant swing and I'm on it. Weird dreams."

For such crises, a phone labeled "emergency line" is attached to the wall across from the control board.

"Fortunately we've got the Bat Phone," Beamer says. "It's a secret number that only the police, fire, Gold Cross, and the Coast Guard have."

Most of the operators have worked together long enough that Beamer says the jokes get old after a while. After a moment's thought, though, he seems to reconsider.

"Well, Dave is pretty good," Beamer says. "He must have a book at home, like, 'What am I going to say today to crack them up?' He's always coming up with something."

Nevertheless, eight hours in the pilothouse can be boring. Beamer says that in February, with the Soo Locks closed, no shipping goes through. At this time only one person is needed in the pilothouse for the fire and security watch, and their nights may get long.

"Crossword puzzle, book, sudoku," he says, listing the possibilities. "You can watch TV if you need to."

A pile of books and magazines, including a collection of sudoku, is stacked on a bookshelf made by Shaul himself. Other evidences of the fight against boredom are scattered around the room. Beamer motions to a miniature stuffed monkey labeled "Otto." It's hanging by its neck above the control board.

"Otto-matic," Beamer says mischievously. "Because any monkey can operate the bridge!"

He and Shaul burst out laughing.

"We'll be here all week," Shaul says with a grin.