Water Under the Bridge

For more than two decades, Jim Wellington has marked the ebb and flow of the Miami River with a Zen master's eye

As a new hire, he was required to fill in wherever the county wanted to place him. One of the bridges he liked least was an earlier version of the Miami Avenue bridge, which was built in 1918 and kept in operation until 1979. "This one had a wooden deck, and sometimes when it rained it got out of balance and couldn't close properly," Wellington remembers. "It was very low on the river. You had to raise the bridge for a mosquito with an erection."

While the low bridge meant he was kept busy raising it frequently, he also had to face the discomfort of trying to use the bathroom in the old bridgehouse. "It was down the stairs and you had to climb over machinery to get to it," he recalls. So he and the other bridgetenders devised their own solution: "We used to bring a plastic cup, urinate in that, and throw it out the window." (Life for bridgetenders used to be far rougher than it is today. For example, when the original Miami Avenue bridge was built in 1903, it was a manually operated swing bridge. The current hydraulic bridge opened in March 1987, with Wellington working the overnight shift.) He notes now, "The bathroom here is a little easier to get to," although it's still two stories below the main room. In the bathroom, there's an emergency button he can press to signal five horn blasts, which means -- in addition to warning of the closing bridge -- that the bridge isn't ready to be opened.

Eventually, Wellington was permitted to choose, or "bid," on the shift and bridge he wanted, and he selected a daytime slot on the old Rickenbacker Causeway drawbridge. There he got some unexpected visual treats. "I remember a girl at the Rickenbacker who was topless on a sailboat; she covered her face with her hair and waved at me," he says. "There's always so much to see with a good pair of binoculars," he adds, recalling how he spied a totally nude woman parasailing a hundred feet above him. He smiles and shakes his head at the memory: "I can't see nothing freer than that. I envied her that real freedom."

His own job has given him a kind of freedom, too. "I enjoy having this solitude. Most people don't get that," he says, as if referring to a luxury others must crave. (He's hardly alone after work. He's married for the third time -- for five months to a woman he's lived with for twelve years -- and he's involved in a variety of marine-related groups.) "Nobody looks over your shoulder, and the bosses don't bother you as long as you do your job." At the Rickenbacker, he pursued one of his hobbies, photography -- "I had a chance to see great sunsets and sunrises" -- and even managed to sell some of his photographs to stock-photo houses seeking Florida sunshine shots.

His love of nature still surfaces in his rhapsodic conversation. "When the river's spawning, you can walk across it on the mullet, it's so packed," he observes. "Some of them are flashing in the sunlight, and the other fish will make a charge, and one of the flashes disappears. Nature takes the sick and the weak, not the prime. Only man kills the prime." He continues, cataloguing in no particular order the simple wonders of nature: "I see the sun come up five days a week, which only seven percent of the regular public gets to do. There's the birds, and the pelicans during the winter, and I also watch for manatees."

He pauses and looks out the window into the night. "I've seen terrific thunderstorms and things you wouldn't believe," he notes. "I've seen balls of lightning, and lightning that's 360 degrees around. I've had to close the windows and walk downstairs; with the wind and rain, it gets a little unnerving when it's like that."

In the quiet early morning hours, when it's been a long time since a boat has passed, he still finds things to interest him. "Look over there, the lighting in the port makes the water look almost like glass," he says."During Christmastime, you can see the reflection when the old CenTrust tower is lit up with a deep purple with a cross or a deep blue with a Star of David."

He's also witnessed his share of crises and oddities. He's seen ships on fire and called them in to the fire department; he's watched the engines of planes catch on fire; he's spotted people crawling out the window of one room into another at the Hyatt; and one morning at 5:30, he used the bridge's PA system to tell a mugger on a pedestrian walkway to stop hitting a woman -- the assailant was so shocked to hear what sounded like a loud, all-knowing voice that he backed up into the railing and toppled into the street. He has called the police, the fire department, and the Coast Guard many times to halt suspected wrongdoers, from drug smugglers crawling away from a docked boat being raided by Customs officials to vessels spilling oil or dumping waste.

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