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

Only now, about lunchtime for most people, does Wellington leave the dock to go back to his apartment in Coral Gables for some sleep.

He's devoted to the river now, but nobody sets out in life to be a bridgetender. Raised in Newton, Massachusetts, the son of an engineer, Jim Wellington never settled on a career goal. He served in the Marine Corps for nearly three years after high school, working as an admiral's orderly -- or security guard -- on large naval ships that took him to various international ports, piquing his interest in life on the water. He attended Boston College after his discharge from the Marines, but left school after two years to follow a meandering career path.

"I dropped out of school to further my education," he jokes now, and, indeed, he's remained a life-long student, taking primarily science courses at different colleges in South Florida and Massachusetts. (He is currently president-elect of a group called the Friends of Physics, which raises money and arranges lectures for the University of Miami physics department.) Over the years he has worked as a photographic technician in the Arctic Circle (where he joined a group that ran a nude hundred-yard dash in sub-zero weather), a TV tower repairman, a private investigator, you name it.

"I really couldn't find a field that I liked," he says, but now he's discovered his calling in the unlikely roles of bridgetender and Miami River activist. And he's brought a formidable amount of intelligence, research, and passion to the task. "That's all he talks about, the river," says his wife, Jean Wellington. And yet she's proud of his dedication. "At first I resented all the time away from me," she adds, "but this is his life, and I got used to the hours. When he dies, he wants his ashes scattered on the river."

Other bridgetenders don't feel nearly as strongly about their work as Wellington does. They serve as reminders of just how prosaic the job can be when it is not approached with Wellington's unique vision. Leandro Aguiar, for instance, is a goateed young man of 23 who works the eight a.m. to four p.m. shift on the busy, low-slung SW Second Avenue bridge, and he's here for one main reason: "You're more secure [than with a private-sector job]." He's been working for the county for nearly a year now, and got this post after he failed to cadge other county jobs he applied for. His bridgehouse is more cramped -- only about six feet wide -- and its console controls far cruder and older than Wellington's; the Second Avenue bridge, after all, is about 70 years old. When asked about all the nature he gets to see, Aguiar shrugs and says, "I like it okay." He doesn't detect any special challenges to his job, and working on the river hasn't stirred his interest in environmental activism, either. He concedes, though, "It'll be nice to have a clean river."

Few people are excited about becoming bridgetenders. There are three vacancies, Wellington contends, resulting from the six openings in recent months caused by retirement, deaths, and a resignation. (Although there's no mandatory retirement for bridgetenders -- except in the event of ill health -- Wellington himself plans to retire in another four years or so, then devote himself full-time to environmental lobbying.) The recent departures have meant that some of the remaining bridgetenders (a total of 33) have to work a sixth day and can't take some of the accumulated time off they're owed. (Wellington's supervisors give conflicting answers on whether there's been a shortage of applicants and how many slots -- one or two -- remain open.) "People don't understand it, they think it's dull and boring," Wellington says. He breaks into a mock whining voice: "'I don't want to do that. And there's no way I'm going to work weekends.'"

Now it's past five a.m., and he hasn't had to raise the bridge for hours, but there's still something to catch his interest. He hears a barge captain radioing ahead on his way out to the bay: "I've got no steering. I burnt my valves." The craft is guided slowly along the river by a tugboat, and Wellington makes sure to raise the bridge promptly. A while later the sky begins to grow lighter, almost imperceptibly, but not to Wellington, who notices the first faint shape of a cloud. "Hark yon light in the eastern sky," he says. It is perhaps his favorite part of the day, when the city comes to life and the cleaning trucks rumble by and a few more cars cross the bridge. He looks out the window at the river again, pleased by what he sees.

"To me," he says, "it's beautiful.

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