If you’ve never spent time on welfare during a Vancouver winter, you won’t understand my motivation. It can rain hard for three weeks at a time. You get wet no matter what you wear or how careful you are. The sky can be dark grey with massive clouds for more than a month with never a peek of sunshine. They say the suicide rate is the highest there. I believe that is the reason.
Everyone who has lived there knows about the advantages of Vancouver, but the depressing winter rain is not mentioned so much. It’s hard to take, day after day.
I had finally left the house in Kitsilano where the longest, poorest, wettest, greyest, most depressing Vancouver winter had driven the guys living there to desperation.
We met the winter before on the False Creek seawall job. The bosses were permanent city truck drivers. They trucked in millions of boulders, needed them dumped by wheelbarrow down the sides of False Creek.
Four of us lived in a house in Kitsilano. Soon we were broke. The winter we spent in that house in Kits was so depressing that, by spring, I knew I had to get out. I found a bachelor apartment on 16th Avenue.
Les had worked on the Lion’s Gate bridge in years past, encouraged me to apply for the job.
When I got up in the morning on 16th Ave., I could see the tops of the Lion’s Gate towers above the surrounding roofs, snow caps of mountains called The Lions, beyond.
The pay, on being hired by the highway department, seemed astronomical after the past winter.
Ron was the boss. He was a tall, slim, grey haired man with an English accent. They said he could climb like a monkey. He made a remark about “getting stuck with the choirboys” in the morning meeting on the first day.
Apparently, the crew on the Second Narrows bridge had inherited more experienced men from the personnel department and he wasn’t happy about it. Apart from that he was civil to me. He only came up on the bridge once a day to see how things were going. The rest of the crew, having worked there for years, appreciated that.
They put me with Tim, the sandblaster, for the first two weeks. He was a big, bald guy who worked in a three sided building where he sandblasted all day. He did plows, grader blades, all kinds of things for the department of highways. I loaded the sandblaster drum for him, moved things around until he got me doing the sandblasting.
In the hot summer, with all the equipment a sandblaster has to wear, it’s not a pleasant job. No matter what you do, the tiny grains of silica get into every crevice and crack.
The day finally came when they told me I was going up. I followed the rest of the crew up the sidewalk from the North side of the bridge. The view gets more spectacular as you walk.
At the first tower you climb the protective barrier between the sidewalk and one leg of the tower. It is then that you first step across a little space which provides a clear view of the sunlight dancing on the water, two hundred and fifty feet below.
My job was to prepare the steel for the painters to spray. They gave me a wire brush, a paint scraper and a needle gun. You plugged the needle gun into an airline wherever you needed it. You scraped the steel clean of rust before the red paint was applied. There was a lot of bird droppings. Some areas needed more work than others, but they all had to be done because when the spiders arrived from above, the painters wanted the surface cleaned and primed.
The painters attached their spiders near the tops of the towers, descended to prepare the surfaces unreachable otherwise, then spray painted the whole structure with several coats.
The logistics of the painters’ jobs, their five gallon cans of paint, spray guns, lines and spiders, make it a long process. No one can go onto the bridge to work if there is precipitation. They’re lucky to get one half of the bridge done in one summer.
When we climbed up from the road level to the next work area, the men left their lunches, threw their safety belts into a pile in the corner. I did the same. The safety belts were too much trouble. Every time you moved, you had to unhitch the belt.
Sun filled, windy days on the Lion’s Gate made you feel alive and strong and in the right place at the right time. The trials of life were always waiting when the day was over, but those summer work days were irreplaceable.