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Robin Lim, CPM

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Iron Worker's Song -- A Tribute to Fathers

Posted: 06/15/2012 3:54 pm

In June, we honor fathers. Mine has passed, and I honor him daily. I remember him in the dimples of my newborn grandson; I hear his pleasure in the fiddle of my youngest son. This Father's Day I wish to pay tribute to my husband's father, my father-in-love.

"The Walt Whitman Bridge was started 1953 finished in 1957, that was the last one we used real rivets on. For the top hundred feet of the tower on the Philly side we used high tensile bolts. Yes sirree... I should know. I put some of them in."
~William Joseph Hemmerle

Dense fog and autumn cold brought back memories for the retired iron worker as we crossed over from the Jersey to the Pennsylvania side of the Walt Whitman bridge. In the back seat of the Lincoln Town Car it occurred to me a wonder and an honor to be here with my Father-in-law, my husband and my son; three generations of Hemmerle's. We were on a road trip, across half of the United States, it was 5 a.m., and this was the first leg of our journey. As the octogenarian stopped and paid the toll of four dollars he commented, "Ain't no discounts for the guys who built it, no free passes." The iron worker chuckled.

My husband, William Joseph Hemmerle Jr., recalled how he had apprenticed as an iron worker, "It was tough work in brutal conditions, but I never regretted it. Most of my friends were estranged from their fathers, we were up there on the high iron together, bonding."

"Nothing wrong with working hard, with your own son," Bill senior piped in.

To hear Bill Hemmerle speak about the bridge he loved, was astonishing, sharing with his son and his 17-year-old grandson. He spoke to me, a stranger with distant roots, who married into his family. This was one of those moments we all too often let evaporate unnoticed, like fog off the Delaware River, or dew on leaves of grass. Today, among the huge cables, towers and tollbooths, I listened to this man, who one day earlier had celebrated his 82 birthday at the VFW hall, where he had cooked roast beef for 'the boys' and won his shuffleboard match. As we accelerated into Philadelphia, I could feel history rolling away beneath our tires.

Bill, these days best known as Pop-Pop, continued his story, "It's a suspension bridge, the towers hold the cables and the whole seven lane roadway is held up by the cables. The towers are pretty important, yup, that steel needs to be perfect."

"I used to hate being on the riveting gang; dangerous, dangerous." He shook his head, "You could hear that flesh burn when a mistake was made."

"There were always four men in a riveting gang. The Heater, he's the main man." Pop-Pop pounded the steering wheel rhythmically. "He makes them rivets red hot, got a forge right there. He throws them one at a time at the Catcher, who catches in a can, like a funnel. Then the Catcher takes them out with tongs and puts them in the hole. Now the "Bucker Upper" grabs a big hunk of iron, called a horse cock, maybe three inches in diameter, and holds it on the head side. Then the Riveter bangs it in with a pneumatic tool: bup bup bup bup bup...We had to jump the forge platform every so often. Yeah our Heater could throw those red hot rivets pretty far, 30 feet or so."

Pop-Pop had to lean forward to see the road. His son wanted to drive, but the elder wouldn't have it. "I can't see and I can't hear," he jibed, "but I can still drive; my license says so."

Drifting back into his story, we could feel how the bridge and every high building he had helped to build lived inside his bones "It's gotta be the right size rivet going in that hole, the Heater had to know. I don't know how he knew, but he knew alright if it weren't right. They had to be so fussy on bridges; if the bolts weren't accurate, the inspector would throw them out." An imaginary hunk of steel sailed over his shoulder. It started to rain.

"You want me to drive?" his son asked.

"I'm still good Billy, you know me, I know when it's time to climb down," he answered, as the steel gray October-in-Pennsylvania dawn tried to distinguish itself from the rain, fog and slate-colored road.

"When you hire a riveting gang, they all come together, they go by the main man, the Heater's name: 'Jones Gang,' 'Smith Gang,' like that. If you fire one, you fire the whole gang. They come together."

"Each hole has to be perfect. Each one had to have a pin driven in it, a drift pin; tapered on both ends, to make sure the hole is true. The rivet is HOT; it has to go in with no trouble at all. I did everything but the Heater. When you're working on a bridge, you need an organized gang of riveters. Lot of Indians were good rivet gangs." (Bill Hemmerle is part Native American on his mother's side.)

"I got a couple of burns. he he hehehe... Don't feel too good, but you don't stop." His steel blue eyes piercing ahead, he shifted the windshield wipers to a faster speed.

"Iron workers got it easy today, they got cranes and all. In my time, it was all bull work; we had derricks and planks. Today, buildings go up fast. Back in the day, there was always overtime. These days 40 percent of union iron workers in the Philly area are out of work. It's bad, real bad." He shook his head.

"The Walt Whitman bridge towers are 375 feet tall. The top 100 feet of the tower on the Philly side was done with high tensile strong bolts. It was an experiment. They're stronger alright. You didn't have to heat them bolts... It's gonna rain all day Billy," he pointed at the road. "Tensile, that's a two men gang. The riveting gang is four men. You already knock two guys out of the picture," he held up two fat crooked fingers,

"The Walt Whitman bridge opened in 1957; yeah, Billy, you were three years old. I could sit on top of that tower and see my house, all the way in Barrington on the Jersey side. I was building our house at that time. After work, a few hours everyday, put in the windows and stuff. Living in Philly and working the bridge and building the family home in Jersey. I drove on the White Horse Pike, or Black Horse Pike, there wasn't the traffic. I can't really remember what gas cost back then.

"Ben Franklin Bridge opened in May of 1926. I wasn't born yet, I came along in 1928."

"I worked on the second Delaware memorial bridge; there's two of them identical. They used the same blue prints for both bridges; one goes over, one comes back"

"Not too many guys died working on the bridge. Things got better as time went on. There was one guy, he had an epileptic fit up there. He was grabbing at us, and we had to wrestle him down to the iron, or fall with him. We must of knocked him out up there. This Indian guy did CPR on him. We put him in a bucket with the Indian and lowered them down. Took him to the hospital. Couple weeks later he was back, but the foreman wouldn't hire him. Nobody would." Pop Pop shook his head, "He was a good Iron Worker too, shame."

"The towers in Manayunk there 750 or 800 feet high. Dangerous, oh yeah, little bit. I never saw nobody fall. Yeah I got strung up, taking a crane apart, some cable jumped on the shiv, tangled me up. They lowered me down to the ground and took me to Chester Hospital. Didn't break anything, just crushed legs and arms."

People asked, "Who you work for Bill?" I'd always say, "The wife and four kids." He paused a long time, maybe reflecting on his family, he was widowed in 2007, he has ten grandchildren, and three great-grandsons.

Happy Father's Day, Pop-Pop. And to all the men of that bridge-building generation: Happy Father's Day.

Robin Lim

 

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