DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Time now for StoryCorps. It has been 50 years since New York City's Verrazano-Narrows bridge opened, connecting Brooklyn with Staten Island. It's the longest suspension bridge in the country. In 1964, author Gay Talese published a book about its construction called "The Bridge." Here's an excerpt.
GAY TALESE: (Reading) When I first moved to New York in the middle 1950s, I often asked myself, who are the high-wire walkers wearing boots and hardhats, earning their living by risking their lives in places where falls are often fatal, where bridges and skyscrapers are looked upon as sepulchers by the families and the coworkers of the deceased?
GREENE: Recently, author Gay Talese interviewed Bob Walsh, an ironworker who helped build the Verrazano. His family boasts five generations of ironworkers.
BOB WALSH: My oldest brother - he was in the business. There was a demand for a lot of apprentices, so my brother asked me if I'd like to work on the Verrazano-Narrows bridge. I said, sure, why not? You know, it was going to be the biggest bridge in the world at the time.
TALESE: And you were 18?
WALSH: Just became 18, yeah.
TALESE: (Reading) They are part circus, part gypsy - graceful in the air, restless on the ground. It is as if the wide-open road below lacks for them the clear direction of an 8-inch beam stretching across the sky, 600 feet above the sea. Some who do welding see flashes at night while they sleep. Most have taken falls and broken a limb or two. All have seen death.
WALSH: When I was 11 years old, my father had gotten killed in this business.
TALESE: And you fell one day.
WALSH: Yes. I would jump from one beam to the other. And they were probably about five feet apart. And I didn't make the next beam. And I was fortunate enough that the nets were there. But we lost a fellow out of Local 40 - a fellow by the name of McKee. He went through a hole in the catwalk.
TALESE: And fell about 400 or 500 feet to his death in the water.
WALSH: Yeah. He did, yeah.
TALESE: (Reading) Men watched him fall - feet first, then his body tilted forward, his shirt blowing off, his bare back white against the dark sea - and saw him splash hard below.
Tell us about your children, please, 'cause two of your son are ironworkers.
WALSH: They're ironworkers. Now, I'll have to say the oldest fellow - he got hurt a couple of years ago. A piece of timber came down 11 stories, and it hit him in the head. But he came out of it very well. I'll have to say that. And now, he's got three sons that are ironworkers as well.
TALESE: Wouldn't they make more money and take less risks doing something else?
WALSH: Well, it's probably not in our blood.
TALESE: (Reading) They tell their sons the good parts - adventure and big cars and big money and gambling on rainy weekends when the bridge is slippery, hardly ever describing how men sometimes freeze with fear on high steel and clutch two beams with closed eyes, all of them building something big and permanent - something that can be revisited years later and pointed to. See that bridge over there, son? Well, one day, when I was young, I drove 1,200 rivets into that goddamn thing.
WALSH: That's what I think of when I go over the Verrazano Bridge. I'm just a proud ironworker. I really am.
GREENE: Bob Walsh, one of the ironworkers who built New York City's Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, speaking with writer Gay Talese at StoryCorps. You can find their conversation and others at the StoryCorps podcast on iTunes and at npr.org. Talese's book, "The Bridge," was republished this year to mark the Verrazano's 50th anniversary.
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