The George: Knocking on Heaven’s Door

To research his book on the George Washington Bridge, a Rutgers prof turns cable climber, and at the summit finds
...nobody home.

Michael Aaron Rockland (center) atop the bridge with his climbing mates.

When I arrived at the bridge offices in Fort Lee on the morning of October 26, 2006, I was surprised to find four officers in special gear. “Let’s go,” Lieutenant Richard Munnelly said, and the five of us went outside and got into two Emergency Services Unit vehicles.

We drove out onto the bridge and pulled up next to where the north barrel cables were passing through the roadway. Before I could say anything, Sergeant Kevin Cottrell was outfitting me in a harness, hard hat, and gloves.

“Okay,” Cottrell said, “let’s go. Patrolmen Jerry Fredella and Mark Legiec will lead. You’ll be in the middle and I’ll be immediately behind you. The lieutenant will bring up the rear. Any questions?”

“Uh, yeah,” I said. “Where are we going?”

“Didn’t you want to go up?” Cottrell asked, pointing to the top of the New York tower. It had suddenly dawned on me what Cottrell had in mind. We weren’t going up in elevators. These guys planned for me, an American studies professor at Rutgers University, to climb a barrel cable, Cable C, to the very top of the tower.
I was instructed to snap the brass fasteners of my harness onto the guide cables that run along each side of the barrel cables. We began climbing, our gloved hands pushing the brass fasteners in front of us on the hand ropes. In addition to all the other challenges, we were walking on a rounded surface, so I had to place my feet carefully.

The kindly Cottrell seemed to sense my fear. “Mind over matter,” he said quietly from his position behind me. “If you find yourself freaking out, just say so and we won’t continue.”

The barrel cables rise at a precipitous angle, reaching forty-four degrees as you approach the top. You have the sensation of climbing straight up into the sky.

Slowly, we advanced toward the top. The wind was blowing a gale up there, and I worried about being literally blown off the cable. The wind chill was fierce.

Now we were approaching the top, and the angle of the barrel cable was so steep my head was leaning back, my feet well forward of my head. Patrolman Fredella moved forward and, climbing onto a little steel platform attached to the tower, worked the handle of the door. It didn’t budge. I couldn’t believe it: it was locked from the inside.

Lieutenant Munnelly got out his radio, and over the squawking coming from the other end I heard him say, “You gotta be kidding.” Then he shouted to me over the wind, “Don’t worry. They’ll be up here in fifteen minutes.” Fifteen minutes?! Did I really have to stand there on the barrel cable for fifteen extra minutes?

I stole tiny looks below, the first time I had looked down during the whole forty minutes of climbing. 

Seemingly ages later came a scraping sound and the door opened. Fredella and Legiec went inside. There was a tricky moment when I had to unfasten myself from the guide cables to get into the room, when momentarily I wasn’t attached to anything. Then I scrambled inside.

I was suffused with satisfaction. I would never climb Mount Everest, but, after admiring the George Washington Bridge’s towers all my life, I had just scaled one of them.

Excerpted from The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel. Copyright © 2008 by Michael Aaron Rockland (Reprinted by permission of Rutgers University Press).

Please click here to read the second installment: A Day on the George.

Click here to read the third installment: Building the Bridge.

Click here to read the fourth installment: The Martha.

Click here to read the fifth installment: Drams, Dangers and Disasters.

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