Climbing a railroad bridge in Cleveland to steal the airplane warning lights
Stupid things teenage Boys do to become Men
In 1974 when I was in high school, we all took LSD one night, some purple four-way windowpane which I had scored at a Grateful Dead concert. Then while out roaming, we decided to climb up to the top of a movable railroad suspension bridge over the Cuyahoga River. It had airplane warning lights on it. We desired them.
The object was to steal one of the flashing red lights, which at the time appeared to be glowing rubies that were undulating and waving at us….and we had screwdrivers and pliers!
What could go wrong?
There were five of us, all juniors in high school. It was Saturday night and we were in a party place in Cleveland called the Flats. It used to be a giant industrial area, and it still kind of is.
Now it’s chock full of trendy bars and dance floors doing the Industrial Style thing. Many places to get in trouble. None we could get into yet. The fragrant Cuyahoga River winding through the whole mess out to Lake Erie.
The Cuyahoga has a lot of bridges over it. There are many boats and ships and freighter traffic which move around the great lakes and up the Cuyahoga river for a few miles. The bridges for cars and trucks are high enough over the river that the marine traffic can get under them. However the railroad tracks that crisscross the river are on movable bridges that they raise and lower as the boats pass under them.
The bridges for the railroad tracks go up quite high as the boats have lots of stacks and antennas. As you can imagine the bridges are quite heavy and require an enormous counterweight in order to raise them.
On top of these bridges are airplane warning lights. We were tearing around the flats in my old VW bus. Looking at these bridges from the ground, we figured shit, we could climb up those ladders! We were all good and drunk on Boone’s Farm apple wine and Pagan Pink Ripple and lots of acid so we were feeling our supermen best.
Somebody pointed out one of the bridges going up and down and said look at all the red lights on top. Wouldn’t it be cool to steal one?
“Okay you pussies, who’s with me? I roared, “let’s go!”
We drove until we found one with no fence around it.
We were able to walk right over and up to the rusty maintenance ladders. The five of us climbed up these old iron ladders with no gloves.
Stoned stupid, the first hundred feet or so weren’t so bad.
Daring each other to climb higher we turned around to look and saw that the cars were sure getting awfully small. By now you couldn’t just chicken out and show no balls.
Pressing on we kept climbing. They don’t exactly clean the bridges and we realize now that our hands and clothes were black with grease and soot from years of trains and ships going under them.
By the time we got to the top of the bridge, we were filthy dirty but thrilled we were the mighty men which had just climbed up 500 feet.
There the lights were. Screaming Cherry Red and calling to us. Come take us home, guys!
Except they were a whole lot bigger than they had looked from the ground.
And tightly secured with huge bolts. We were not gonna be able to steal one. You had to climb up another, unshielded ladder just to get to them.
We said okay let’s go up and hug the lights just to prove we were here! At least we can say we did it!
And one by one like assholes we climbed up the ladder and hugged the airplane warning lights.
Somewhat less than satisfied we went over to stand on the massive counterweight and look at the night sky twinkling with the glaring lights of the flats.
We’re standing there on the counterweight and suddenly there are brilliant flashing lights, sirens wailing, and a very loud bell ringing.
The counterweight screeched and rumbled and slowly started to move.
Though it had a railing we thought we were about to fall off. The counterweight is going down pretty quickly and the bridge is coming up. There is an ocean freighter approaching the bridge. As we are shuddering down we can see the bridge and tracks coming up and it flies past us in a few seconds a couple of feet away. It is an enormous iron and steel structure, like a small building going by.
Having a wild rush, “Way cool!” I thought through my scrambled brain.
The counterweight is going down, the bridge is going up and we are now wondering when the counterweight is going to stop.
We are watching the water getting closer and closer and start to panic.
The counterweight is not stopping, and we are looking at the nasty smelly river coming up and wondering if WE are going to go under the water. Since we couldn’t get off the counterweight I thought we're all going to drown in toxic pollution and probably dissolve into red goo…
It is rumbling down and there is nowhere to go, nowhere to jump except into the river. We had no idea where it was going to stop.
We were freaking out, screaming and crying and yelling at God and thinking we were gonna die as we heard a splash as the bottom hit the water.
The counterweight was the size of a truck. We were sure we were going under, drowning in the polluted Cuyahoga river. Probably get pulled into the propellers as the boat passed by, too.
And then it groaned and shook and suddenly stopped. About 5 feet away from the river. And we couldn’t get off until the counterweight had risen all the way back up to the top of the bridge after the boat had passed.
Totally filthy, still tripping and soaked from booze sweat we had to go backwards down the series of ladders from 500 feet up. They did have circular guards around them, but that did not inspire confidence. All greasy, we climbed into my bus, and swore we’d never do that again. Until next year. For graduation. With tools.