ANNAPOLIS – Harold Chaney sits in his worn, white armchair with his foot cocked up against the window, watching the cars roll by on Kent Narrows Bridge.
He turns his weathered face back and forth with the movement of traffic.
Chaney’s jeans are rolled up at the ankles, and his shoes are lying in a heap nearby. The 70-year-old man removes his glasses, cleans them, returns them to his face and turns again to the viewing at hand. A CB radio blares at the desk to his right, filling the silence with the random noise of boaters’ conversation.
It may not look it, but Chaney is hard at work. Watching, waiting and listening are his jobs.
Alertness and observance are his skills.
Chaney is a bridge tender. He controls the Kent Narrows drawbridge that separates Kent Island from the rest of the Eastern Shore. He’s worked on the bridge for 12 years and is proud of that.
“Maybe some people think the job ain’t important, but you’ve got a lot of responsibility,” he said.
“You can tear the bridge up; you can kill somebody. I wanted to be able to do a good job for them on this bridge.”
No boat has run into the bridge under Chaney’s watch, and no bridge- related accidents have occurred.
“You don’t have to be too smart to run these bridges, but you have to be careful,” he said. “They haven’t had any trouble with this bridge since I’ve been here. Sometimes the boaters get pretty careless, but with this bridge, people seem to have a lot of boat sense.”
The bridge is opened 3,781 times each year, according to the State Highway Administration. From Nov. 1 to April 30, the tender opens the bridge on request from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. During the busier season from May 1 to Oct. 31, the tender opens the bridge every half-hour from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
To open and shut the drawbridge, Chaney manipulates a combination of knobs, levers and buttons in a maneuver that looks incredibly complicated, but Chaney claims it’s not difficult.
“It’s a fairly easy job for an old man,” Chaney said. “You can get a feel for it. It’s the same as a car.”
“Mr. Chaney does an excellent job,” said Greg Holsey, resident maintenance engineer with SHA and overseer of the tender’s work. “He operates the bridge trouble-free. He’s one of the most experienced bridge operators in the state.”
Becoming a tender was never his plan for life, though. A year of bad luck and disappointments brought him to Maryland and to his bridge.
Chaney was a dairy farmer in Wisconsin until he was 55 years old. He and his wife finally acquired their dream when he was 48: 150 dairy cows and a prime piece of Wisconsin farmland.
Seven years later, Chaney got stuck in a piece of farm equipment. It tore his leg off four inches above his knee. After much physical therapy and several operations, doctors reattached his leg and restored its use, but Chaney was unable to farm.
Then, Chaney experienced another tragedy. His wife died of cancer that same year.
“That was a tough year,” he said. “My wife had died, I was in a wheelchair and I had to sell all of my cows.”
His daughter and two sons offered him homes with them in Ohio, Virginia and Michigan, but he said he was not ready to relinquish his independence.
After moving to a house his sister owned in Glen Burnie, Chaney got a job as a bridge tender. A few bridges later, he found Kent Narrows, a drawbridge he said he has grown quite attached to.
“I’m tickled to death to have this job, to tell you the truth,” he said. “It’s a lot like running a dairy farm. Boy, I miss those cows, though, and I know their big, brown eyes miss me.”
Now, the drawbridge tender spends all of his 12- to 15-hour shifts within a few feet of the control panel.
The bridge house is set up as a home away from home. The tiny room contains a television, a refrigerator, a microwave and a water cooler. An American flag hangs over the window above the control panel.
One other tender works the bridge with him, and he said he hopes to have a few more by the summer season, the bridge’s busiest.
Of his current co-tender, Chaney said she’s “got the touch. She can pick the bridge up quicker than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Sue Lindner, 46, returned his compliment. The Kent Island resident has worked as a tender under Chaney’s supervision for two years, five days a week from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“I love it here,” she said. “I would love to continue doing it. It’s just a peaceful job. Mr. Chaney is a sweetheart and a good boss.”
It is evident Chaney doesn’t plan to give up his bridge to another tender anytime soon. It’s a contract job, and he’s closed mouthed about what it’s worth.
“If you find a job you like, you oughta stay with it,” he said. “You don’t have to make a lot of money.” “It’s a good bridge.”