San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge was so loved when it opened in 1937 that a lot of people scribbled their names and addresses on its towers. A friend bet 14-year old Bill Hughes a quarter that Bill couldn’t write a letter to a name and address chosen at random and get a reply. The friend closed his eyes and put his finger on a name: Patricia Lucas. Bill wrote the letter.
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Decades later, Patricia Lucas rolled her eyes, assuming the attitude of the 12-year-old she was when she received Bill’s note. “Well, I thought: ‘Pen pal? Booooring!’ ”
Her grandmother, the romantic in the family, urged her to write back. Eventually Patricia did, “because Bill really wanted that quarter!”
A lot of people gambled on the Golden Gate, a bridge that critics said could not be built. Divers had to anchor it in raging whirlpools: Powerful riptides push more water past the bridge than roars over Niagara Falls. Workers had to stack towers taller than four Statues of Liberty in that tempest, so ships could pass underneath. Men dangled on girders 746 feet above the water, sometimes moving in fog so thick they couldn’t see their feet.
No one had ever done anything like this before.
Slideshow: Images: 75 years of the Golden Gate Bridge (on this page)
Captains No. 8 and 9
“They didn’t have calculators, let alone computers,” bridge captain Lisa Locati told me. “They did everything with a slide rule and notes — handwritten notes, longhand.” Yet the Golden Gate Bridge was completed in just four years — on time and on budget. And now it is celebrating its 75th anniversary year.
At the start of the Great Depression, families who lived around San Francisco mortgaged their homes to get a private loan for what would be one of the largest public works projects ever built. It linked the poverty they knew with the world of hope.Story: Pioneer spirit keeps this town from giving up the ghost
“People risked their homes, their properties, their ranches because money from the state and federal government was going elsewhere,” Lisa said. They bet big on the jobs the bridge would bring.
Lisa Locati grew up four miles from the Golden Gate. She went to college on the money she earned moving lane markers on it; today she is the first woman to be in charge of its security. The bridge has had only nine captains.
“I was number eight,” Mike Locati said with a smile. “And I'm married to number nine.”
Mike watched Lisa playing with their grandkids in Golden Gate Park, then turned to snap a photo of the place they first met. The couple fell in love working on the bridge. When Mike retired a few years ago, his grandkids started calling it “Grandma’s bridge.”
Lisa laughed. “It’s Pop-Pop’s bridge, too, if they remember.”
To the grandkids, the Golden Gate is a place right out of their storybooks, a place where candy might magically appear. With a grin, former toll taker Peter Klein recalled: “When the cars rolled in, sometimes kids were fighting. We toll takers would tell the parents: ‘Mom and dad, we’ve got candy for the kids!’
“The kids would stop fighting immediately. And I would say: ‘This moment of silence is brought to you by the Golden Gate Bridge Transportation Authority. Don't leave home without us!’ ”
48 years of love notes
“It was a fun ride,” Patricia Lucas said with a sigh. “We had a great time.”
Six years after Bill Hughes’ friend picked her name on the Golden Gate Bridge, she finally met her childhood pen pal. “We met in Pershing Park, down in Los Angeles,” she said. “He came on a 24-hour pass.”
World War II was on, and Bill was training to be a bomber pilot. Patricia was the only person he knew who lived near his base. “Was it love at first sight?” I asked.
Patricia winked. “I think I was a little disappointed that he wasn’t beefier.”Story: Poling on the river: He’s the last of the ferrymen
But Bill started sending love notes. He did that for 48 years — all their married lives, until the day he died.
"Months after he passed, I found notes here and there, in a book or in a cup up in my cupboard,” Patricia confided. “They’d say, ‘I love you.’ ”
Her eyes grew moist. “Yeah, I miss him. A lot.”
Their love story is forever linked with the Golden Gate Bridge. “It's just a bridge,” Patricia said with a wave of her hand. “But it’s our bridge.”
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