Mystic drawbridge tender retiring after 33 years
Mystic — When Rod Coleman was in elementary school and his family was getting ready to move from Navy housing in Groton to California, his parents' car pulled up to the Mystic River bascule bridge.
That's when he saw it go up for the first time. He remembers asking his mother, "What is that?"
She told him it was the drawbridge.
"I'm going to get that job someday," Coleman told his mother.
"And then I forgot about it," he recalled.
With his father serving in the Navy, Coleman and his family moved around the country. Among the stops were Connecticut, Rhode Island, Michigan, California, Florida and South Carolina. That's where as a 17-year-old he had a cross burned in his yard in 1976 when his brother was trying to become the first person of color elected to the student council at their high school in Charleston. He recalls his father frequently getting pulled over by police who would ask, "Boy, whose car is this?" about his 1962 Chevy.
Coleman later moved back to Mystic and after working a succession of jobs, he learned the state Department of Transportation was hiring in Groton from a DOT employee who was looking at his Christmas decorations.
That's when Coleman began a 33-year career as one of the operators of the drawbridge he first saw as a child. Along the way the gregarious Coleman has become the face of the bridge for both boaters and residents alike.
On Wednesday, the 63-year-old Groton resident will raise and lower the bridge for the final time as he begins his retirement.
"It's been fun, man. It's been a blessing," Coleman said last Thursday afternoon in the small room where the controls are located to operate the bridge and communicate with boaters. "God says there's a season for everything. It's the season for me to leave."
Coleman's retirement comes as the drawbridge celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. On Thursday, he will be honored by the Mystic Chamber of Commerce at 1 p.m. at the former Mystical Toys building, 4 E. Main St., next to the drawbridge.
Coleman who raised his now 22-year-old niece from the time she was 3 years old, said the time is perfect to retire.
In addition to changes in the state employee pension system as of July 1, Coleman's brother has been diagnosed with cancer and Coleman is caring for him.
"I told him we will fight the whole way together on this," he said.
"I met a lot of great people here and had a lot of fun but it's a sign from the Lord that it's time to go," he added.
One of the big attractions of the job, Coleman said, was that he got to mostly work by himself.
"You're your own boss and you have to be accountable," he said. "You get to look at nice boats all day and watch the people go by. It's a job like no other," he said from his perch above the Mystic River.
Coleman had high praise for the DOT maintenance workers who keep the century-old span working.
"They do a lot and deserve a lot of credit. They make me look good," he said. "It's so much more than a job for all of us."
He added the bridge is in good hands with younger employees taking over.
Coleman also talked about the many residents, business owners, police officers and firefighters he's become friends with over the past 33 years, many of whom bring him coffee, doughnuts and cookies or stop by to visit.
After watching boats, cars and pedestrians pass by for more than three decades, Coleman has his share of stories to tell.
Asked about some of the sights he's seen aboard the boats that pass just a few feet away, Coleman said some of them could not be printed.
He's opened the bridge for the boats of celebrities, including Walter Cronkite, Phil Donahue, Sherman Hensley, Clint Eastwood and Justin Timberlake.
Then there was the time he spotted a man entering the S & P Oyster House across the bridge when it was closed. He called police and the man was arrested.
One of his fondest memories was meeting President Jimmy Carter as the Saturday night crowd at the former John's Cafe looked on. Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, were staying at the Whaler's Inn across the bridge after the commissioning of the USS Jimmy Carter submarine in 2005 at Electric Boat.
He also had a recent close call this past April, when he had to tell a fellow tender to run when the Mayflower II struck the side of the tender's house, ripping off some siding and making it shake.
So, what's next for Coleman?
"People ask me if I'm going to Florida," he said. "Not me. I'm staying right here."
He has no immediate plans except to care for his brother and finish two children's books he is writing about the drawbridge. He joked that he has told the bridge tenders that he might just come and sit in the park and critique their operation of the bridge.
Then he recalled that first time he saw the drawbridge.
"I'll let the Lord guide me like he guided me back here," he said.