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Rivets and Rivers
In the winter of 1908, my grandfather fell off the Manhattan Bridge.
He had come to New York just a few months before, from western Pennsylvania by way of Buffalo. In those days, a man of his trade went where the work was, and in the first decade of the last century, that meant going to New York City. Grandpa was twenty-six at the time, married with a two-year-old son and a three-month-old daughter. The baby was named Gladys. The toddler was Karl Koch II. He was my father.
Grandpa was an ironworker, a bridgeman. He was the man wielding the sledgehammer on the rivet gang, each of his blows pushing New York City and America just a tiny bit further into the new century. When I was young, I would run across old-timers who told me my grandfather's strength was legendary. It was said that there was not a union ironworker in New York who could put a beater to a rivet like my grandpa.
On this particular day in the winter of 1908, he was banging rivets on the Manhattan Bridge, the third and last of the great suspension bridges built around that time to link Manhattan and Brooklyn, which had been separate cities until a decade before. This span would connect Canal Street on one side and Flatbush Avenue on the other, and after seven years of construction, the bridge was almost finished. It was about eleven o'clock in the morning when Grandpa lost his footing, or his balance, or his grip, while working on one of the bridge towers. This detail escaped my grandmother's reporting when she wrote about the mishap in the seventy-chapter (a page or two per chapter) personal history she typed up in 1964, when she was eighty, and left behind for posterity.
According to Grandma, the East River was nearly frozen that day, and when Grandpa slipped off the bridge he went right through the ice. Fortunately for him (and for the eight more children he was to father), he was close enough to shore that his brother ironworkers were able to fish him from the river and drag him to the Manhattan side. Unconscious, he was rushed to the nearest hospital, which happened to be a private one not meant for a lowly ironworker, even a hypothermic one. Turned away, the ambulance driver tried the next-nearest hospital. Another private hospital, another refusal. Taking no more chances, he took Grandpa to the oldest public hospital in America, Bellevue, which hadn't turned anyone away since it opened in 1736.
Grandma didn't hear about any of this until six hours after Grandpa hit the water, when two policemen came to their apartment in the Bronx. Grandma grabbed her neighbor, Mrs. Kopsky, and they hired a taxicab-something an ironworker's wife would do only in an emergency-and headed downtown to Bellevue, where they found Grandpa, still wearing his wet clothes. "Get me outta here," he said when he saw Grandma. He explained that when he got to the hospital, a nurse told him to undress. "I told her, 'If I was able to undress, I wouldn't be here.' " The nurse told him she couldn't handle a big man like him and that he would have to wait for the orderly, who was out for dinner. Grandma, Mrs. Kopsky, and the orderly eventually managed to get Grandpa into a wheelchair, onto the elevator, and into the taxi, which took him home to the Bronx. Grandma kept him covered in hot water bottles for two days, and by the end of the week, he was back banging rivets on the Manhattan Bridge.
Karl William Koch was born in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, in the late spring of 1882-"Class of eighty-two," he liked to say-three years after his parents emigrated from Baden-WÃ?rttemberg, Germany. His father and my great grandfather, Charles Koch, settled the family in a burgeoning community of German immigrants who might have been reminded of their homeland when they looked out at the mountains beyond the Susquehanna River. Charles was one of fifteen or so Koches who had come to Williamsport from Germany since the beginning of the century. The trailblazer was August Koch, a successful builder who arrived in 1807 and later became one of Williamsport's most prominent citizens. He was one of the few successful men in the booming city who didn't make his fortune in the lumber industry. He and his brother operated a brewery. There was a lot of drinking to good times in Williamsport, which produced more lumber-350 million board feet a day at its peak-than any place in the world. Millionaires were coming out of the woodwork.
Charles Koch arrived with little but his willingness to reinvent himself in a land full of promise. He started as a laborer in a sawmill. He ended there, too. At half-past eleven on the morning of May 2, 1884, a fire broke out at Valentine Luppert's Saw Mill, next to the Luppert & Kline furniture factory on the south side of town. "The fire started in some wood rubbish between the mill and the river," reported the evening edition of the Sun-Gazette. "How the fire got there is a mystery to some; to others it is not, as it is quite probable that a spark from one of the smoke stacks or a locomotive lodged there and was fanned into a flame by the high wind prevailing. In a few minutes the fire had rushed up to the mill-there being so much inflammable material for it to work upon-and soon that structure was one sheet of flame from front to rear, its destruction being complete. At this writing, it may be said that the rolling mill and furniture factory are not out of danger, as a very large lot of lumber between the saw mill and furniture factory is on fire, and the wind furious." There were two casualties so far, the newspaper said. One employee was burned on his hands and face. The other got his belt caught while he was trying to flee and was cut badly by a flying piece of shattered blade. He was Charles Koch. His youngest child, Karl, was two years old when he died.
When he was a teenager, Grandpa hopped a freighter and got off just outside Pittsburgh, where there was a living wage to be found in ironwork, which had become the modern means of erecting buildings and bridges. It was suitable work for Grandpa, who had a strong pair of hands, an old-world work ethic, and a sense of adventure and fearlessness that were among the job requirements in a trade which often forced men to go both farther and higher than they had ever been.
In the winter of 1903, Grandpa and a cousin of his traveled three hundred miles by train to Rochester, New York, to see Buffalo Bill Cody appear at the Pan American Ball. One night during their visit, they went to a masquerade ball. Grandpa declined to wear a costume but his cousin went as Martha Washington. Grandpa, who was twenty-one, was smitten by the First Prize winner, a girl of nineteen dressed as an Indian princess. Her name was Julia Charitus Weigand-everyone called her Cora-and it turned out that she had noticed him as well. In fact she had asked the hostess, Ella Curtis, who the stranger was and whether they could be introduced. But Ella told her to forget it. "He's engaged to Martha Washington," she told Cora, who did forget about it. She was a pretty girl not wanting for suitors and danced the night away with anyone who asked. But as the evening was winding down, Grandpa decided to introduce himself and ask for a dance.
"I wanted to come over all evening but I didn't have the nerve," he confessed as they were dancing. "I was afraid I was going to get a Virginia Throwdown."
"Or maybe your fiancé Martha wouldn't let you."
"You have it all wrong," Grandpa said. "Martha, as you call her, is my cousin."
"So what's a Virginia Throwdown?" Grandma asked.
"In the play at the Star Theater, a fellow asks a girl to dance and when she refuses, he goes out and shoots himself. They call it a Virginia Throwdown. Could I take you to see it?"
"You already saw the show," Cora said coolly. "Why should you see it again? Besides, for a quarter I can go with the girls on Saturday afternoon and sit in the top balcony and shoot beans at the villain."
Grandpa decided to extend his visit to Rochester. He showed up at Cora's door nearly every night with candy or flowers. She enjoyed the attention, though it wasn't entirely unfamiliar to her. "Most single men I met in those days acted a little silly," she wrote, "as did some married ones." One night she took Grandpa to the dance hall where she taught two nights a week with a partner, a big, blonde Irishman named Eddie, who considered her his girl. "As soon as we entered the hall and I saw Eddie, I knew I had made a mistake," she recalled. "In those days, there was at least one fight at every dance. I persuaded Eddie to let us alone and told him my friendship with Karl wasn't serious."
She meant it. Cora had it in her mind that she shouldn't get married until she was at least twenty-five. But Grandpa was neither a patient man nor a passive one. He told her he had no interest in waiting six years and was going straight to her father to state his intentions. Cora tried to stop him, to no avail. She hid behind the drapes and heard her father tell him: "You don't want her. One fellow came with a gun in order to shoot them both, and I had to talk him out of it. Another was going to end it all and I talked him out of it." Cora stuffed the drapes in her mouth to keep from bursting out in laughter at her father's ridiculous tales. He tried another tack: "You're German. Germans usually want to be the boss. Cora has bossed us ever since she was three. She won't take much from you." To which Grandpa responded: "I'm not afraid of her. We're going to be married."
And they were, on July 2, 1904, though barely. When the minister got to the part about taking this man till death do you part, Cora panicked and bolted. Karl chased her outside and coaxed her back to the altar, an ironic beginning since it was Grandma whose powers of persuasion we would all get to know.
Grandma-"Mrs. K," as Grandpa took to calling her-arranged for them to spend their honeymoon at her Aunt Kate's lakefront house near Rochester. They had a room downstairs, and Grandma recalled that Grandpa, ever the alert one, crawled under the bed and dislodged a bell that had been wired to the spring. I'm not sure who the warning system was meant to catch, or how Grandpa knew to look for it. All I know is that their first child was born the following year. Grandma described him as "a handsome, intelligent-looking child weighing twelve pounds." He was Karl W. Koch II, my father. No sooner was he born than he caused his very first family fight: a battle royale over what religion he would be raised in. Grandpa was Lutheran. Grandma was Catholic-devoutly so. After arguing about it for days, Grandpa knew Grandma wouldn't budge and threw in the towel.
He didn't go much for religion or spirituality, anyway; he had much more earthbound concerns. Like supporting his new family. Though living in his mother-in-law's house in Rochester, he got a job at a construction site seventy-five miles away, in Buffalo, where his uncle George was the superintendent. It meant living on the road during the week, but Grandpa didn't think twice about it. He was an extremely industrious worker, a working man to the core. He was no less demanding of the people he worked with. As a supervisor, he was, in the opinion of his wife, "more or less a slave driver." He allowed workers a lunch break only begrudgingly. His advice: "Eat a big breakfast."
Grandpa was riveting one day when he told a man to go back to the anchorage and bring him back a keg of bolts. The man couldn't believe Grandpa wanted him to carry an entire keg of bolts. "Throw it on your shoulder and bring it out to the heater," Grandpa told him. The man said, "I'm gonna bust the keg open and bring you out a bucketful." Grandpa told him to get the keg. The man told Grandpa to go to hell. Grandpa began taking his coat off to fight him when Uncle George came along and asked, "Karl, vas ees dees?"
"He told me to go to hell," Grandpa said.
"Vell, put your coat back on," replied Uncle George. "You don't have to go, do you?"
From the Hardcover edition.