San Francisco — Eddie Souza suddenly felt dizzy but wasn't sure why. Inside the Marin Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge where the square-jawed 23-year-old worked, it was black as a coal mine. Today he was wedged in a corner of this 20,000-ton steel honeycomb, tightening bolts with his spud wrench, but for some reason his stomach kept screaming, ''Eddie, we're on a trawler crossing the North Sea!''
Souza hoisted himself to daylight to see what was going on. Up on the tower's saddle, 74 stories above the Pacific, not a whisper of wind was coming through the Gate. But why were all the ironworkers hanging on for dear life? Why did the tower appear to be swaying like a birch tree? Souza, a man who rarely made hasty judgments, jerry-rigged a five-gallon bucket of bolts on a rope inside the tower. When the makeshift pendulum started banging against the walls, confirming Souza's hunch, his bolting crew went down the safety ladders like firemen on their way to a five-alarm.
''The boys on the ground said an earthquake had hit the bridge and the tower was swinging 30 feet in each direction,'' recalled Souza, now solidly planted on his orange shag living-room rug in Sausalito. ''We were risking our lives for a dollar an hour,'' said the Portuguese whaler's son. ''Back then I was an orphan and lived at the fire station with my uncle. I knew the head rigger on the bridge and got hired. That was the depression, and lots of unemployed men out of work were hanging on the fence by the bridge waiting for one of us to get fired or get hurt. When I saw that first paycheck I thought I was a millionaire.''
Eddie Souza is one of the few dozen men still around who helped erect that elegant stretch of steel, the Golden Gate Bridge. A half century ago, that pretty piece of engineering - sneered at today by many an impatient commuter as the troublesome turnstile that sells $2 admission tickets to San Francisco - was still a dream, an architectural impossibility.
Even on Feb. 26, 1933, after San Francisco Mayor Angelo Rossi's golden spade broke the ground for construction, even after Herbert Hoover's congratulatory telegram, even after the Marine Corps honor guard had paraded and the sky-writing barnstormers had sketched smoke suspension bridges in the sky-blue yonder, even after all that, San Francisco was full of doubting Thomases.
In the '30s, pop-up toasters were the modern inventions of the day, and many thought it foolhardy to attempt a mile-and-a-quarter bridge across a leg of the Pacific Ocean. The Golden Gate channel is the funnel for California's biggest rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin. Forty percent of the state's acreage drains into San Francisco Bay and out to the ocean. The straits are a chaos of eddies and boils, with an average flow that is seven times the Mississippi's and alternating tidal currents of 7 1/2 knots. It is frequently shrouded in impenetrable fog and buffeted by gusts of wind up to 70 miles per hour.
The dreamers and schemers proposed to span the Golden Gate, a few miles from the San Andreas Fault, with the longest and tallest suspension bridge ever constructed. No higher structure would stand between the Pacific and Atlantic, save the Empire State Building. Shipped piece by piece from Pennsylvania's Bethlehem Steel Works through the Panama Canal, each of the bridge's steel towers would weigh as much as a battleship. The suspension system, 80,000 miles of cable, would be sufficient to circle the equator three times. The concrete poured in the bridge's piers and anchorages could have paved a five-foot-wide sidewalk from San Francisco to New York.
As if that weren't enough, the Golden Gate Bridge was going to be the only major US public project ever completed without federal dollars. At the height of the depression, destitute taxpayers in the Bay Area were asked to underwrite private construction bonds to the tune of $35 million. Today, it costs that much just to build and equip a 747 jetliner. But in the '30s, with bread lines around the block, those were big bucks, and raising the money took old-fashioned arm-twisting and jaw-boning. Joseph Baermann Strauss, chief engineer on the bridge, used to say: ''It took two decades and 200 million words to convince people the bridge was feasible.''
Strauss was a small man with mountainous conviction, and an even larger ego. He grew up in the shadow of the ''Biggest Bridge in the World,'' the Cincinnati-Covington which crossed the Ohio River. Strauss matriculated from the University of Cincinnati, where he designed as his graduation thesis a 50-mile bridge over the Bering Straits to link Asia and North America.
He stood barely five feet tall and refused to be photographed in the company of larger men. He was a Midwestern Napoleon who mumbled in engineering jargon and scribbled romantic poetry in his drafting notebooks. In addition to designing the counterweighted bascule lift (crucial to most modern drawbridges), the eclectically inventive Strauss dreamed up a tubeless tire, a railroad freight car made of concrete, an antiaircraft gun, and a glass-washing machine for soda fountains.
By the time he was commissioned to work on the Golden Gate, Strauss had already designed and built 400 bridges around the world from Egypt to China. Among his credits is the Republican Bridge over the Neva River at Leningrad, erected so the Russian czar could reach the Winter Palace.
The building of Strauss' Golden Gate Bridge took four years, four months, and 11 lives. On May 27, 1937, the bridge finally opened, and 200,000 pedestrians crossed it that first day. A sprinter from the City College of San Francisco was the first to jog the bridge. Two sisters roller-skated across, one woman wobbled from San Francisco to Marin on stilts, and still another is remembered as ''the first person to walk the distance with her tongue sticking out.'' To Strauss' chagrin the ''other bridge,'' the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, was completed six months ahead of the Golden Gate. All he did was huff: ''Bridge, hah! That's no bridge - that's a trestle.''
When the net broke, I was right there at midspan. There was a gap in the roadway where they hadn't poured the concrete yet and I saw a man hanging by his fingers from one of the steel girders. There was nothing between him and the ocean but a 200-foot fall. Me and a couple other boys threw down a loop of rope and pulled him up. He'd been down there for who knows how long but when he came up that Irishman still had his pipe in his mouth. He said nothing. Not even thank you. He just started walking toward San Francisco. We never saw him again.m
That's the way Fred Brusati tells it. On Feb. 17, 1935, he was a bridge electrician running wire down the redwood catwalk when more than 2,100 feet of safety net broke loose from midspan to the south tower. ''Twelve men went down with the net and two were saved,'' Brusati recalled. ''The net broke their fall and the Coast Guard fished them out of the water as the tide swept them out to sea.''
The retired bridgeman now lives a few minutes north of the Golden Gate in San Rafael, where he had been raised by his Italian immigrant father. At the turn of the century, the elder Brusati had left Milan to work in the copper mines of Montana, and eventually moved to California to run a horse team. His son, Fred, went to work on the bridge at age 22, laying telephone and electric lines for the men spinning the cables. Brusati still marvels: ''They had to set the tension in the cables in the dark, at 3 a.m. in the morning, because the cables expanded with the heat of the sun. The cables were lower on the Bay side in the morning and on the ocean side in the afternoon. In the morning sun, even the towers leaned toward the Bay.''
After the ironworkers, the electricians who wired the bridge with airplane beacons were the first to the top of the towers. ''We used to look down,'' said Brusati, ''and see boats and sea gulls sailing between our legs.''
The needlepoint-faced clock on the Souzas' paneled living room wall read 3:30 . Louise, in her floral smock, had sat in the corner for an hour listening to her husband's stories. Finally, she decided it was high time to pipe up. ''I got up at 4 a.m. to walk across the bridge the day it opened,'' she shouted over Bing Crosby's warbling on the kitchen radio. ''Two hundred thousand of us, the newspapers said. For some reason Eddie didn't walk it. He celebrated with his buddies.''
''The city really celebrated back then,'' she added. ''Fiesta parties, drum and bugle corps, dancing in the streets. When the 49ers won the Super Bowl last year, the celebration in San Francisco lasted a day. I'm telling you, this went on for weeks. Now it's considered an honor to have worked on the bridge. Back then it was just a job. Right, Eddie?''