The Bridge

For years my husband has endured my screaming, “Don’t look!  Don’t look!” whenever we ride over a bridge of any size.   In my defense I’d like to point out that he loves looking at boats and his eyes are apt to wander in search of  floating vessels of any size.   A friend recently asked, “What do you want him to do. . . close his eyes?” No, I want him looking straight ahead so I can close my eyes.

Bridges scare me.   I’d prefer not to have one in my mouth and I’d rather not ride over one.   People who say they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it may have to leave me behind because  I’m going to look for an alternate route first.   Feeling like I do about them, I should have just deleted the e-mail with the  link to “nine amazingly unique bridges.” I looked.  Sure enough, my heart began to race and my stomach lurched not unlike the time I rode the ferris wheel right after eating a turkey hotdog.  (Two mistakes there–the ride and the turkey hotdog.)

That President-Elect Obama wants to launch a public works project which would include repair or replacement of crumbling bridges thrills me.  I’ll still avoid them, but I’d like to know that heartier folk can count on a bridge not collapsing with them on it.    He can begin with the Herbert C. Bonner bridge on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  I remember when it was built and it was scary when it was new.  Now it is  a disaster waiting to happen and I’m not that old.   On a stability rating of 0-100, with 100 being the best, this bridge is a 4.  Yes, that is indeed f-o-u-r.   I have heard that truckers unbuckle their seatbelts and lower their windows when they drive across…just in case.

We had already moved from Minneapolis by the time the bridge in that city collapsed– the bridge that Dearly Beloved took to and from work every day for months.   That one didn’t look any more dangerous than any of the others in that area and there are plenty of them.  It’s the land of 10,000 lakes. . . and a whole bunch of rivers and bridges.

The bridge that frightened me most though was one I crossed years ago–an old truss bridge on on a North Carolina state highway over the Yadkin River.  The eastbound bridge was newer and much wider, but the narrow old span in the other direction  had been built decades before and the rust was visible.  Trips over it were made more frightning with the hollow, rasping noises the bridge emitted as vehicles drove over its seams.  Trucks caused the scariest noises;  I didn’t like being behind them.

The last time I remember driving on that bridge,  I had taken our youngest daughter back to college in the eastern part of the state.  The trip there had been pleasant and uneventful until an icy drizzle began and cars started to slide.   We unloaded Pogo’s things quickly and I called Dearly Beloved to check on the weather at home.  I told him I was going to try and drive back  before the ground froze.

You’ll have to cross the bridge,”  he told me.  He knew of my terror.  I didn’t have to ask which bridge.

By the time I made it back to the highway,  cars were spinning like bumper cars and one car had completely overturned,  no driver in sight,  but its tires were still mysteriously turning in the air.   I watched the gauge on my dashboard flash as the temperature fell:   31. . . 30. . . 29.   I was still miles from the bridge and hours from home.  Traffic grew lighter and the daylight grew dimmer.   Fog settled in thickly, making visibility miserable.

The highway divided into four lanes on a small rise just before that bridge came into view.   It was there that I pulled off the road to steel my nerves and watch the foggy greyness in my rearview mirror until there were no headlights behind me, no anxious drivers to become impatient at my creeping pace.

Please, God, get me across that bridge.

I pulled back onto the empty road.  Over the crest,  the outline of the metal structure revealed itself in the milky fog.  The highway was empty except for an old truck parked  off the road just before the bridge.  To my horror, the driver turned on his headlights and slowly pulled out in front of me as I approached.   At least someone will see me if I go off the side, I told myself.

The old truck began dribbling slag onto the icy metal of the bridge floor and  I realized, amazed, that it had been waiting for me.   I turned on my emergency flashers and fell in behind it.  Almost simultaneously, there was a flood of  illumination, lighting the area around me as though some switch in the sky had sudden switched on.

Confused, I looked in my rearview mirror for the source and saw that not one but two highway patrol cars now followed me.  Their blue lights strobed silently  and we crossed the bridge,  four brightly lit vehicles in a slow, silent, funereal procession.   Once it reached the far side of the bridge, the slag truck pulled onto the shoulder of the highway and an arm waved me past.  I turned off my  flashers when I felt my wheels hit solid pavement and the night became instantly, eerily black around me except for the headlights of my own car.   The flashing strobes and the headlights of the patrol cars had disappeared.  I looked into my rearview mirror.  Nothing.  Darkness had swallowed the empty road.

I have not told that story in years, but I still remember how I  felt as I continued my trip that evening,  that bridge procession  playing over and over in my mind.

On the rest of the ride in the icy darkness, a still calm made the road less lonely and somehow, although still miles away, I felt I was seeing the lights of home.

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