Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Bridges in the Past

I'm in the memoir mood. When I turned sixteen,  I learned to drive and became the only driver in the family.  My mother bought a car for me with the understanding that I was obligated to be the chauffeur for both grandmothers and her.

So one spring day, I drove both my grandmothers to visit my maternal grandmother's aunt.  My great aunt Margaret was the same age as my maternal grandmother.  The two had grown up together and been close companions.. My aunt( we never bothered with great) lived in a rural area in Caldwell County. In those days the roads were unpaved but coated with a gravel and clay mixture.  The less used stretches were covered with grass and weeds.  My aunt lived on one of those dusty tracks.

Once together, the three women (all in their seventies) decided they wanted to visit one of the local cemeteries. I, of course, as the chauffeur, had no say in the matter. My Aunt Margaret gave directions and soon I drove down a grassy road that showed very little sign of use. Aunt Margaret was unperturbed when I suggested that a paved county road might be a better choice.

"This is a short cut. Just the locals know about it, " she said.

"Keep going," chimed in the grandmothers.

I drove about five miles when a bridge over a creek loomed ahead. I stopped. This bridge looked on its last legs with a badly rusted superstructure and a wooden road bed. That road bed was no longer completely covered. Planks made two parallel strips about two feet wide each that stretched across four by four cross beams. The bridge did not look safe and I told my passengers that  There was a least a thirty foot drop to the creek bed below. The three matriarchs were unperturbed and ordered me to drive on. I considered disobeying, but I was young, my grandmothers and aunt adamant and totally sure of the safety of the bridge, I drove on.

The minute my front wheels rolled onto the bridge, it shuddered. If I had been a passenger, I would have closed my eyes.  I was the driver; I had to look. The bridge actually swayed as I inched forward. My heart pounded and I concentrated on tracking the two rows of planks which now seemed very narrow.. Some of the planks tipped upward when the car moved forward.  The weathered boards were not nailed down.  From the back seat, both grandmothers urged me to go faster.  I did speed up, but only by a couple of miles per hour. Creaks, metal groans and wooden thuds accompanied our movement forward.  After what seemed like an hour, but in reality was only a few minutes, I drove onto the grass on the other side of the creek, grass that looked undisturbed by any vehicle.

Relieved, I glanced in the rear view mirror. There was a sign. I stopped the car and looked back.

In bright red, block letters was the word "CONDEMNED." My stomach jumped. I pointed to the sign and told my passengers, "We could have been killed."

"Well, nothing happened," said my paternal grandmother..

"If you're so nervous, we can go back the long way," said my aunt.

The matter settled we proceeded to the cemetery, then back to my great aunt's home the "long way."

I have never felt the same about bridges after that excursion.  I always look back for the condemned sign.

Photo by accent on the eclectic.  Bridge in photo is not the one I drove across.

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