I recently was assigned the task of making a presentation to a community group with a general topic of the Great Miami River and Sidney, Ohio.
As I thought about the topic and ways in which to approach it, I kept coming back to the idea of bridges. We know there are diverse bridges, and they are designed to connect us and span obstacles that deter those connections from being made.
Recently, I’ve done a lot of thinking about Lincoln’s second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, in which he said, “With malice toward none … let us strive … to bind up the nation’s wounds … .” A little over a month later on April 15, 1865, he was dead from an assassin’s bullet.
Rest assured, this is not going to be a political column even though all of us know we certainly have a presidential war going on that is one of the most vicious this nation has ever experienced.
Back to bridges. In the little town in southeastern Kentucky in which I spent part of my childhood from second grade until the end of my freshman year of high school, I noticed a few weeks ago that a new bridge is being built, years after the property adjoining the location was torn down.
I think of that bridge fondly as my family walked over it several times a week on our way to and from meetings at the Central Baptist Church. On some hot summer days, my grandmother would give us children a few coins to run to the bridge and buy ice cream cones for the family at Dobos’s, a small store at the bridge. The clerk put waxed paper over the cones to deter flies, and we hurried home with the delicious melting ice cream dripping down our arms.
One morning on the way to school, I was crossing the railroad bridge which was X number of yards from that bridge and as I looked across I saw a classmate who had fallen off the bridge and was holding on to the rebar to keep from being swept away by the flood water of Looney Creek. She was rescued as I stood there enthralled.
I think a part of me wanted to be the main character in that drama as I was always tempting fate, doing dangerous things. For example, I walking along the exterior edge of a railroad bridge in that town as if I were walking a tightrope with an audience cheering me on. Alas, my older sister, Marilyn, frequently cautioned me saying, “Stop it. I’m going to tell Mother on you.”
My grandmother had a coal tipple that ran across her property on the Cumberland River for which she collected rent in that small town, and coal trucks dumped their loads on a conveyor belt. The coal was then transported across the river and dumped into L & N gondolas to be ferried off to coal markets at some distant place that I could only imagine.
My jigsaw puzzle of the United States which I worked hundreds of times gave me no sense of Louisville or Cincinnati or Chicago: I just knew the shapes of the states, their names, and how they fit together to create the United States. Once the men who worked at the tipple had left work for the day, I used that coal tipple which was constructed of rough lumber as a playground and as a bridge to cross the river. On a few occasions I ventured out a few yards on the roof of the tipple but feared going the length of the roof. I knew challenging as that was , it was too dangerous — even for me. And Mother kept a needle ready to dislodge the splinters from my feet and hands when I arrived home. You might ask, “Vivian, you played on the tipple with no shoes on?” Yes, that’s right.
I loved it when the engine delivered empty gondolas, and I hurried to climb up the sides and explore the interiors, again after the workers had left for the day. On rare occasion, the structures that held the sides of the coal cars in tact had round bars, and I became a gymnast — until that special gondola was moved along the track to be filled with coal and taken away to other places to produce electricity or to warm buildings. Those railroad tracks are now a walking path, and just this past week my sister Frances — who still lives at the old home place — reported a 400-pound bear taking a stroll on that path. She ran to get her camera but by the time she returned, the bear had disappeared. I know it was not going into town, just looking for food as it prepared for the winter. The bear probably returned to the cliff overhang on the mountain that adjoins the walking path to take a little snooze.
And then there was the swinging bridge by the Jim Gilliam property, and what fun it was to wait until both my brother Bill and I were on the bridge. I’d start jumping up and down or he would, and we’d taunt each other, “Better hold on tight or I’m gonna make you fall into the river.”
Through the power of education, which started with a sound education at Cumberland Elementary and Cumberland Junior High, my journeys have taken me to bridges I never would have thought possible when I was a child: bridges throughout western Europe including the Tower Bridge in London and the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the bridges of the Great Wall in China and all those massive and wonderful bridges throughout the United States.
There’s magic in bridges. They remove barriers; they connect us to others; they take us to places we could never even imagine as children. I challenge you to use bridges as a metaphor for your own life, for enhancing it by connecting with people who are different from you in terms of politics, religion, race/ethnicity, educational level, and class.
And when this ugly presidential election is over, let’s defy all odds and rebuild bridges. We live in a great country, and as Lee Greenwood wrote, “I’m proud to be an American/Where at least I know I’m free/And I won’t forget the men who died/ Who gave that right to me … .”
Vivian Blevins is a consultant for the Training Solutions Group Inc. who teaches courses in writing and literature for major telecom company employees. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.