May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
January 12, 2022
In 1930, my great-grandfather Ike built a bridge across the Branch. He hired a crew to pour a concrete foundation, put up iron crossbars, and set a wooden deck on top. His wife, Roan, carried sweet tea and sandwiches from the kitchen, hitching her baby up on her hip. The crew ate lunch in the shade of a hundred-year-old sycamore and then kept fitting the jigsaw pieces of wood together. I imagine Ike in overalls, swinging a hammer in calloused hands and tapping the last board into place.
They built the bridge on the south end of the farm, the end closest to town, where the Branch emptied into Big Creek. There was no highway in those days, only rough-graded roads. Town was still thirty minutes away by car. To get there, Ike crossed the bridge, then followed the creek for eight miles—except during floods.
Two or three hard rains a year, Big Creek overflowed and roared, ripping up trees and outhouses. With nowhere to go, the Branch backed up into the fields. Cornstalks and soybean shoots drowned before they were ready for market. The wooden bridge deck lifted off its foundation and floated away, the way dreams do when dreamers aren’t looking.
After a flood, Ike and his sons walked downstream, looking for missing planks.
The state built a north–south highway in 1935. It ran straight and true, unlike the curvy roads that bordered farmers’ fields and rambled along streambanks. The state also realized that by building a new bridge across Big Creek, people from the east half of the county could take the highway to town and spend the few dollars they had left. The Big Creek Bridge became a public works project that kept men employed during the Great Depression. They built it a quarter mile south of Ike’s farm.
A few years later, a stranger found Ike’s daughter crawling in the weeds by the Big Creek Bridge, blood dripping down her swollen leg from a copperhead bite. The man took her to the hospital and—if family lore is true—paid for the antivenom.
The Big Creek Bridge washed out in 1958. The county built a temporary structure, but that washed out, too. The second time, nobody bothered to put it back. By the time I was born, all that was left was a cautionary tale and a row of concrete pilings that looked like a castle’s ramparts.
Ike’s son—my paternal grandfather, who my sisters and I called Apaw—took over the farming in the 1970s. Apaw drove the combine that shucked kernels from cobs and poured grain into wagons. Dad hauled the full wagons out of Ike’s fields, across the farm’s old wooden bridge, and then to the grain bins a mile up the road. But when he crossed the farm bridge with a full load, the deck bowed as if it would collapse.
That night at supper, he asked, “Daddy, when are we getting new lumber for the bridge?”
“We’re not,” Apaw replied.
It so happened that a nearby town had recently replaced a bridge and dumped the old one’s remains; they’d cut the old one apart and thrown it in Bill Garey’s scrapyard. After harvest, Apaw went down to see about it.
Bill’s lot, like everything else, was near the creek. Rusted cars skulked in the corners like skeletal cats stalking appliance mice. A mockingbird perched on an upturned refrigerator, balancing with long black tail feathers and calling out a pretty singsong to its mate. Under the poplar tree, beside a stack of worn-out tires, laid the old South Bridge.
Apaw walked into Bill’s office. “What’re you going to do with that bridge?” he asked.
Bill shrugged. “Nothing yet. Been figuring on that myself.”
“What’ll you take for it?”
Nobody remembers the number—we just know they struck a deal. Apaw had the deck delivered to the farm on a flatbed truck, and he hired a crane operator to set it in place. They put parking blocks along the sides instead of railings. The new neighbor, Jim, secured the blocks with foot-long bolts.
Having a new neighbor seemed peculiar back then. People didn’t move much. Ike’s land had been in the family for fifty years and would remain in the family for another fifty. The house was so old, it had newspaper for insulation. The dairy barn was held together with wood pegs and square nails, its shelves lined with glass insulators Ike brought home from his job as half the town’s two-man crank telephone company.
Ike died before I was born. But the insulators stayed until I was grown.
After his mother died, Apaw put the farm up for sale without telling his kids—maybe to keep the five of them from fighting over it, maybe for the money, maybe for another reason altogether. He nearly struck a deal with the Robards boy, but Dad overheard them talking. As soon as Apaw hung up the phone, Dad said, “Hey, I wanted that.”
Apaw sold Dad the land and buildings. Dad married Mom behind the barn the next spring, and together, they started populating the place with daughters.
Growing up on the farm was like living in a magical kingdom with dark, spooky woods and train tracks like a dragon trail, with a mighty river like a moat and the kind of a babbling brook that princesses drink from when they’re hoping for a magic spell or a thousand-year sleep. And like all good fairytales, there was one spot the princesses weren’t allowed to go: “Don’t go on the bridge by yourself.”
Stay in the kingdom. Stay in the first chapter of the fairytale—the safe one.
The farm bridge was seven feet high, the streambed solid rock. I used to squat with my hands on the parking blocks and lean over to watch minnows zip by below until Dad said, “That’s enough. If you fall, we can’t get down there fast enough to help you.” Mom would add, “If you hit your head, you’ll drown.” It would become the great tragedy of their lives that my youngest sister died from falling—and the great irony that it didn’t happen on the bridge.
There were holes in the bridge, too. Most were small, but two or three were big enough for our feet to slip through. When our cousins visited, they tossed rocks through the holes. I wanted to be one of the pebbles. Feeling brave and disobedient, I stuck my light-up sneaker through a hole and then realized I couldn’t pull my foot out. I cried until Alan, the oldest cousin, took hold of my ankle and worked my foot through the gap, careful not to cut me on the exposed crossbars.
The snakes were the last danger. Mrs. Snake lived under a rock by the bridge. She was harmless, but Dad still chopped her head off with a shovel. We should watch out, he warned, because the next one might be venomous.
One day, Dad took my oldest sister and me for a walk to Apaw’s woods, which were across the highway from our farm. The novelty of walking off the farm thrilled and terrified me. Our parents’ warnings to never cross the property line without them had made me believe bad things could happen at the end of our gravel road—so now, even walking beside Dad, I felt that I was doing something forbidden and dangerous. My stomach twisted as he reminded us to look both ways before crossing the highway.
Right after we stepped out, I heard a car. I forgot my calm and bolted across the road. The car was half a mile up the hill—the driver never saw us—but my heart pounded until we were well into the trees.
Dad, Sis, and I walked on a slender path through thorn bushes and saplings.
“I think we’re on a deer trail,” I said.
“There used to be a road here,” Dad corrected me. He pointed a few feet away to another trail by the Branch. “That’s the other tire track. People used to drive to town this way.”
“Why didn’t they just use the highway?”
“It wasn’t built back then,” Dad said. “Seventy years ago, if you wanted to get to town, you took this road past the farm, through these woods, and across the Branch. I’ll show you.”
We followed the tire tracks over a quarter mile from the highway, until we came to a clearing. There in front of us was an abandoned bridge that was half-covered in poison ivy. I marveled that I’d never known that this secret was tucked away so close to home.
“How did two people cross at once?” I asked.
“They didn’t. They waited their turn.”
I imagined two cars—1930s coupes—on either end of the bridge. One driver would pull off the shoulder and wave; the other would cross and toot the horn. He would drive uphill into town, past the chicken hatchery, and park outside the General Store. He’d chat with Jim, the owner, while he paid for chewing tobacco and the gingham cloth his wife would sew into a dress. The other driver—having started moving again—would pass the farm and wave at Ike, who would still be alive, and then cross the Big Creek Bridge, which would still be on its pilings.
I suppose people back then thought our county would always stay the same, because that’s what I expect it to do. The Great Depression hitting, the General Store closing, new houses rising out of old fields—we never believe the changes will come, and we’re always surprised when they do.
But that day, our county once again became what past generations hoped it would stay—a child’s mind drawing a moment of always from under an ivy leaf on an abandoned road.
The last bridge within a mile of our farm sat at the bottom of a valley, like a hinge between two hills. It was another public works project built in 1936. Swallows nested and swooped under it, skimming the water with their wingtips and snatching up mayflies. I mimicked their songs under the bridge because I liked the acoustics.
The first car wreck I remember happened on that bridge. A young driver came down the hill too fast and dropped her tire off the shoulder. The car rolled once, then landed right side up. It caught on fire, but the doors were too dented to open. She couldn’t get out. The Cherrys, who lived by the bridge, ran outside with pots and pans. They carried water from the Branch, but they couldn’t throw it far enough under the car to reach the flames.
We didn’t see that. What we saw was Dad—who passed the wreck on his way home from work—speeding up the driveway in his truck, slinging gravel into the fenders, skidding to a stop in front of the farmhouse. Sis and I waited at the screen door for him like always, but that day, he pushed past us.
“Where’s the fire extinguisher?” he yelled to Mom.
“In the laundry room,” she said. He ran through the kitchen where she stood cooking supper, the spatula in her hand dripping grease. “What’s wrong?”
“There’s a wreck.”
“Oh no! Girls, get out of the way,” Mom said, already pulling us against her hips.
As soon as Dad left, Sis and I ran to the sunporch, bumping into each other to get to the same window. Black smoke towered above the trees. I watched it billow and then grow thinner and thinner until it disappeared. Dad still wasn’t back.
I started to worry. Maybe he’d been burned. Maybe the car’s gas tank exploded. Maybe the second set of sirens was another ambulance coming to take him to the hospital. Mom left the round steaks growing cold in the skillet and came to stand with us, a hand on each of our shoulders.
When Dad finally came home, the truck’s motor chugged arrhythmically—it had blown up. Dad parked by the farmhouse and came inside to wash the soot off his hands and face. His clothes smelled like burning.
That night, Mom told us he had crawled under the car with the extinguisher to put out the fire. She said, “Your dad did a very brave thing today, but he doesn’t want you girls telling people about it or calling him a hero.”
I didn’t know how to say he wasn’t a hero; he was just Dad. It took me a long time to realize they were the same.
Jim and Betty bought ten acres of Ike’s land, across the train tracks from the main parcel. They were good neighbors. Jim sometimes took us into his workshop or helped Dad with projects on our place. Whenever a tree fell on our side, we chopped the wood and stacked it in their lean-to as fuel for their wood-burning stove. Once, in July, Jim’s mama cow licked the sweat off my arms. Her long, dark tongue tickled.
When I turned eighteen, Mom told me Jim drank because of what he’d seen in Vietnam. And I remembered the time I caught Dad putting a shovel in our truck.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Going up to the train tracks.”
This was unusual, the shovel more so. “Why?”
“Buddy got hit by a train. I’m going to bury him.” Buddy was Jim’s dog—the big gold one.
“Why doesn’t Jim bury him?”
Dad looked at me funny. “Jim can’t stand to see dead things,” he said and drove away.
It made sense now—why he hadn’t retrieved Buddy’s body, why he sold his cattle after a handful of stillborn calves, why I had vague memories of aluminum cans in a five-gallon bucket in his workshop. What I’d mistaken for Jim’s cologne as a child was beer.
Jim started attending AA around the time I got old enough to drive. When he relapsed, that’s what he did—drive. He ripped open the door to his big old Ford and jumped in. Gunned it down the hill heading out of town and, at the bottom, jerked the wheel to the right. Straight into the side of the 1936 bridge.
His truck crumpled in on itself. The frame snapped. The motor was shoved into the passenger seat; the radiator ended up in the bed. One headlight flew into the Branch, where it bobbed at the edge of the water for a week before someone picked it out. Jim slumped forward, his head on the center of the steering wheel and one hand run through the wheel like an untied thread in the eye of a needle.
The Cherrys didn’t live by the bridge anymore; a family friend of ours found the wreck. He pulled into their abandoned driveway and walked to the truck, certain the driver was dead. But when he came up to the cab, Jim raised bloody fingers as if to wave.
After the accident, Jim came back to church and AA. He was my parents’ best neighbor and friend. He even saved a life—a man in a parking lot who got tangled in his seatbelt. While trying to disentangle himself, the man had simultaneously fallen out his open car door andknocked the car into gear. He was being dragged in circles, inches from being run over by his own car. It would’ve killed him if Jim hadn’t run across the parking lot, jumped in the open door, and thrown the gearshift in park. He always said that’s why God didn’t let him take his own life.
Most people didn’t know that part—they thought the wreck was an accident, and those of us who knew didn’t correct them. The county put a construction barrel at the end of the bridge to make it more visible, but eventually, they took it away. They never fixed the concrete.
I used to wonder what Jim thought about that, whether he ever drove the long way to town so he wouldn’t have to look at it or if it reminded him of second chances.
The last time I visited my parents, the farm bridge was gone. It had been torn out and laid in a stack of concrete slabs next to the Branch. I’d parked on the old Cherry place and walked over.
This time, I turn off the county road onto a smooth, new bridge—no holes, no rusted iron sticking out. It doesn’t shake or rattle when I drive across it. Dad’s still got signs up saying STOP—NO TRUCKS, but once the foundation’s fully set, this bridge will hold forty tons.
That’s plenty to support the concrete truck that’ll come pour the floor in the new horse barn. Ike’s dairy barn is a skeleton from the waist down; Dad’s tearing it down on the weekends, starting with the walls. The farmhouse is still standing, but the floors are caving in, and there’s a rat living in the kitchen. Mom and Dad are talking about letting the fire department set it ablaze so they can practice putting it out.
I’ll feel same way about the barn and the farmhouse as I feel about the old bridge. As I drive across the new one, I say, “This is nice,” and I don’t miss the old one. I miss what it means—a way of life, a history, a dozen childhoods.
But that’s the thing about meaning: it’s portable. The bridge may be gone, the buildings may be on their way out, but this is still our land. The farm is still magical to my niece, still the fairytale kingdom I wish it would have stayed to me.
One day, this place will shrink for her, too. It’ll crumble like the old bridges, the bad things poking through. That’s why I go back. Before that happens, she needs to learn the history of this place and learn it right, the way I did—the good things first so we can stomach the bad.
I’ll take her to the top of the Big Creek Bridge pilings to tell her about Kay and the copperhead. We’ll walk the abandoned road to the hidden bridge in the woods, avoiding the poison ivy so we can watch the fish. I’ll take her under Jim’s bridge to see the swallows’ nests and listen to her whistle echo. And last of all, I’ll tell her we used to have a wooden bridge that floated away.