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Bridging a life

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At Cabot Cove near where I grew up in western New England, the Millers River meets the Connecticut. The Iron Bridge Co. of Canton, Ohio, erected a one-lane bridge over the Millers in 1898 for $7,000 — or so an old plaque on the cross-beam over the western end used to proclaim. Standing on the bridge, you can see the Connecticut rush by 100 yards downstream of the bridge. In spring, the Connecticut sweeps the surging effluent of Millers to the south and eventually inhales it, adding the silt of the Millers to its own.

The bridge connects East Mineral Road in Montague to River Road in Northfield. It’s no marvel — just a turn-of-the-century, strut-and-truss iron bridge with a paved roadway. Montague had the bridge inspected in 1989. The engineers from the state said the abutments – then made of stone — were unsafe. They had begun to shift and collapse, the engineers warned. The town closed the bridge, saying it could not afford to pay $100,000 to repair it, given how little vehicle traffic crossed the bridge. Years later, the bridge was modestly renovated as a pedestrian river crossing.

I think of 1988 as the year I left home. That’s the year I screwed up the nerve to leave the newspaper and go to graduate school at Evergreen, sight unseen. Whenever I return home, I visit this bridge. I love this bridge, but I can’t explain why. I only know that I am irrevocably connected to the bridge, and it is irrevocably connected to me.

When I was 12, I dove from the bridge into its dark waters below — instead of jumping feet first. Real guys dove. My first moment of courage — or stupidity. As my life unfolded, there have been few of the former, many of the latter.

When I was 19, I kissed Linda there for the first time. She was leaning against one of the iron beams, complaining about how the rusted rivets were pressing against her back. I walked over and kissed her. My second moment of courage. She kissed me back, and it was wonderful. When you’re young, all kisses are wonderful.

When I was 21, I threw up over the downstream railing of the bridge. I had been on a date that I hadn’t really enjoyed. I got drunk, took her home, and went to the bridge. After I erupted the dinner we’d had, I lay down on the bridge and slept. I awoke there in the morning, hung over. But not so hung over that I couldn’t appreciate the sun, rising in the east over a bend in the Millers, penetrating the low fog cloaking the river. A moment of magic.

When I was 23, I took Tina for a walk on the bridge at night. I had waited until full moon for this. We each carried a glass of Chardonnay. Hand in hand, we walked down the bank on the eastern side, past a tall elm that finally toppled into the river a few years later. Erosion can kill. I had been seeing T — I always called her T; I don’t know why — for nearly two years. Suddenly, she set her glass on the railing and told me she’d started seeing someone else. My intended question remained unasked. We both cried. But her tears stopped much sooner than mine.

When I was 30, I began bird watching. During migration each spring and fall, I’d meet my best friend, Bruce, at his house, about seven miles north alongside the Connecticut, and we’d drive slowly down River Road, a rutted, dirt thoroughfare, to the bridge.

We’d always linger at the bridge. Drinking tea from a thermos. Listening. We didn’t know birdcalls very well, but we listened anyway. One day, we saw a hawk circling over the confluence. “A redtail,” I said. “A broadwing,” he counter-claimed. We looked at each other. I asked him, “Well, what do we need?” Bruce replied, “We’ve got a redtail already.” I grinned. “Then it’s a broadwing.” We laughed. Even today, when we go birding, one of us will say, at some time, “So what do we need?” And we’ll laugh. These many years later, it’s still part of the lexicon of our friendship.

For more than twenty years, Bruce and I birded from the bridge. I’ve kept track of what we’ve seen there on an faded Audubon birding checklist. One hundred and seventeen different species, twenty-six of them warblers. Spring is glorious down there on the Millers. I enjoy it. I enjoy the time with Bruce. I enjoy being on the bridge.

One day, during a Christmas Audubon bird count, we saw a blue grosbeak. An accidental, as the birders say. We still speak of it today.

When I was 32, my uncle Pappy, a doctor, died a year after he retired. He had a heart attack while doing genealogy studies at the University of Utah. At the moment of his death, I was on a rock climb called the Cat Burglar in Tumwater Canyon in Washington state. I knew the instant he died. I just knew. My climbing partner, Mark, and I drove five straight days back to Massachusetts, aided by little white pills. After I carried his casket into the church, heard the eulogy, and buried him in Green River Cemetery, I went to the bridge. And wept. He had not taught me the rest of what he knew. I still miss him terribly. I still think of him when I visit the bridge.

In my thirties, I used to ride my bike from Greenfield to Northfield to visit Bruce and his wife, Laurie. It’s 11 miles. I always stopped on the bridge, pulled out my pipe, and smoked a bowl of Captain Black. The act was peaceful and calming. I was running the copy desk at the newspaper then; life was stressful. The bridge became my Valium. So much so that in time I would no longer need the Captain Black.

When I was 38, I went to the bridge and wept for Neil. He was my newsroom godfather. He taught me the journalism I teach today in his memory. Neil died at 54. He didn’t take care of himself. He drank. He smoked. He never worked out. But he inspired. He gave life to phrases wooden to others, phrases such as “freedom of speech” and “civic duty” and “the right to know.” He was the best journalist I ever knew, back then. But Neil died. Too soon. I carved his name in the wooden side rails of the bridge. When I hit the lottery, I’ll establish a scholarship in Neil’s name somewhere. He didn’t go to college; he began newspapering when he was 20, fresh out of the Navy. I miss Neil. I’m still angry with him for dying so young, before teaching me the rest of what he knew.

On the bridge, I deal with the anger. I curse Neil, and I tell him I love him. On the bridge, I resolve to take Neil into my classroom every day. This year, my old editor, Bob, died. So did professor Joe and climbing partner Dick. I talk to them, too, on the bridge.

When I was 43, on Nov. 4, 1989, I asked Carrie to marry me. She said no, became angry, then wept with me before striding swiftly out of my apartment in Olympia. She never spoke to me again. I flew back East for Christmas five weeks later. My dad picked me up at Bradley. When we got home, I took his car and drove to the bridge. It was dark, and it was cold. I walked down onto the bridge and cried as hard as I have ever cried. But on the bridge, I found solace. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because the bridge and I had shared so much for so long. But I miss Carrie. Still.

I began trying to photograph the bridge when I was 30. I had an old 4×5 Speed Graphic. I mounted it on a tripod, standing on the western bank, trying to find the zeitgeist of the bridge. I must have moved that goddamned tripod two dozen times. I couldn’t find the best angle. Then the light wouldn’t be right. Then I couldn’t frame all of the bridge. The shutter never clicked. I just couldn’t find the soul of the bridge in the ground glass.

Over the past 40 years, using Hasselblads, Minoltas, Instamatics, digitals, even my damn cell phone, the result’s been the same. Frustration. A feeling of ineptitude. I am a good photographer, but the picture of the bridge eludes me.

Eight summers ago, I drove back to New England from my university to retrieve my truck. I’d had my dad’s car since early July. Easier to drive than my truck after an orthopedic surgeon once again rooted around in my right shoulder with nasty surgical instruments. I took with me a Minolta SR-1s, a camera I bought in 1964, mail order from Japan. It’s one of my two most precious possessions. I shot two rolls of the bridge in overcast morning light. But I didn’t care whether I got “decent” pictures.

Photographing the bridge has become an act of adoration, I think. It’s part of how the bridge and I interact. Perhaps I worship the bridge, and photographing it is part of the ritual of that worship. Or maybe it’s a habit, a way I greet the bridge when I’ve been away for several months. Maybe it’s the way I speak of my feelings for it, the way I tell it I love it. I don’t know. But I take a camera now each time I visit. And binoculars. Ritual. A routine of affection. A statement of loyalty. A promise of passion.

Edward Abbey, in Desert Solitaire, wrote: “Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman.”

I’ve photographed in the West for more than 40 years. I still haven’t taken a photograph west of the Mississippi that’s anything more than a glorified postcard. I’ve seen very few photographs that capture the soul of the landscape. That feeling of failure — of failing to trap the soul of the landscape in silver halide — has been at the heart of my frustration as an outwardly pragmatic man with a deeply buried drive and desire to create.

Maybe that’s why I wrote a novel about love and landscapes in the West. Was it a way to explore love? The unexplainable, the un-understandable of all emotions? Maybe it was a way to try to understand the end of the relationship that never really was between Mary and me. When I told her, many years ago, I loved her and wanted to be with her, she only said, “No, because I love you.” I left her behind in Kanab, Utah, in the bosom of the majestic Church of Rock, Desert and Big Sky.

Somehow, it’s all connected to how I feel about the bridge. About how I feel when I’m on the bridge, when I’m thinking about the bridge. I can’t capture it; I can only experience it, and try to cement the experience into my soul rather a photograph.

I’ve happy on the bridge. Sad. Angry. Wistful. Ecstatic. And, far too often, melancholic. I’ve shared the bridge; I’ve been solo on the bridge.

I don’t understand why the bridge affects me the way it does.

But I no longer try to explain it or understand it. I accept it as part of my life. It’s part of who I am, part of how I feel, part of the reality that represents me.

It just is. It is part of who I am.

xpost: Scholars and Rogues


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

January 3, 2009 at 4:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Beautifully written — thank you for sharing the writing and the photo.


    January 4, 2009 at 4:32 am

  2. Beautifully written indeed. And THAT’s your photo of the bridge…you don’t need to take one because you have it in words, inside.


    January 4, 2009 at 8:06 am

  3. Lovely, evocative writing – thank you for sharing this deeply personal story of you and your “Innisfree.”


    January 10, 2009 at 2:53 pm

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