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Hilliard Bridge before being blown away

Blown Away

by Nancy Clark
Determined to give my first descriptive composition in English 101 my best effort, I considered the advice of my seasoned instructor: "You'll write best about something you know." So I searched for vivid images in my memory and settled on visions of the Illinois River bridge nearby my childhood home in Ottawa.

An aesthetic landmark, the bridge was built on an arched span. Its upper structure of heavy girders, engineered in strong triangular design, rose to two peaks, our local version of the Golden Gate, we thought as kids. For this paper I chose a dusk-fading-to-nighttime setting. I wrote: "In fading light the bridge stood hard and strong in silhouette, as if proud of its triumphant reach from bank to bank." ". . . in the full dark, the white lights traced the upward sweeps of superstructure, and red warning lights depended from the span; all bright and steady, like jewels on a crown. Strings of headlights threaded back and forth, far above the water darkly lapping at the giant supports."

My summer friend and I were accustomed to filling playtime with occasional "bridge visits." We'd walk along the riverbanks, looking up at the angles made dramatic from below. Or sometimes we'd climb the almost abandoned public steps on the south bluff and spend hours trying to sketch the structure. It was named Hilliard Bridge after a former mayor, my mother's best friend's father--a fact that suggested that I could, somehow, lay more claim to the bridge than my friend could.

An adventure befitting our childish independence was to simply walk across it, planning to scream each time a concrete slab tipped a bit underfoot. If we were in luck, a barge would pass beneath; the game was to holler as loud as we could from the walkway to make the barge men wave back to us. To walk the bridge in a thick fog left us eerily lost and suspended in the mist, like walking in a dream where nothing is clear.

It never occurred to me that one day I'd see the bridge blown up.

Alas, this sturdy, graceful span had just two lanes. In years to come, as traffic flow increased, Hilliard Bridge became a bottleneck, a problem increased by the possibility of emergency vehicles being held up or accidents which could block both lanes. Local frustration levels began to surge higher than any flood waters ever had.

Alongside the old bridge, a new one was built: a span of four-lane highway with no superstructure, merely a flat, efficient ribbon of road over the river. By conservative estimate, I had probably made more than 10,000 crossings on the Hilliard Bridge, and every time, I felt a personal call to look up and down the river. But a drive over the new bridge no longer allowed a view; the outer sides were built higher than drivers' eye level, probably on purpose. But now on a crossing, there were no barges to see or pleasure boats, no vision of light on the water, no view to the riverside park, no chance in times of flooding to say, "Wow, look how high the water is now!" It was as if the river weren't there at all, and, for all one could see, it may as well have been engulfed in fog.

When the new bridge with a new name was completed, it was time to destroy Hilliard Bridge. The day the sections were to "blow," barges had been positioned underneath to catch some of the girders so the channel would not be blocked. The time had been published. Explosives had been set.

On that sunny day I sat with some teaching colleagues on the football field bleachers at Ottawa High School in full view of the bridge--to attend its disappearance. While we lunched from brown bags, we counseled one another to keep our eyes fixed on the bridge--no blinking--or we might miss the first "blow."

In just two seconds there were, first, magnificent snaps of explosives--and then the splitting apart--giant pieces broken as if they were toothpicks fixed together with paper paste. Down they dropped and gone from sight.

Immediate whoops of glee and applause rose from a crowd of teenagers on the bleachers, as if the home team had just scored.

I turned my gaze upriver and sipped my coffee.

Hilliard Bridge after being blown away

Selection 15 of

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Copyright © 2001 by Nancy Clark. All rights reserved.