Don’t look down

Boy, it’s nice to know I’m not alone.

Then I look over — about 19 stories down — and gasp. My head spins. For a few seconds, I feel as if I’m falling through the ripples of heat in the air and down to the dark water below. My station wagon slows to 45 miles per hour … 40 … 35.

Some people will do anything to avoid crossing bridges like Maryland’s William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial (Bay) Bridge, its 186-foot height and 4-mile ride causing anything from mild distress to a full-blown panic attack. But many push on, motivated by necessity, pride and perhaps penny-pinching.

I hate high bridges with a vengeance.  I’ve driven the entire length of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel between Virginia Beach and Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and that didn’t rattle me one bit…because it’s a very low bridge.  I feel pretty certain I could cross the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys and not bat an eye…same reason.

But get me on the Bay Bridge (which I’ve crossed a few times), or the US 301 Potomac River Bridge between Virginia and Maryland over the lower Potomac?  I’m reduced to a large quivering mass of jelly, which is pretty gross, because there’s a lot of me.

There’s one bridge, though, that was the Queen Bitch of Bridges to me, and this author as well…

More than a decade ago, I had a bad encounter with the John P. Grace Memorial Bridge over the Cooper River in Charleston, South Carolina. I was driving my best friend, then a medical student at a nearby university. And suddenly, there was a 155-foot monster in front of me.

The narrow bridge, built in 1929 and demolished a few years ago, made rattling noises. I froze. Embarrassed, I hoped my friend didn’t notice. But who was I fooling? I had stopped talking and breathing. Clammy hands on the wheel and eyes locked in forward position. My foot came off the pedal, and the car almost came to a complete stop.

My friend, Tammy, and I can make each other laugh hysterically. This time, she realized it wasn’t a joke. She began chatting about other things, and somehow, we crept across that bridge, followed by irritated drivers.

The Grace Bridge was two lanes, reversible.  The slightly younger Silas Pearman Bridge next to it was three lanes, with at least one reversible.  The interchanges at both ends of the bridge were pretty complex, and generally, Charlestonians did whatever it took to get onto the Pearman if at all possible instead of the Grace.

The one time I drove across the Grace was in the late ’90s, when Wife Unit (then Girlfriend Unit) and I were in the Charleston area to do a craft show in nearby Mount Pleasant.  In order to get from Charleston to Mount Pleasant, we could take I-526 around Charleston and come into Mount Pleasant from the north…or I could be stupid, take I-26 all the way down to the end interchange with US 17, and get funneled onto the Grace or the Pearman on US 17 north.  At that time of day, the traffic lane I was in dumped us onto the Grace.

The Grace was, as the quote said, built in 1929.  It was rusty.  It was two lanes, no shoulders, tiny sidewalks (or maybe none, I can’t remember, I was too terrified), and had oncoming traffic in the other lane.  It creaked.  It rattled.  It fucking shook.  The steel-truss walls looked none too sturdy, and I was in my big Dodge pickup truck.  Climbing at an impossible roller-coaster angle.  Really really high.  With nothing but maybe two feet, some flimsy steel trusses and somewhere over a hundred feet between me and the muddy waters of the Cooper River below.  And did I mention that you could see down through the expansion joints in the paving and decking?

I froze.  I looked straight ahead, creeping forward at about 35 mph (the speed limit) with a line of jaded Charlestonians backing up behind me, eyes glued forward.  Elvis Presley himself could’ve magically appeared in the car next to me with a naked Angelina Jolie on his lap and I wouldn’t have noticed.  All I saw was bridge, sky, and doom, my knuckles literally white on the steering wheel, my posture totally rigid.

And then my future wife, the love of my life, the mother of my child, the person I hold the most dear in this universe, said:

“Oh, sweetie, look!  The boats look so small from up here!”

Proof once again, that my wife always knows when to say the right thing…for certain definitions of “right.”  Definitions that may not match anybody else’s.

They replaced both bridges with a beautiful new eight-lane masterpiece, the Arthur Ravenel Bridge, a few years back, and they finally ended the saga of the Grace and the Pearman by blowing both of them into the river and dismantling the remnants.  I only wish I could’ve been there to see the bitch fall.

Or preferably, push the button.


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