Saturday, April 28, 2012

Crossing Bridges

There is no way to grow up in a coastal city without developing a keen interest in bridges. The three bridges in Jacksonville that captured my imagination were the old “Main Street” or officially, the John T. Alsop Jr. Bridge which opened in July 1941, the second bridge built across the St. Johns River, the Fuller Warren Bridge which was built in 1954 as part of the “Jacksonville Expressway” and my favorite of all, the Acosta Bridge which was named for City Councilman St. Elmo W. Acosta who championed its construction back in 1921, it was the first to be built across the river. All three of these bridges connected points on the west side of the river to Southside.

The Old Acosta Bridge. My Beautiful Monster!

Two of the three bridges have been replaced by modern structures that, while sleek and flowing, they don’t pique my imagination as much as the old style construction with girders and beams glistening in the sunlight as the bridge soars across the sparkling waters of the St. Johns. As a child I would look up into the superstructure of the bridge and wonder exactly why they were designed this way. All those pieces, angles and spans put together as if by a mad scientist playing with Tinker Toys. I was full of questions such as “Why so many triangles?” and “Do men really climb up there to paint?”

The Alsop Bridge, the only one left with the old construction style.

As a child, we crossed over into Southside on the Acosta Bridge at least once a week to see my maternal Grandmother. She lived on Atlantic Boulevard between the railroad tracks and San Marco. Each Friday morning my father would take us to Grandmothers and then pick us up in the afternoon and take us home. We would cross the river an hour or so before sundown when the sun shone on the gossamer webbing of the bridge’s superstructure and made it come alive way up in the sky.

The new Fuller Warren Bridge, in the background, the new Alsop Bridge.

Even my sleeping hours were filled with images of the bridge. In my dreams I would find myself having to walk home from Southside and crossing the bridge on one of the two footpaths that line the bridge between the four lanes of traffic and the guard rails. I would see myself looking down at the rail crossing that hugged the river’s surface on the southwest side of the bridge. Sometimes these dreams became the mild nightmares that a child occasionally has. For, you see, the Alsop Bridge like most of the others crossing the St. Johns at the time was a drawbridge. The center section would rise up horizontally between the two sets of towers that were the foundation of the span. In my dreams, the drawbridge would rise while I was on it. There I would be, stranded, unable to get home or back into Southside, and then I would wake up, safe and sound in my own bed.

I often wondered if those dreams would ever leave me. One fateful day they did. During High School Pat Thayer, Chuck Datres and I decided that we would walk home after a rare Saturday morning band practice. As we walked down San Marco Boulevard towards the river, my heart began beating faster and faster as I approached this metal behemoth that I was bound to conquer that day. Pat, Chuck and I continued our schoolboy banter and neither of them knew of the terrible and wonderful fascination that the bridge held for me.

The next thing I knew, my feet were tracking across the bridge towards that drawbridge section that was differentiated from the rest of the walkway in that it was made of steel instead of concrete. Without the slightest hesitation, I crossed the demark point onto the draw section then a few moments later, without incident, back onto the non moving section. I had done it; I had beaten the beautiful, awful monster that tormented my childhood dreams. I never had that nightmare again. Now I could enjoy the beauty of the bridge, without fearing the beast. Oh MY!

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