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Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Whoopie Bridge

A fine fall afternoon, a Saturday, I am sure. The top is down on the little blue Fiat Spider and I've loaded my son Mike and two golden retrievers into the jump seat. Everybody is excited to be going for a ride. We are getting ice cream.

The sky is blue, the trees are gold and the car is biting the wind like it is a crisp apple. We round a corner and I position the rearview mirror so I can see my happy son.

Downshifting, I pick up speed and the asphalt sings. Why isn't every car a convertible, I think. Two sets of ears flapping, my son's parka flying out behind him and my hair standing straight up with only about 400 feet to go, our speed is exactly 44 mph. The next moment, we are flying over the bridge, leaving the ground. I look in the rearview mirror and my son is holding on to the dogs' collars and they are in the air, off the seat and he yells WHOOPEE!

A thousand light years later, I get a phone call from that same son and he says, “Don't go straight down 82. The Whoopee bridge is closed. A big chunk of the bridge fell into the creek, probably from the thaw and freeze cycle working on the mortar.” He's a fireman, so he was among the first to know. Fortunately this all happened while no one was on the bridge but it does mean a detour.

I hate detours. This will be a daily thorn in my side for months, maybe years, I just know it. It's not like you can just take a right go down a block and there you are. There are five different ways to go around the bridge, all about six miles inconvenient. They are curving, narrow roads and I am not looking forward to all the hurried people careening around on them and cursing like me. Explaining the features and benefits of each route to visitors for a long period of time is going to be irritating. The whole thing just sets me off.

Everyday I sit in the driveway and ponder – This way? That way? I always end up making what turns out to be the wrong choice, stuck behind a tractor, or one morning, an actual gaggle of geese in no hurry to get anywhere, except down the middle of the road. Watching those geese I did sort of have a moment of OH COME ON, a acknowledgement that this is not the worst commute in the world. That was short lived. On the way home, more often than not I miss the turn that I would take for the first detour choice and end up driving more miles out of the way, just when I am cranky and tired. The itty bitty committee in my head just loves getting ten extra minutes alone with me to discuss my failings and inattention.

Each day when I am getting ready for work, I completely forget about the detour and how it adds precious minutes to my trip, and I end up making a lot of apologetic phone calls and exaggerating how much of an ordeal this is for me, mostly an effort to foist onto something other than myself an explanation for my lateness. Of course, after a while, my excuses and complaining are patiently endured but not really believed, and the conversations start to turn to “Just when do you think the bridge will be fixed?” Although I don't really have any idea, I say three months to three years, and the recipient of the call gives me much undeserved sympathy for how this is ruining my life, and I feel better.

The situation with the bridge does cut the traffic in front of our house by half, not a small thing when you consider that our old house is exactly 22 feet off a two lane state highway used by noisy gravel and trash trucks. They are now in front of someone else's house, slamming on the jake brake and jarring them out of bed in the morning. The guy who owns the ice cream store puts out his own custom detour signs, hoping that the baseball teams and camp councilors who swell his business during the summer will be able to find him. And his marque is how I learn, one afternoon, that the bridge is open again. GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE IS NOW OPEN! LARGE TUNA HOAGIE 5 DOLLARS! All good news.

See, I say to myself. It all worked out. I head out to work, driving in a straight line, which makes me happy, no thoughts of detours or excuses tormenting me. I approach the bridge at exactly 44 miles an hour. I wait for the whoopee.

And I get two.
Two mini whoopees.


Where the old whoopee was a sharp, sudden jolt that sent you off the ground in a fine arch and placed you back down with a chirp of your tires, this new whoopee is like two little hiccups. Shaken, I pull over and drive back over, to try it again. Yes. Where there was one big one, there are now two.

I do it a third time, experience double mini whoopees, pull over to the side of the road, squint into a field of purple asters and ponder.

While I am fighting the disturbing idea that I might be the only person in the cosmos who would be moved to tears by an altered whoopee, it occurs to me that a bridge being out makes some things happen, other things not happen. Like the geese, like the trucks, like countless other things that were said or done or dreamed because the bridge was out, or not.

About two weeks after the bridge is fixed, I get an email from Fred.
Email : fred@yahoo.com
Comments : HI shirley I am not good at this computer thing. I am in IRAQ fighting this war .I am very proud of you!I am very sorry to hear about Chuck. I miss you both love Fred please email back

Well, that's good, because for years, I thought he might be dead.

Fred came to live with us when he was a teenager, as part of a program for building community and independent living for children who had been raised in institutional foster homes. There was nothing wrong with Fred – he was bright, he was handsome, he had no physical or mental impairments. He just got caught in the system when the courts were not happy about terminating parental rights, and he was unadoptable for many years. By the time he was in his mid teens, he had not really lived in a family home or a town. The group home he lived in was clean, the social workers were kind. He went everywhere in a bus. People whose job it was made his dental appointments and had his eyes examined. They brought him clothes. They made sure he celebrated holidays and had a gift. They made sure he went to school. But even the social workers felt this was not enough for kids – the state turned them out at 18 and they had no understanding of any other life, and no ties to any community. They didn't know how to get jobs, and they didn't know how to make friends.

When Charles and I heard about this from a friend, we thought it would be a great idea to add to our family this way. I never thought of myself as someone who would only have one child, but that was what had happened. Our son needed family, this kid needed family, we didn't feel we had to have a baby, so Fred was our perfect choice.

And life rolled on. We weren't perfect, Fred wasn't perfect. He will tell you so himself. I called him my boomerang child because he came and went so many times. He liberated himself from everyone (legally) at 17 ½ and came and went some more. There were fights, there were tears, there were ultimatums and pleadings – on both sides. And then one day I realized I hadn't heard from him in a year. And then Charles died and I didn't know how to get in touch with him to tell him.

But I guess someone had, somewhere – told him about Charles. But how was it possible he was in Iraq? Of course I emailed him back, and then there was a phone call, and we got caught up on things. And then he tells me he is coming home on leave and wants to come out to the farm, bring his wife and daughter.

Of course!

I ask him if he needs directions and he says NO, he will always remember how to get to the farm. I am secretly glad I don't have to explain the detour. He will come home over the bridge, just with two mini whoopees instead of one.

The first thing he says to me is “Are you still wearing that apron?” and I feel loved, that he should notice this. I show him the addition, tell him about Mike and his family moving on to the farm and while we stand on the porch and watch the chickens run around I ask, “Is it the same or different – how does it feel for you that Charles isn't here?” And he says, “Yes, it's the same and different.” I know what he means.

Fred puts on his hat and his uniform shirt and we take pictures: Fred and Mike, Fred and Mike and the Grandchildren, Fred and I. I put them up on Facebook, announcing Fred is Home From Iraq and that I am glad the family is all together again. Suddenly people are blessing me and our family for our sacrifice. They are asking who this other son is? These blessings shame me and overwhelm me, because to explain why I don't feel we should be blessed is such a long story, so many times back and forth over a bridge.

I don't deserve them. I have not sacrificed anything for him or the country, not for a long long time - decades. I did not even know he had joined the service til two weeks ago. I didn't even know he could, at 43. I also feel that long ago, we could have made a different choice and adopted him, instead of leaving him in limbo. He is my son, but not my son. Maybe that would have made a difference to him and what he did with his life. I don't know why I worry - He is calm, mature, determined--together. He's done fine.

Sometimes a bridge goes out and you take detours and because of that, different things happen. The availability of a bridge gives direction to your journey. You will always wonder if you went the right direction. If the bridge breaks down, it can be fixed, but there are no guarantees that when you go back over it will be the same.


the ladybug spot said...

You are a wise and compassionate woman.
I loved the the way you tied the two chapters together... it gave me goosebumps, and it had a very good moral at the end of the story.
Bev N

Anonymous said...

Good work, Rodeo Princess. More blogs, please. Always a pleasure to read them.

Shirley Landis VanScoyk said...

Thank you both! Thank you for reading them.

Chris said...

One of your best. So much said in so few words. That must be some bridge.

Nutty Gnome said...

I had tears in my eyes at the begining and the end of your post. Tears of laughter at the whooppee bridge at the begining and tears of emotion at the reuniting of Fred in your family at the end.
Thank you for sharing this with us.

Reed Stevens said...

Such vivid descriptions! Yes, there's a book here.

Write some more; tell us about you and how you got that way and don't let your mother stand on your keyboard.

Carol Diament said...

Really great analogies here. We had a bus driver when we were kids in elementary school who sped up the bus every day as we went over a whoopee hill. We'd egg him on and he'd hit the gas. If your were in the back of the bus you would fly up a foot or so out of your seat. Can you imagine a bus driver doing that today??? We loved him.

Missy said...

Ok, I have tears in my eyes now...your writings are so beautiful...down to earth and so much more! I am really enjoying reading on your blog! Thank you for sharing!