The Willies Bridge

Most people have a few irrational fears; black cats, scary movies or clowns. Some fears are normal; heights, the dark, water or fire, these are understandable phobias.

I have a phobia that I am not proud of. It has caused, at times, my family stress and on other occasions some entertainment. The fear has prompted me to change my driving route more than once. It is a condition that I have never sought treatment for, but I am sure there is some psychiatrist out there that would enjoy analyzing me.

When I am with others my secret fear is barely recognizable, but for me it is always front and center. It is a condition that can freeze me in one spot, not willing to move one more step forward. I have even read about people who share this same malady cancelling trips to exotic places because they may need to face this fear head on.

The statistics on how many are cursed with this condition are questionable. Most of us don’t like to admit our weakness, so we stay quiet. We carry our phobia in secret hoping it never shows itself to others.

We are the carriers of gephyrophobia, the fear of crossing bridges and overpasses.

You might say to yourself that you don’t like to cross bridges either. That is a reasonable stance to take especially if you live in Pennsylvania as I do which has the distinction of having the highest number of structurally deficient bridges in the country.

My fear goes farther than just not liking to cross a bridge, I don’t want to cross a bridge. The subtle difference between the two is that I will, in some cases, change my course of travel to avoid a particular bridge that you might just drive over with a little apprehension but continue on.

My affliction came on me innocently. It started with a simple request by a cute, blonde buzz cut, green eyed little boy (me) asking Dad, with pleading in my voice, to allow me to step out of our car “Black Beauty” while the rest of the family drove over the wooden planked bridge that spanned the Big Muddy River northeast of town.  If they all wanted to plunge nose first, riding the car all the way down with the glass naked lady hood ornament leading the way into the muck of a river below, that was their choice. I would be saved to run to the nearest farm house to get help or to carry on the Casey name after they all perished.

You can imagine how that request went over with First Sergeant, Dad.

To cross the evil bridge the driver first needed to line the tires up with the two wooden ramps that led up to the bridge. They angled up at a mean forty-five degrees. This was so that you could get to the bridge deck during high water.

As we started our ascent, all that could be seen from a five year old vantage point in the back seat looking over the thick bench seat in front of was sky and rusty iron beams. Even a five year old knows rust means decay. “Don’t leave that toy outside, it will rust…dry the shovel good or it will rust and we’ll need to buy a new one.”  Any second, Dad was going to trust the lives of his whole family to a bridge made of rust and rotting wood beams.

When the car leveled out on the bridge, the front wheels of the heavy DeSoto slapped the oiled beams forcing them to pop up and down like running your finger the full length of a piano keyboard. Each rise and fall was bringing the car load of Caseys to certain death. Two generations, gone in the murky sands and mud of the Big Muddy River. The creak and groan of the timbers sounded like death tapping on the back window, “I’ll be waiting for you at the bottom” I heard him say.

When we got to the other side and came down the ramp to the gravel base of the road, I took a quick peek back knowing that I was going to see the bridge collapse behind us in a slow motion bend and fall.

Of course all of this was repeated on the return trip. It was probably at that point Mom and Dad gave up all hope of their number two son ever growing up to be a contributing member of society.

The old bridge stood for many more years until it was finally cut off from traffic but it forever planted a seed of distrust in me for anything that spanned water.

And then“The Willies Bridge” was added to my list of nemeses.

The bridge from Rulo, NE over the Missouri River to the Missouri side is known at Casey dinner table conversation as “The Willies Bridge.”

“The Willies Bridge” spans the fastest moving river in the lower forty-eight states. The river cuts a menacing channel on a race to meet its sister, the Mississippi. Everything that fell into the river from its origins through the Dakotas and down the eastern border of Nebraska is just waiting to slice a car in half when it drops off the bridge into the steel grey water.

The bridge was originally a one way toll bridge. A car would approach the bridge on a long climbing curve up to the main bridge deck. Again, another bridge built well above flood stage, (wouldn’t catch me on it during a flood anyway.) Once you hit the toll area the driver had a red or green light to signal a safe crossing. With the go signal the driver pulled up, paid the toll and went across the massive expansion of iron girders painted white and looking like a maze of spider webs suspending cars above the water. The other side of the bridge was the long flat bottom lands formed by the Missouri River.

The ride across was almost a pleasant trip. You were higher than the rest of the countryside which gave you views up and down the river and a chance to share the beauty explorers Lewis and Clark must have experienced on their passage through this part of the country.

Then, some politician decided to turn what was a one lane, somewhat safe bridge, into a two way free bridge.

All bets were off.

Black Beauty, with her full fenders and wide bumpers sucked up the full width of her allotted lane space. Crossing now meant facing oncoming traffic at highway speeds leaving very little room to spare.  Coming at us on crossings were monsters such as tractor trailers whose tires stood taller than the average first grader, and ten row combines with their enormous claws ready to flip any car over the edge and into the river only to surface somewhere around St. Joseph, MO.

To make the traverse even more interesting, a Burlington Northern coal train bound for Norfolk, VA might be charging east on the trestle next to the bridge, so close to your opposite side that you could feel the vibration of the railcars as they ticked the joints in the rails.

Death was imminent.

There were much easier ways to cross the Missouri but Dad never seemed to opt for them. All he had to do was drive about fifty miles north and cross at Nebraska City, a newer and better bridge arrangement. Or, drive to St. Joseph, MO, sixty miles to the south and again have a safer trip across. But, for some reason, he chose to risk the lives of potentially future leaders and parents of his grandchildren on the “Willies Bridge.”

But, the story of this bridge doesn’t end here.

On our trips from Pennsylvania to Nebraska to visit the folks, the last leg of the journey was often at night. We would gas up in St. Joe and follow I-29 north to just outside Oregon, MO. Once off the interstate, we followed a lonely highway through Squaw Creek Wildlife refuge, dodging deer, fox and other assorted creatures that decided they owned the highway at night.

Coming out of the refuge places you on the bottom lands of the Missouri River. The bottom lands was also were fog hangs so thick at night that as Roger Welsch is fond of saying, “You could put shingles on it.”

The crossing that follows occurred on one of those nights.

The headlights only worked a few feet in front of the car then they hit a wall as if someone was holding a white bed sheet over the road. The center line of the highway was swallowed up and the white line on the right was all but washed away from recent rains and flooding. I knew the bridge with its arching climb was somewhere looming ahead in the fog.

As we got closer to the bridge my knuckles on the wheel were as white as the blanket that surrounded us. There was no hiding the tension that was building up in me from Tina and Adam. I probably didn’t instill confidence in either one of them by voicing my growing fear of the bridge. I was not being a good captain.

Adam from the back seat, “What’s the matter dad, does this bridge give you the willies?” From that moment it was christened “The Willies Bridge.”

Of course his comment didn’t inspire any calm in me.

As we started up the ramp to the bridge I was all but crawling with the car. A child in a pedal car could have passed me, but I knew what was yet to come. My heart was beating out the rhythm of the “Jaws” theme in my ears.

And then, there it was, looming out of the fog like the Death Star coming into view for Luke Skywalker. It reached its iron tentacles out to us like a Halloween skeleton beckoning us to come forward with an “I won’t hurt you” utterance.

The tires hummed as they stepped off the blacktop onto the grate of the bridge deck. I slowed even more knowing that below me was the churning blackish water of the Missouri, beside me on both sides were paths to a death plunge off the bridge.

And then, a faint light ahead. Two white eyes surrounded by fuzzy orange balls. They were getting closer. The lights grew brighter turning the entire scene into the white light those who have returned from the edge of death talk about. This is it, we’re going over the edge. The roar of the monster was from deep in its gut and its hot breath was felt through the open windows.

When the tractor trailer passed a calm came over the car. There was no road noise, the fog lifted and no movement could be felt.

Silence and black.

Are we dead?

Is this it?

No, I slowed the car down so much that we came to a stop. And, for just a fleeting second, I thought about getting out and walking the rest of the way across.

“The Willies Bridge” was replaced several years ago. It ended up in the watery grave of the river which taunted it for so many years. A “safe” modern bridge now connects Missouri and Nebraska. The new bridge was completed ahead of schedule. That fact doesn’t instill any real confidence in me. What corners did they cut to satisfy a schedule? What bolt was not turned or which weld is was not finished?

I think I will still take the alternate route if I ever travel that direction again.

All part of growing up is…hanging on to some of the scars that were… all part of growing up.

If you want to watch the death of the bridge, click on the link. Trust me, I had nothing to do with its demise.


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Black Beauty was not only a Horse!

Cars have lost much of the character they once had. Long gone are the heavy real metal bumpers that could push another automobile out of a ditch and never sustain a scratch or dent. You don’t see moon hubcaps that could reflect your image like your own personal funhouse of mirrors or trunks big enough to stuff a body into, (not that anyone ever did.) How about the steering wheels, many were as big as the wheels they commanded. Cars are no longer described using words such as, “a buoyant restful ride; or, a gentle easy-going boulevard ride.” Those words just inspire the image of a big Packard rolling down Main Street on a Saturday night.

Gone are the little side windows you could pop out to funnel just the right amount of air to keep you cool without blowing you apart or impaling you with passing grasshoppers. And, you will never again find the most convenient feature of all, the headlight dimmer mounted just to the left of the driver’s foot.

What genius took that away?

Today’s automobiles spend more time thinking for us and protecting us than they do transporting us from one place to another. Cars can email us, they can give us updates on their condition and we are getting very close to self-driving cars. Almost every car today can tell you if someone is beside you, behind you and if you are too close to the car in front of you, it will stop you. I am waiting for the day when in the middle of a July downpour it pumps its own gas so the driver stays dry or after hitting a Pennsylvania pothole, it drops a new tire to replace the flat that is whopping along like a deflated basketball.

Cars of the present have short lives and are often replaced with ones bigger, better and faster after a few years of ownership. They rarely stick around long enough to become part of a family history.

None of this was the case with our first family car a 1948’ish Desoto, “Black Beauty.” Yes she had a name just like everyone else in the family. Dad never said I need to take the car in for service, it was “I need to take Black Beauty to Rich’s tomorrow.” Rich Hall, who owned and operated Hall Motor’s in town was Black Beauty’s doctor. Dad never brought “the car” around for us on Sunday mornings. Instead, once he was in shirt and tie he would announce that he was going down to get Black Beauty. We would finish dressing and then we met the two of them at the corner and loaded up for church. Once all the doors were closed, dad would proclaim, “Okay Mrs. S, we are all in.” Mrs. S was the neighbor directly across the street from our loading point. She must have mentioned to mom somewhere along the line that we disturb her sleep on Sunday mornings and that, “you Catholics go to church way too early in the morning.”

I can’t tell you the exact date when Black Beauty came into the family but I can tell you about the day. I was uptown, probably at the movies or library with either Tom or Mary and walking down 18th street I could see a strange car parked in front of the garage. We didn’t call that area a driveway because there was never a car parked in it until this day. But on this day, in the driveway sat a black, long nosed beauty. She had moon hubcaps which were framed by two inch wide white walls and a glass, naked lady that flew in the face of the wind as a hood ornament befitting the figureheads of the finest sailing ships of old.

Black Beauty

Black Beauty

If you are a follower of these stories you have already met Black Beauty several times. It was Black Beauty that drove me to the hospital the snowy morning after a birthday to have my tonsils removed. It was Black Beauty that dad would park in a prime spot uptown and then we would join her later in the evening to “people watch” and eat popcorn from the Rivoli Theater.


It was Black Beauty that made an attempt at a career as a tree trimmer.

After one rough Nebraska windstorm, the Dutch elm tree on the front terrace shed a limb that was hanging precariously over the street just waiting to drop on an unfortunate driver. Dad thought it was his civic duty to remove the impending danger.

Where Dad found the rope to start this operation is still a mystery to me. The rope was as thick as my young arm and long enough for him to somehow get it up in the tree, over the dangling limb and back down to earth. The next step was to tie the rope to Black Beauty’s rear bumper.  A bumper that was definitely strong enough to tackle a little ole limb.

Dad climbed into the saddle of Black Beauty and Tom, who at that time was probably thinner than the rope being used stood to the rear to give guidance. Tom slapped the back of Black Beauty like he was sending a race horse down the track. Dad gunned her engine and she pulled with all of her might until,

She ran out of rope.

The limb, which we now know was not totally broken off, pulled back like a deep sea fisherman hooking the fish of a lifetime. Black Beauty lifted her rear wheels off the ground and dangled on her front two for a split second. And then, with a few more like bounces the battle was over. The limb held its position with a taught line waiting for the fish to be cut free. Black Beauty if she could talk probably would have the same stunned reaction that dad did stepping out.

Tom and Dad both looked at the situation like guys do thinking that a careful and intent stare will magically yield and answer. Then one of them came up with the solution, simply cut her free. When the rope was cut, which was now under enough tension we could have used it as a Middle Ages catapult to launch stones to the other side of the neighborhood, Black Beauty immediately settled all of her weight back to the street and tree took back what belonged to it.

The rope and limb both stayed up in the tree until years later when the tree finally died of Dutch elm disease. Black Beauty never volunteered for hazardous duty again.

Black Beauty became a mobile command center for Tom’s Ham Radio hobby. Dad fashioned a sign to the license plate with Tom’s call letters WA0DFX. For a while she sported a long white whip antenna mounted to the bumper. Tom served as the emergency coordinator for the Amateur Radio Club. For that job, Black Beauty was ready to spring into action when called on.

Tom learned to drive with Black Beauty. Tom was never a tall man and in his early driving years he sat on multiple cushions to see over the long nose and utilized built up pedals to reach the brake and gas.

Black Beauty was not above playing a few practical jokes and some of them were at Tom’s expense. One night Tom and I were returning from probably a Stanton’s Lake run or maybe to drop something off at one of his radio buddies when she decided to test his loyalty and honesty. As a good law abiding driver Tom signaled for a right turn coming up. I can remember it as a right turn because we were heading east  on 21st street just passing the One Stop Café and turning onto Stone Street. When the turn was complete, the turn signal failed to stop blinking. We were approaching the next intersection with a blinking right turn signal. Tom felt obligated to make the turn since that was what Black Beauty was signaling. Now, Tom was not one to get flustered except when it came to potentially breaking the law. Tom was always a “by the book” man. We have now made one planned right turn and one obligated right turn. We are coming up on the next intersection with the blinker still going, we made another right, and again, and again, and again. Finally, breaking all rules, and I am sure after he checked every mirror for the local constables, stuck out his left hand to manually signal a left hand turn to get us home.

I never remember Black Beauty having an owner’s manual. If there was a manual, it would have had no problem finding room in the bucket size glove box next to a coffee thermos, peanut butter sandwich, pliers, first-aid kit, sewing kit, flashlight, extra batteries for the flashlight, gloves worn for putting on the chains in winter, a bottle of Pepto Bismal, and Blackjack chewing gum.

Black Beauty was our family ride until she was replaced with a 1960 something Dodge Dart with push button drive and this new advantage called air-conditioning. The dart never had a name other than the car or the dart. The dart was the car I learned to drive and it was also the car I managed to get royally stuck on a muddy country road, but that will be another story.

When Black Beauty was traded in for the dart, she made her rounds with several people in town but was eventually put out to pasture. I mean she was parked in a pasture just at the edge of town within sight of the fly saucer water tower of Falls City. For a number of years I watched the weeds grow up around her and secretly wanted to rescue her when I was old enough. She sat there staring back into to town, the sticker I placed on the back side window from Mary’s Navy days was slowly faded by the Nebraska sun and her tires all lost pressure like an elderly person finally surrendering to gravity.

One day Black Beauty was no longer there. Sometimes I imagine when I see an old Desoto at car shows that… maybe Black Beauty donated some of her parts so that others could ride on.

Ya never know.

But I do know that not only people, pets and places come in and out of our lives, but also machines that make our lives easier and they share in some of the same family memories that add to…all part of growing up.