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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