After that boy died in 1955, no one was allowed to dive from the lift bridge, or even ride it.
Each boat going through served as a reminder. For twenty minutes people sat waiting in cars, in the middle of town, while the entire section of roadway went up and a freighter passed under. Massive silver towers, greasy chain links the size of desks, concrete counterweights big as a backyard shed, yet the boy’s death loomed larger.
I thought of him, too – I was there when it happened – but I couldn’t forget the thrill of diving from forty feet, or jumping almost seventy. Once he died, fines were given out. You didn’t even have to get caught. They’d easily get your name and a fifty dollar fine got hand delivered back home. So we were told. No one had a nickel to spare, never mind fifty dollars.
Except canal employees, my dad was the last person I knew who rode that bridge. Ran out of gas in the middle. Of course it was my fault. We lived on Fares Street for a short time that year, 1957, and I brought the blue Studebaker home with nothing but fumes in the tank. He took me to fill it up. Didn’t get far before it sputtered and stopped in the middle of the bridge.
“You know where the gas can is.” He nodded toward the trunk; didn’t have to yell for me to know he was furious.
Drivers behind weren’t so subtle. With one lane in each direction, westbound traffic came to a dead halt. Four cars were honking behind us by the time I opened the trunk. I showed them the gas can to explain the problem.
Someone shouted: “Damn idiot.” I just laughed. Nothing else I could do.
“Better hurry up, Ron, the natives are restless. And there’s a steamship headed this way.”
I wondered what else could go wrong. Freighters couldn’t stop in time; the bridge had to get out of the way but riding it was against the law. By the looks of it, I had five minutes to cover five blocks and get five gallons of gas. I sprinted, pumped and paid, and was coming back when the siren went off. The yellow mechanical arm swooped down and everyone cleared the bridge, leaving my dad stranded in the middle, standing beside the car, facing me, shaking his head.
The guy in the machinery house, above the roadway, came out and shouted to him but I couldn’t hear over the bells indicating the bridge was seconds from takeoff. Spectators gathered, fascinated by the small town drama.
Sweating and frightened of my dad’s anger, the fear faded once the lifting began. I stopped and set the gas can down, close enough to see my dad’s eyes. He’d already lost most of his hair but wasn’t yet forty. Less than half the age I am now. He wore a jacket and tie; worked in a factory but looked like a banker. I envied his chance to have a little fun. He was already facing a fine, why not get the best value? I shouted: “Dive.”
Stone-faced, he didn’t reply, just stared me down until he rose out of view.
Years earlier, my father taught me to dive at the rented cottage where we spent a week each summer. Best I could do back then was press my hands together, bend my knees, and fall like a brick from the tiny dock. Yet he leapt, straight as an arrow, split the water with his hands and slipped into the tiny wrinkle. I’ve no idea how he learned that growing up in Yorkshire, England, with its cold, shabby streams and measly lakes. I wondered if he even knew the thrill of diving from more than two feet above water.
He never watched me dive off the lift bridge, though I did it dozens of times each summer, from 1950 to ’55, but I wished he had, wished we could dive together. Now he had the whole bridge to himself, first guy in two years carried up on it. If only he’d winked and said: “Just you watch,” the confident way he had a decade earlier at the cottage.
I pictured him removing his shoes, jacket and tie, curling his toes over the edge, then arcing out in a graceful leap. Applause would surely follow, from everyone watching in stopped cars, shop windows and on sidewalks.
He told me later the only thing he thought of on that bridge was how much I’d disappointed him. But he disappointed me – by not diving.
It wouldn’t have been so far out of character.
The man walked to work on snowshoes each winter. No one else did. He didn’t care what anyone thought. Dying of cancer, he ignored his doctor’s advice. Wanting to die at home but not permitted to leave the hospital, he snuck out and walked along the shore of Lake Erie. Got as far as Elm Street before orderlies caught up to him. He died the next day in the hospital room he hated. That was 1973.
Maybe if he wasn’t so mad at me, or if he knew there’d never be another chance to dive off that bridge with half the town watching, he’d have gone for it, and paid the fifty dollar fine with pride, like a tribute to a fallen hero.
Dave Gregory used to live and work at sea but now writes in a bay-windowed, book-lined room. Currently a reader for Gigantic Sequins, his work has appeared in many publications such as Literally Stories, Bull & Cross and Lowestoft Chronicle.
Image supplied by the author.