By Wendy lee Maddox
It was hard to keep her feet from slipping on the slimy, green algae oozing across the log footbridge. Rough ridges, from when it was hewed flat with an adze on the top side, were the only grip. If it had been store bought lumber, all planed and sanded, she would have never got across it. Below, the muddy creek roiled and slid its way down stream, surging forward and breathing a pulse of water along the top edge of the banks. Chunks of red clay plopped into the water every now and then, carving off the edges and expanding the width of the creek. It had been raining for 17 days straight now. Every single day it rained. Sometimes hard, sometimes just sprinkling. All the time grey. It was like living inside a cloud, or maybe like being a salamander, breathing air through your skin pores right from the water. Water seeped through her rain jacket, straggled her hair into messy tendrils, and ran off the tip of her nose. It was a cold rain, colder than it should be in the middle of May. They almost had a frost the other night, probably would have if the sky had ever cleared off. The garden was a soggy, muddy mess and her peas had rotted in the ground. The potatoes had somehow managed to grow enough tops before the rain started, so they hadn’t turned to mush. She had not been able to get anything else planted out yet, but she had a bunch of starts in a sunny window, waiting.
As she carefully stepped her way across her footbridge, holding tightly onto the single, rusted hand rail, she thought back to the grand old swinging bridge that sat here before and the Big Flood that finally took it out. She had loved that bridge. It was so much better built. She and her brothers and papaw had made it out of old suspension cables and parts collected from the long abandoned oil well that used to sit right behind the house. That well had petered out and been capped and newer, deeper ones had since taken its place, with gasoline engines and new fangled pumping jacks that came on a skid, already put together. They still only produced just enough oil for a small check each month. Barely enough to live on. And now she even had to pay to have the wells pumped instead of the gas being free, like it always was.
She remembered when she and her brothers had helped dismantle the original drill tower, like a giant erector set, sorting all the pieces and pulling the steel guy wires down to the creek like giant snakes. The boys had harnessed Beet and Tucker, the work horses, and hauled some oak logs down from the woods to split into boards for the bridge decking. They dug extra deep holes to hold up the pair of metal posts on either side of the creek, and hauled barrows and barrows of rocks to tamp down into the holes. It was hard work and took most of one fall to finish. It was the last time she can ever remember being allowed to work alongside her brothers, or her grandpa. He had driven them hard to finish that bridge before winter set in. He believed in doing things right and they built it tall and strong so that it would hold up over time. That bridge ended up being the last thing they ever built together. It wasn’t long after that she reached that age where she was only supposed to do more ladylike sorts of chores.
As it was she had to do most of the cooking and cleaning anyway. Her mother had died with her last baby and all her sisters would soon be married off. Her father didn’t want her to even meet any boys saying,
“You need to stay home where you belong, taking care of your brothers and the house. There is no need for you to go to school just so you can get ideas about leaving here. That’s what happened to your sisters.”
She hated that she never got to go to town or to the little school right down the road anymore. The only time she got away was once a year for the county fair, surrounded by her brothers and her father at all times.
Helping to build the new bridge had been a high point of her life. It was nice to get to do something besides housework, with all the cooking and gardening it took to feed her brothers and father and Pap. Most of the bridge work was too heavy for her but she helped pick rocks out of the newly plowed soil every winter and she could help by throwing them down the holes to support the uprights. When they had finally gotten the end pipes set in position and tamped the rocks in tight, it was time to string the metal suspension cables across the creek. Her brothers took turns monkeying up the twenty foot poles to push the heavy cables through the holes drilled up near the tops. Sweat ran down their backs as they gave the final effort to get the heavy cable lifted up and in. Once the end was pulled through and reached the ground again it took two work horses to pull it out to the anchors the boys had drilled into the bedrock, well back of the bridge.
She walked with the team, encouraging them not to give up when it got difficult, keeping them at a steady pace. After the horses had stretched them as far as they could, and all four cables were bolted to their anchors, it was obvious they were still hanging too loose.
Papaw thought it over some and came up with the idea of tautening the cables by using a big wheel for better leverage. So the next chore involved moving the big, old wooden band wheel from up in the pump shack to down by the bridge cables. It was a twelve foot diameter wheel that had rocked the walking beam up and down, by way of a wide canvas belt turned by a one cylinder, natural gas engine. Papaw rigged it up with a ratchet gear so they could tighten the cables well above the water, out of reach of most floods. It took two, hundred foot cables on top and two down at floor level.
“Young’uns, I believe we could play a fiddle tune on those cables now. That’ll do her.”
They spent the next little while attaching a series of shorter wires for side braces and laying deck planks evenly across. She got to help weave the ropes through the wood ends and around the lower cables. Her brother Tom almost made her fall in more than once by jumping up and down on the cables while she was suspended out there in the middle with nothing much to hold on to.
“Just you wait till I get finished with these boards before you go riling things up, Tom. Then you can get it swinging and bucking without me on it. That is, if you want me to cook you any supper tonight.”
When the footbridge was finally done that fall it was the best built one anyone had ever seen. It spanned such a long ways across that you could get a nice rhythm going when you walked just right, timing your footsteps with the gentle rise and fall. That was her favorite part. If you got into stepping right you could have it heaving up and down pretty good after awhile and it was like dancing on a ship at sea. Her father hated it when she got it going like that, but she loved it more than anything. She couldn’t hardly cross it without getting a good surging swing going along the way. Father would tack on extra chores anytime he saw her do it but her granddad always said he built it to last and it could handle the stress.
“Leave her be, son. It’s just a bit of fun. That bridge can take it. We built her right. ”
That old bridge had held just fine for forty years. Sure, every few years they would have to replace a few of the deck boards with fresh ones, from the saw mill over the ridge, but the rest of it was almost indestructible. Being out in the weather was rough on the wood, even if it was oak. Chestnut would have lasted a lot longer, but since the Chestnut Blight came through, all the Chestnut trees had died and were long gone. Chestnut wood was hard to come by these days and too precious to waste on outside floorboards. You either saved it for furniture building or stored it away in the barn as a savings account for later. There would never again be Chestnuts growing to full size in the forest.
When the Big Flood of Fifty, the worst flood to ever hit here, came along, it rained so hard for so long that the creek grew into a raging monster. The water spread out, rising over top of both the first and second natural flood banks, across the bottomlands, covering the ground from one hill to the other, all along its length. Waves splashed wherever it ran up against trees, or sheds, or fences until the water worked away at whatever was in its’ path long enough to wear it clear away. It ripped fences and trees out and piled them up into huge dams, backing the creek up until it was as deep as a house and then would suddenly break loose and send off all the piled up debris downstream with such force that entire barns toppled into the water. Cows got stranded on little bits of high ground and then were washed away, bellowing, just their heads bobbing up every now and again, until they vanished.
The muddy water came all the way up to the top of the risen ground where our house stood and was lapping at the porch for three days before it finally stopped raining and the creek started to slowly recede. Silt and mud and trees and bits of buildings was left everywhere. Some places got leveled out and improved with rich new soil. Some spots had so many trees and trash piled up it would take years to clean up.
Our haystacks floated down stream and came to rest on the Overbridge’s farm down the road, still upright and dry. Grandpa always made sure we made good tight stacks, but even he was surprised they had floated so well. All the cross fences were gone. Those sturdy, steel pipe bridge supports caught all kinds of trash and trees floating down the creek and finally toppled over, the cables of the footbridge acting like a big seine net, scooping up all kinds of flotsam, wedging into a dam, digging and swirling out a deep pond on the upstream side. The only place to cross the creek for a long time after that was a long ways downstream.
Her family lost one old beef cow to the flood, but the Jersey milkers were safe in the upper barn. All the chickens and pigs had moved uphill into the woods for the duration and they eventually herded them back down. Their two story, wood sided, yellow farm house was placed just high enough to escape the waters.
It was a week after the rain stopped that we were finally able to take our shoes off and find a place to cross the creek and make it down the road, which had washed out in numerous places. Deep gouges showed where mud had slipped down off the hills, taking all the trees and throwing them across the road.
One mudslide came right through the back wall of the Gaskin’s house and filled their kitchen with mud, ruining everything in there. They were all asleep in their beds at the other end of the house when it happened and they were OK. Nobody had any footbridges left and the shallow crossings for the pickups and tractors all had to be re-dug.
That was all such a long time ago, even though she remembers it like yesterday. Nothing was ever the same afterwards. Some folks just up and left when they lost everything. The ones that stayed chiseled away at the clean up for years. Nobody trusted the creek to stay put anymore.
So now, with her brothers and sisters all grown and gone, and her mother and father and grandpa long dead, all she had was this pitiful single log for a footbridge and a life time of memories. She didn’t really need a big fancy bridge anymore but she missed the time they all had when they built it. She missed her brothers, Deal, who went off to war and came back so changed, and Tom, who never made it back at all. She missed her sisters, who had all moved far away and never made the trip back to visit anymore. She missed her Papaw who stood up for her when her dad wouldn’t. She missed the way the neighbors used to help each other out without expecting anything in return.
Why was she feeling so wrought up over things that had happened so far in the past? What would her papaw say if he saw her acting like this?
“Now girl. Get your britches pulled up and your boots on. Time to get a move on and live for today. There’s work to be done still. Who else is going to do it if not you? Walk yourself across that foot log and go see your neighbors. See if they need anything. Stop worrying about what isn’t even there anymore. You’ve got good health and you’re getting around alright. Go help those that need it.”
Besides, this rain, wasn’t anything like the rain had been back in 1950. People had telephones now and could call each for help when they needed it. She had neighbors that would drive her into town if she asked. Things weren’t so bad. She was just an old lady wishing for things to be different when really, things were better now. She must remember that.