Memories of the bridges we’ve crossed

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 7:30pm

Spring is coming in spurts, as it is prone to do, but not at such extremes as this year. We always wait for the shad to bloom, watching it bud in the cool of April, often to flower and fade in a very few days of bright sun.

It is the ornamentals that put the passage of time more certainly at our feet, those trees that are close to the roads, planted in some landscaping plan that was so successful the trees need to be trimmed if not outright removed, a distraction from the fact they grow displaying the direction of the worst, most biting, salt wind. They are, in winter, more obviously, misshapen; spring flowers soften the flaw.

We did have some sun last week and the clouds of flowers at Bridge Gate fell, softening the nearby pavement, a sure sign of the passage of time, that spring will not be delayed, despite the cool gray. There were wild dandelions, green weedy grass not yet cut, and the fragile petals of ornamental trees collected where the loosely edged parking lot ran into the earth around it. It was not until later I realized my little nature collection included as well the less benign and still virtually everywhere for the looking, cigarette butts.

They collect everywhere all year long, swept by traffic and the wind to the edges of every paved area in town, so visible to anyone who walks more than a few feet. People are surprised when I tell them I smoked, heavily by any measure, for several years; I know the hour and day and year I quit, prompted by our doctor at the time, John Bennett, who took to leaving notes of his stop smoking class on windshields — at least I've always presumed it wasn't just mine. It was torturous, but of all the usual factors, perhaps the most compelling, even beyond a timely case of bronchitis, was the fact of those filters which would never vanish from the earth.

The sun is in and out this morning, a promise that slides behind the clouds long enough to dismay, then re-emerges, bright and hopeful, as swaths of blue in the sky widen, only to lessen and fade.

Since my first egret sighting 10 days ago I have been noticing one behind my house.

It caught my attention one gray day when I had stopped to watch the boat passing, the vessel white on a sunless day. It was headed for Galilee and seemed miles farther out than its sister, coming to dock in Old Harbor a few minutes earlier. The egret flew over the back side of the pond and then vanished, not settling in the lingeringly gray woody vines at the edge of the water, nor simply disappearing below the crest of the hill. It seemed not even to glide to a gentle landing but dropped into the mass of vegetation that has grown up around the old drain to the ocean, disappearing like some sort of shooting star, making me wonder I'd seen it at all.

I saw the one — I presume it is not the same bird, but who knows? — by Mitchell Farm, again, turned slightly, looking, at first glance, injured. It was just a few long feathers slipped out of place in the wind,  but it reminded me of looking up egrets in two different books, my mother's 1936 “Birds of America” with its magnificent, albeit gory, color plates, and a more recent Audubon field guide. The older text cited a decrease in a once common species, largely attributable to a demand for its plumes to decorate ladies' hats; the newer reflected upon the reversal of that trend and the renewal of the great white birds.

It's hard to think where we even see such things, plumes and/or ladies' hats, in old movies, perhaps, worn by glamorous stars who smoked cigarettes in long black holders keeping nicotine stains from white gloved hands.

The Newport Bridge is 50 years old this year. I remember when it was new, a great span outlined with string-of-pearl lights we could easily see on clear nights. More, I remember when there was no bridge, I think first from a trip to the mainland to play basketball in Jamestown, the infamous “Jamestown trip” when the Sprigg Carroll, an hour out and only halfway home, turned around and took us back to Galilee, cold and sleepy in winter.

It was the Jamestown Bridge I remembered from that trip, with its steep middle section with an open metal grid, above the water, a memory reinforced a few years later when we went to Newport on another school trip, the sole time I ever rode the little ferry that was the connector between the two islands.

It couldn't have been very big, but it was bigger than the Sprigg, and it was fast and easy, vehicles loading and offloading with an ease I'd never imagined, much less experienced. Of Newport I remember only the mansions, which even then held no interest beyond their place in history. It wasn't that I was caught in any social statement on conspicuous consumption, only that they lacked the intrigue of the rambling wood and stone structures of Watch Hill and even the remnants of the one-time elegant Narragansett Pier.

I remember, more, of the new Newport Bridge, that we could better see its lines when it was new and the lights around it less, when there was no great pink glow rising above Clay Head and Bush Lot Hill on a summer night, when the southern shore of Rhode Island was lined with simple summer cottages, and bright corridors of commerce were more distant.

It has been a long time since I have driven over that bridge, on a gray day, such as this has again become. High above the water, my eyes not drifting to the view, it seemed the pale towers were the very portals to the sky.