The bridge was about one hundred feet long and was wide enough for two trains to pass each other at the same time. The passenger trains that ran north and south between Chicago and St. Louis would pass three or four times a day. Most of the time it was real quiet; the only others we’d come across were a few fishermen close to the lotus grass. When the trains passed, it was something to see. In town, these never reached more than ten or fifteen miles per hour, but once they hit the outskirts of town the engineer would let out the throttle and would reach seventy miles per hour. The force the train’s slipstream was enough knock us over and suck us under as it flew past. Knowing this, we’d stand between the tracks and wait until the last second before jumping off the bridge into the water. The engineer would blow his whistle like mad, because if we’d have been hamburger if the train would have hit us.
The first time we went out to the bridge, there were only three of us. Butch, Harold and I stood at the edge of the bridge and looked down in to the murky water, wondering if it was safe to jump. Butch said, “Go on, man. Jump off!” I took it for one of his jokes. I’d seen him do this kind of stuff before. He’d say, “Drive down that street real fast,” and I’d find that it would be full of pot-holes. I figured he just wanted to see me fall twenty-five feet into three feet of water, so he could laugh his ass off. I wasn’t falling for it this time. I said, “No way! Man, you go first!” He said, “Okay,” and in a question of seconds, he jumped off. As soon as he did, I jumped, too. He wasn’t going to call me a wimp! Nonetheless, as I fell, I had just enough time to ask myself what the hell I’d gotten myself into. In any case, water cooled us off in seconds. The heat and humidity of the summer were oppressive. The big thing was that I didn’t back down; I kept up with Butch, who was one of the daredevils in our crew.
Harold didn’t jump in, though. He stood at the top of the bridge and watched us swimming around. He eventually walked down the embankment and waded into the water. I asked him, “Why don’t you just jump off, man? It’s easy!” He gave me a look like he wanted to be left alone. I could tell he was agitated. When he’d get flustered about something, he’d get real jumpy and snap at everything. I could tell something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was. He stayed along the shore and moved into shallow water. When Butch was out of earshot, I asked him, “Don’t you know how to swim?” I asked. “Hell, yeah, I know how to swim!” he snapped back. I could tell he just didn’t want to admit it. I could tell that he was worried that if he jumped from the bridge, he’d never come up.
Harold knew how to swim. Well, I mean that he knew the moves, but he’d never practiced them in open water. The only pool he had ever swum in was the above-ground pool in his back yard in the summer, and it only had three feet of water in it. I didn’t know what was worse: him being afraid of jumping off the bridge or us knowing he was afraid. It really hit his reputation hard. He was the ultimate “do anything, try anything” skateboarder, a guy that could pull off moves that the rest of us would never even try. He’d do power dives into half pipes that would make airplane test pilots sweat and get air as he came out of the ramps at thirty miles per hour. No one expected him to be so cautious. He spent the first afternoon teaching himself to swim and the next time we went to the bridge, he jumped off like the rest of us.
To be continued…
Cross-posted at My Ongoing Struggle with Misanthropy: http://jimmygabacho.com/?p=890