"Wait a minute—where's the bridge?"
I asked this, almost involuntarily, as my cousin, his wife, and I were passing through the town where so many of my relatives had lived and where one of them, my mother's brother, Sylvester "Sec" Hollen, had once served as mayor—Bellwood, Pennsylvania.
Bellwood is split by railroad tracks, and the missing bridge had connected the two sides of town.
"We just went over it," my cousin's wife replied.
We had just passed over a modern highway bridge that I had thought was another bridge that I vaguely remember as being past the other end of town. By now, I was lost and disoriented.
"No, i mean the bridge where there was a three-way stop that caused traffic jams and truckers difficulty," I said.
"It was torn down. There's a park there now. The bridge we just came over replaced it."
Lost. Disoriented. And confused.
After we'd completed our shopping, I asked to be taken back down Main Street to see where the old bridge had been and where the new one is.
The old bridge was, if I recall correctly, short and steep on the side toward Main Street, which made it somewhat dangerous in winter and for trucks. If it wasn't that, it was difficult to tell who had the right of way, and at times traffic would back up down both Main Street and over the bridge. I think it had been the scene of some accidents and more near-misses. In short, it gave the town character, although not necessarily one that it wanted.
They drove me back, and I got a quick glimpse of a little park that ends, of course, where the railway right-of-way begins. Imagine seeing a park where, for your entire life, you've been used to seeing an old bridge. For me, it was like being in a strange town, one that, with that one landmark missing, was now unfamiliar, almost foreign.
What I saw next, near the end of Main Street, added to the sense of alienation. Past the old houses, some with faux brick siding, where there once had been nothing, there passed overhead a monstrous highway bridge against the sky. The next day, I saw the bridge from the perspective of my aunt's house. It must run diagonally, because while it is behind her house, it can be seen from her front door. It was surreal to stand in her quaint old kitchen that I've been visiting for more than 40 years and to see that bridge, like standing in the familiar past while looking at an imposing and cold future.
Whether from the perspective of Main Street or my aunt's house, the bridge looks out of place. Later I would think that, in the slanting rays of evening, it looked like a Hollywood artist had mistakenly mixed a matte painting of an old small town with one of a futuristic city.
Things change, and only memories, photographs, and words can preserve the past, and then perhaps only for those who can boast of a visual imagination.
I doubt many mourn the loss of the old bridge and the problems that came with it; the new one offers many advantages, not the least of which is the passage of piggyback trains underneath. Still, it will take me a while, at least a few more visits, before I get used to the new Main Street—both the missing and the new.