Saturday, August 25, 2018

Bridge Building

I sketched the design, wrote out a bill of materials. I let the drawing sit, revised it, added detail, thought it through, looked at models. I designed a buttress of rock and rebar, one for either end, measured the gap. It was 20 feet across the pond inlet, bank to bank.

I debated what type lumber. What type stress will my bridge support? Grand kids jumping up and down? (I dream.) A lawn mower? Snow and ice … Most lumber only goes so long as sixteen feet. How to form a 20 foot truss? I work alone. How to build, then carry the bridge? I could build it in place, over the water. Maybe. Maybe not. How do I haul lumber to the site? It could be delivered. I asked an expert, a builder friend, Robert, how wide should I make the bridge? “The wider the better,” he said. I chose 32 inches, so I could cut three deck pieces from each eight foot board, about fifteen long boards in all.

It was a delightful cogitation, which I stretched and chewed for about six months. I decided to bind two ten-foot wood girders with a sixteen foot piece. I debated types of stock — 4x4” treated, or 2x6” or 2x8” — the types of bolts, binders, screws and fasteners, and the type of glue. I pulled up bridge designs for the Appalachian Trail and challenged my specs. I considered features like a toe rail, but said not. I decided on 2x8” treated pine for the truss frame, topped by 5/4x6” deck boards. I fastened the truss beams using brown-enameled carriage bolts, washers and nuts, and a finger-thick smear of all-weather glue snaked between the bolted boards.


My grandfather H.R. Gibbons was a Stevens-educated engineer, working first at Hyatt Roller Bearing and then General Motors, both jobs under Alfred Sloan. H.R. was a man of precision and standards. His wood shop and garage was immaculate and well-equipped — DeWalt radial saw, drill press, band saw, automotive tools and more. H.R. built the row boat my sister Kathy and I, my mother Joan and I, pulled out onto the Tred Avon which curled around my grandparent’s house, Boundary Point, in Easton, Maryland. We fed ducks in the swale.

H.R. and my grandmother Dot had two daughters, Lois and Joan. Joan, my mother, took to son-like hobbies with her father. She built furniture, made skilled things with wood, glue and varnish. Joan and H.R. sailed and fished Barnegat Bay. She was a lab worker at Merck early on and, later, for most of her life, a middle school math teacher. I loved her. We played baseball catch together, on the tarry pavement and on park playgrounds in Washington, DC.


I loved Dad, too, but he was different, a disorganized creative, a writer, a disrupter. He fixed the world, on a large scale, e.g., the Pentagon Papers, Vietnam War, and Iraq, a valiant embed with mud soldiers (at age 75).

Dad and I built a lot of things together. We made a soap box derby race car from plywood, lathe and fiberglass, with wheels and steering gear from a General Motors kit. We took my mother’s ironing board and used it to draw the pattern of the fuselage bottom on a 4 by 8 foot sheet of three-quarter inch marine plywood. That car, the soap box derby, was the bomb. We had it for many years, racing down neighborhood streets, and pushing it back uphill. I was about nine years old when we drew the fuselage. When I grew too big for the box, Dad and I cut away the car’s rear bulkhead, so I could squeeze in my long, lanky teenage frame. My Great Falls neighborhood buds, Russ, Dan, Jamie, Tom ("Squirrel") and others, would do crazy things in the yellow race car, skidding it across gravel and tumbling into a ditch, and worse.

None of us died, and all injuries seemed to heal in about a day. That was good. We were cool kids. Dad was a cool dad, “Jungle George.”

I built things for and with my own boys, Nathan and Avery. Some of it was good, some not quite. I remember the delight they expressed when I built a chair framed in two-by-fours, with the seat and back “crafted” from their old skateboard decks. “Dad, so cool!”

Skateboarding was a thing of their youth. We’d hunt out skateboard parks with ramps and pools where the boys would drop-in, loop, whip and hop about (far beyond any skill I ever had). They’d foregather with their friends to perform and perfect tricks. An early project I built was a quarter-pipe ramp, which the kids could roll-up, twist and squirt about — and sometimes crash and fall.

The initial ramp was a simple wedge made of three-quarter inch plywood undergird by two-by-fours and scrap wood. It rose from the driveway to about 18 inches high. Pretty good. The kids loved it. They’d roll down the street, into our driveway and cut a curve and twist across the wedge. Like many things I do, the ramp was subjected to progressive refinement. We made it taller and, using stubs, braces and flexible quarter-inch marine plywood, created a gentle curve, and a top lip, so it genuinely resembled a quarter-pipe, not some kick ramp. More kids were attracted to our house (a win in most any child’s esteem). Sometimes, we’d come home and see the ramp in full use, skateboarders training and experimenting. They were quite good.

I saw my own possibility for fun and elevation. I didn’t do skateboards owing to my poor balance, but I rode bikes. I had bought a used ten speed for $15 at a garage sale; it was my commuter bike.

I called attention to my boys, put on my cycling helmet, pedaled hard and launched off the ramp. I had a vision of Evel Knieval on his motorcycle, soaring over a stack of cars or across a river gorge, landing triumphantly, throwing his arms up in victory as he rolled smoothly out after his daring leap. My weight distribution and speed were wrong, so as I came over the ramp my bike nosed-down and dropped away. I continued in the air, at about six feet altitude, and then belly-flopped down to the street pavement. I wasn’t dead. It hurt like hell. I moaned. My wife Carolyn came out; the boys said, “Dad are you okay?” I said, "No." “Should I call an ambulance?” Carolyn asked. “No,” I groaned. “Just hot bath, hot tub.”

After about five or ten minutes of inert groaning and injury self-assessment, I lumbered-up, aided by family members, made my way into the house, had the bath, and medicated with pain pills and smears of ointment. I was pretty bruised-up, kind of like a soap-box derby crash of yore. Otherwise, I was somewhat pleased with myself. This is how we Wilson boys played.

Old fool was I. Cool dad.