It Could Have been 1977

{…continued from yesterday…}

It’s the man we tried to wave to, only now he’s standing, one arm pivoting a bow against the fiddle strings. We walk back toward the entrance to the footbridge, but even the sound of the gravel underfoot drowns out our serenade. The music beckons us to stop. Stand still. Take it all in. And at this moment, it’s impossible to think he’s playing for anyone other than us, two non-natives in scrappy clothes come to see the bridge he’s been looking at every day for the past few decades.

When the man switches from fiddle to mandolin, we know what to do. Snatching up his tripod, Shane pivots on his heels and starts walking at a good clip toward the bridge. He crosses ahead of me and is at the man’s front yard in no time. I grab my clipboard from the car and hustle over.

“Got a name for this bridge?” Shan asks from the perimeter of the man’s yard.

The man scratches his head. A small gold earring catches the light and I see he’s unusually tan. “Well, I don’t think so,” he says. One sentence gives him away. Like us, he isn’t from here (or as the natives say, he’s “from away.”) “I guess you might call it the Whitson’s bridge, since that’s the road on the other side.”

“We’re doing some research on the footbridges,” Shane says. “How old do you think this one is?”

I flip through my notes and see it was built in 1964, which means it survived the 1977 flood—no small matter.

“I’d say sometime in the sixties,” the man says. We nod.

“Do you mind if we come on up for a minute?” I ask, pen in hand.

He points to a steep rock path and waves us over. We amble up, then open a curtain of faux bamboo rods (painted PVC piping) to step onto his porch.

“I’m Lenny,” he says, offering his hand. “And we call you folks ‘The Bridge People.’ Me and my wife. Lots of people come and go here trying to get a look at the bridge.”

“The Bridge People, eh?” I smile.

“We’re from Florida but we’ve been here long enough. “This was a main thoroughfare a long time ago. That was the easiest way to get over into town. My wife and I, we still cross it and walk down Whitson’s Road. Back in ’77 there was a huge flood. A tremendous flood. Water went up over the top of that bridge and spilled into the road here.”

Shane and I read about this flood. In fact, when we interviewed Corrine she shared two picture books with us documenting the damage. A report published by the Public Affairs office of the DOT states that continuous rains dumped 13 inches of water in less than three days in November. Sixteen counties in Western North Carolina were declared a disaster area by President Jimmy Carter and relief efforts went on through the coldest months of the winter.

“The river burst its banks. People couldn’t come or go for days,” says Lenny. “When it was all over, the restoration crews raised the bridge higher, so if anything like that every happened again the bridge wouldn’t get caught up in the log jams like that.”

The report says that almost 100 bridges were destroyed in the ’77 flood and 390 miles of roadway were damaged. The damages exceeded $17 million and 200 pieces of equipment from all over the state were brought in for restorations. The flood claimed eleven lives. George Canipe would have been among the many workers swinging 12-hour shifts for more than 35 days in a row. His work crews at the time, which numbered only 12 men (one team of 6 for Yancey County and one team of 6 for Mitchell County), was joined by more than 1200 employees from all over the state who were transported to assist with the relief efforts.

“A good flood really cleans a place out, though.” Lenny nods his head. Runs his palms along the porch banister. He looks out at the river for a while, then turns to us with a smile. “Afterward there were millions of balls. You name a ball. Tennis balls, baseballs, soccer balls.”

He waves his hands in the air like a wizard, as if to conjure the flood. His voice raises, and a smile lights up. “There were pumpkins and potatoes! There were barrels! There were pots and pans and trees like you wouldn’t believe. But oh my God, the balls. Just everywhere!” Lenny’s almost forgotten us, caught in the eddy of the memory. He can see it all in his mind’s eye: that flood, those balls, and so many brown tons of water rushing by just a hair’s breath from the porch we’re standing on.

He’s right. We’re just The Bridge People come to make our passage, and today the river is quiet and calm as ever—but I swear, if you’d been there with Lenny’s sweet music pulling you onto that porch, you’d have seen it too. That river, so high. Those balls. That bridge twisting and snapping against the current. It was a close call. But we made it back to the car, safe and sound, in search of our next bridge…

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