When I was a child living in Tacoma, Washington, I remember watching film footage of the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940. The bridge had only been opened a few months when wind gusts hit it the wrong way, and it violently twisted and turned and then fell into the Tacoma Narrows strait of Puget Sound.
The original Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge was built along a similar structural plan as the Golden Gate Bridge. But, because the builders observed that it vibrated in an unsound way during its construction, it acquired the nickname “Galloping Gertie” before it even opened to the public. Everyone knew it had problems, and tried to fix them while it was being built, but nobody was really sure how to get it right.
There is a long engineering history of bridges collapsing, falling down, burning down, and being blown up. It might be that there is a flaw somewhere in the construction, which has made it unsafe, or there’s unusually bad weather. But often, it’s because the bridge no longer meets the needs of those using it, and the choice is made for it to be deliberately demolished.
I’ve demolished a few bridges in my life. Sometimes it’s been because the bridge I built no longer fit my needs. Other times, it’s been because the support structure was never good to begin with, and I needed to build a new and better one, or find another path.
It’s always been a painful choice, leaving one bridge and moving to another, because of the love that others and I put into building this bridge for me, for us. Sometimes, I’ve tried to prop up or fix the supports, to make them last longer, but, in the end, a strong wind is all it takes to blow it down.
Throughout our lives, we search for bridges that will enable us to get where we want to go. But we frequently have to stop on one side of the bridge and make sure that what’s on the other is the destination we want. Test the bridge. Maybe we won’t cross. Maybe we’ll get out in the middle of the bridge only to realize, after we’ve learned to trust the supports, we’re on the wrong one. We’re surrounded by other travelers in circumstances we’ve grown to love, but, to be true to ourselves, to love ourselves in order to love our best, we have to figure out how to get off that bridge and onto the right one. That can be a painful and frightening journey. Turning around and going back isn’t usually an option. And then, rebuilding can be strange and new and different and frightening. But this time, we are building with newer insights, with newer engineering, and that can make a difference.
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was replaced in 1950. They built a better bridge with lessons learned from the old. They built it with strength and care and love, making sure the plans designed worked for the environment the bridge exists within. I’m sure it was painful and scary for the people in 1940 to watch the old bridge fall into the straits, and to be aware of all the work the builders put into it. But today, more than 65 years later, the new one stands tall and straight and strong, just the way we want a bridge to be.