Thoughts on an August 2, 2007


With the new 35W bridge nearing it’s grand opening, I thought it might be a good time to re-visit my own thoughts on the day after that disaster:

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“It is August 2nd 2007 in Minneapolis. The day after a major bridge spanning the Mississippi River collapsed during the height of the evening rush hour. Dozens are injured; the death toll is still unknown.

Rush hour is the time when everyone leaves for home. There is the relief of finishing another day at work or school coupled with the expectancy of seeing family, friends and loved ones. We are preoccupied with thoughts of having a meal together, getting the housework done, picking up some groceries on the way home, maybe later playing a game with the kids or settling in to read a good book. On dreadful occasions, these thoughts are permanently interrupted.

I was just sitting down to dinner with my sister’s family when a friend called, asking if we were all okay. We are, but our community is not.

An event like this prompts several reflections. Foremost among these is that life is fragile. “See you this afternoon” or “see you tomorrow” aren’t really statements of fact, but more expressions of hope. We can’t live with a constant sense of impending doom, but we should not take relationships lightly; in this world there really is no promise for tomorrow. No one heading home over that bridge had thoughts of never seeing loved ones after 6:05 p.m. yesterday, yet for some, that is how the day ended.

One wonders what the leave-taking was of those folks on the bridge – did they have loving words from spouses and family in the morning when they left for work? Were there friendly words from co-workers as they left for home in the afternoon? One hopes that those who are left with an empty chair at the dinner table or in the office do not regret the last word spoken or wish to speak the word that was left unsaid.

So, we need to be patient with our fellow travelers. If it is our lot to take that final voyage, do we want to leave with foul words on our lips or angry thoughts in mind? If it is our fellows who will not be returning, better that we remember them for the kindness at our last parting. But in all, tell your friends that you care; your family that you love them. Life may be long or short, we are not in a position to know from day to day.

A second thought that strikes me is how accustomed we have become to our artificial environment. The concrete and steel world we have created for ourselves seems permanent; in fact in our day to day lives, we assume it is. Particularly here in the Midwest, we don’t expect the earth to move under our feet. But the truth is that the structures we have created, the cities we have built, are not immutable features of the landscape. Unlike the Mississippi itself, our bridges and buildings and roads do not exist

in geologic time. In comparison to Old Man River, they (as we ourselves) are transient, ephemeral.

Yet we must assume that these features will be here from day to day. Life would be chaotic if every morning we had to wonder how we would cross the River, whether our office building would be standing, whether the lights would go on when the switch was flicked. Will water come out of the tap when I open the valve?

Anyone who is a homeowner (or renter) knows that the mechanical and electrical systems of our homes (our infrastructure) are in need of constant attention. I just spent an evening draining and flushing out my hot water heater in order to remove deposits that keep it from working efficiently. I was amazed at the amount of silt that was in the tank. Valves leak, light bulbs need replacement, wood needs paint, bricks need tuck-pointing; it sometimes seems endless. In fact, the only sure way to avoid it is to build a new home every few years (and hope your builder is not cutting corners).
But lately in Minnesota, we’ve been wanting to get by on the cheap. Our parents bequeathed to us this artificial environment of concrete and steel. We grew up with it and have largely treated as if it is as much a part of immutable nature as the River itself. Now we know it is not.

Our transportation system has been a particular flashpoint. For years people in the metropolitan area have been decrying the congestion on our roads, the deterioration of roads and bridges and the lack of mass transit, but overall, the government has been unwilling to do much about it. All in the name of “holding the line on taxes” or some similar sound bite. But the bottom line is that we have been unwilling to pay the price for maintaining and improving our infrastructure. Now with the collapse of the 35W bridge, we are paying the price of our neglect.

When I drive on our roads and especially on our bridges, I want to trust that they are well-maintained and not 50% deficient. Frankly I don’t like those odds. We need to bring our transportation system into the 21st century and, like it or not, we will have to pay to do that.

So, in a nutshell, two things – be nice to people, tell them that you love them. And be willing to pay the cost of living here, we all want to get home this evening.”