One activity I did to pass the time was to climb bridges. Bridge, really. There was a bridge that we had to walk across every day on the way to class from the student dormitory. Not a crazy suspension bridge or anything, just a normal bridge with all the metalwork underneath it for support.
Our friend Matt was the one who came up with the idea. One boring Saturday with no classes, no car, no parties to go to, he asked "Do you guys want me to be a lot of fun later on tonight?". This was always a bad omen. Matt always would ask this when he was bored, and if we answered "Yes" he wouldn't take his doctor-prescribed mental health pill that day.
"Oh Jesus not again."
And with our replies, our first bridge climbing trek sprung from a missed dose of lithium.
The bridge spans a river that isn't exactly raging. Trickling, really. The point where the bridge crosses is right where a hydro power plant is installed. This means that the river is dammed up on one side, where the water is a healthy ten or twenty feet deep, and the top of the bridge is maybe another 50 feet up from there. But that is only a small fraction of the entire span of the bridge. The remaining large part of the bridge stands over bedrock of jagged edges, possible brain-smashing objects, sharp rocks with various fraternities logos spray-painted on them. Water sometimes gurgles through here after heavy rains, or when the New England winter snows are melting in the mountains to the north, but for the most part, if you jump off this part of the bridge, you aren't going to make it to any more chemical engineering lectures.
Once you cross this bridge (topside, the normal way), there is a path through the woods on the right that will take you down to the water's edge. Or rather, where the water should be if there wasn't that damn dam. From this edge, you can, with some difficulty, climb up to the ledge stonework where the bridge meets the earth. Attempting bridge-climbing with a group made it easier to get up on the ledge, with a spring of ten-fingers from a friend. Not to mention the fact that most normal people would not risk their lives and limbs scurrying across iron innards of bridges alone.
Unfortunately my group of friends and I are not normal.
"Hey Marc," I said, "give me a boost, and I'll pull you up".
Marc and I got on top of this first obstacle, the stony ledge, easily enough, and our crazy friend Matt simply pulled himself up. He scraped and bloodied his hand pretty good, which wasn't to be the last time he hurt himself on a bridge climbing endeavor. Matt then reached down and helped pull our friend Jason up as well with his remaining good hand.
Matt licked his crimson palm, spotting his face with some of his lifeblood. In the moonlight he looked like a vampire, an undead warrior. "Tasty!" Matt exclaimed, while we all turned to see the difficulty of our new quest.
Looking out over the river, we could see 4 concrete pilings rising out of the river bed to hold the bridge up. Each piling had green steel sprouting out of it, reaching up to hold the street suspended above. The pilings are large enough to park a bus on, lots of room for all of us to walk around on and goof off. Roughly one hundred feet of dead space separates each piling.
To get to the first piling from the edge where we just arrived, there are four metal planks, stood on end, to walk on. The metal planks are about 1/2 inch wide and 4 inches high, spaced just far enough away from each other so that an average-sized foot would be able to slip in between them, causing a fall or a sprained ankle. All in all, with all four bars, the space to move across this metal death is less than two feet wide, with only two inches of surface space to walk on.
Luckily, there is more to it than that. Starting way above our heads, where unsuspecting people and cars are passing over the uncaring river at the actual road, is a piece of pipe coming down to meet the floor of the piling 100 feet away. From that same piling is another pipe starting at the top, which meets at our feet at the ledge we are standing on. Envision a large 'X' of pipe joining the piling and the embankment. Good news for us, because it gives us something to hold on to. Starting my way out on the bridge, I hunched over to hold on to the pipe, but once out in the middle the 'X' crosspoint is about chest high, and is easier to grasp. This is nice, because the wind seems to pick up a bit more when one is standing in the middle of a span of bridge metalwork. As if a message from somewhere (someone) is blowing to remind you that you shouldn't be there.
"C'mon guys, follow me!" Matt urged, and off he went, arms out at his sides like a trapeze artist, teetering out over the abyss, laughing maniacally all the way.
"This is fucking crazy!" I muttered to no one in particular, grasping firmly to the blessed "X" pipes and followed Jason out on the metal monster. Marc trailed us, silently, either too shit-scared to talk or too deep in his own mortal thoughts.
We all made it to the first piling, drunk on our youthful bravado. Congratulating ourselves on how cool and dangerous we are, we then notice that to get to the next piling, the framework is exactly the same as previously described, except for the fact that two of the four bars that you walk on (the middle ones) are now gone. It is now quite easy for an entire person to slip between those two half-inch wide planks that we are precariously trying to walk on. As long as that person was skinny, which we were.
"What are you all waiting for? You don't want to live forever, do you?" Matt rhetorically asked and ventured out on to the steel balance bars. As he shimmied out, this time holding the support "X" bar, I called out, "Hey Matt, don't look down!" which he of course ignored. As he looked down and purposefully acted like he was losing his balance, we all laughed forcefully at his antics.
Honestly, I had a lump in my throat. This was a bit crazier. I figured before, if you slipped or tripped, you pretty much had a solid place to land. Now, that comfy feeling was lost. Your foot slips off that half-inch, and you are going to be in trouble. Only women in the beginning throes of coitus are ever that cognizant of a half-inch. The jagged rocks all of a sudden become a much more realistic reality.
But, we are teenagers, drunk on our youth, cajoling each other on, and although I imagine the others were just as scared as me, none of us wanted to back down, for fear of being pointed out as a 'scaredy-cat'. And at least we still had the big pipe 'X' to hold onto, it wouldn't be that bad. Off we went into the darkness to make it to that second piling. In daylight, it would have been easier to have been spotted, and perhaps the life-ending rocks below would be a little more insistent on stopping this bridge climb before it started.
I'm not sure of the rest of the group, it would have been a faux-pas to ask at the time, but I said a small prayer before attempting to make it to the second piling. I'm not sure if it helped, but I did make it there, along with my friends.
This now put us at the near-middle of the bridge. The halfway point between piling 2 and piling 3 is the dead center of the bridge. After passing this point, there is no turning back. The journey is simply shorter and possibly easier to continue forward, instead of retreating to our starting place. But that wasn't what concerned me.
"Hey guys, check it out!" Matt yelled.
The middle span between piling 2 and 3 was the same as the last span; it was also missing two of the four comfortable bars to walk on. Meaning it was just as easy to slip in between and fall in a downward spiral to meet our maker. But that wasn't what concerned me, either.
"You gotta be kidding me!" Jason stated, in a voice that may have reverted a little bit to prepubescent tones.
I helpfully replied "..."
The lack of the big 'X' pipe to hold onto is what worried me. This time, it was just a balancing act. On two half-inch planks placed far enough apart to be able to fall in between. No safety net. No retries. Do not pass go. No backsies. Holy shit.
I don't want to go. I really don't. This is insane. I can make new friends. I can switch colleges, if I have to. But youthful delusions of invincibility are very strong. Matt unabashedly starts crossing, without giving the rest of us enough time to second-guess ourselves long enough. He became the leader of the pack, he compelled us, and we simply had to follow him.
I crossed that span of the bridge on my hands and knees, feet curled around those two bars behind me, forearms and biceps curled around the two bars in the front. Sure, I didn't perform a Barnum & Bailey circus act crossing like my friend did, but I crossed. It counted. I didn't even defecate or urinate myself.
After we all made it to the third piling, Matt finds a reward for his accomplishment: a $5 bill sitting on that piling. It must have blown off the top of the bridge somewhere, maybe a tip from the local pizza delivery guy, lost who knows how long ago.
The remaining two spans were replicas of the first two, in reverse. We got our 'X' pipe back to hold on to, getting us to the fourth piling. At this point all our fear had dissipated, because the climax of the bridge climb had passed. Our adrenaline carried us. The last span also crossed where the river was dammed up, so a fall from here wouldn't mean death, unless it would be from hypothermia after swimming out of the river.
We made it to the end of the bridge, and the feeling of accomplishment was awesome. We actually went back on numerous occasions to climb again and again. It never really got any easier, that middle span always worries me. But not Matt. Nothing ever really bothered Matt. Which was his downfall.
"Matt, you gotta stop skipping your lithium pills." Jason said on our walk back to the dorm.
"That was a pretty bad-ass time though." I casually reply. We always did have fun when Matt's brain had the incorrect levels of serotonin.
We never climbed it again after the time Matt ventured out to climb the bridge alone, when we were all too drunk to think about crossing over. We told him it was a bad idea, but he wouldn't hear any of our pleas. It was also a cold night, and we were much happier staying inside drinking Southern Comfort and playing Street Fighter. So one fateful night, Matt slipped out into the night alone for his last crusade. We all passed out at some point later that night, only to awake to sirens and the bridge being blocked off.
Matt slipped through that middle span, dashing his brains out over the jagged boulder with TKE spray-painted on it below. The TKE fraternity was really pissed that someone defaced their logo. We were all upset about Matt's death, but on the inside, I was happy that I never had to climb across that middle span again.
The police and newspapers said Matt committed suicide. Who knows, maybe he did, but after learning that we would all get A's for the semester because of our roommate's suicide, we didn't exactly come forward with the idea that it could have been an accident. We never said anything to anyone about our bridge climbing, or his falling. We figured we could be arrested for trespassing, or worse, accessory to murder for not coming clean immediately. And, since Matt was on mood-altering drugs as prescribed by his doctor, it was pretty easy for the police and his family to come to the suicide conclusion.
I still wonder to this day if he took his pill the day he fell.