By: Woodie Williams
Jim hopped out of his ancient, green pickup truck, slammed the rusty door shut and ambled towards us. The rest of us were hanging out in the shade beside Donnie’s house, not doing much of anything, waiting to see what excitement the afternoon might bring.
“Doesn’t look like missed much.” He waved to me as he put his hand on Tucker ‘s shoulder and pushed him off the apple crate he was sitting on.
“Asshole,” Tucker whined as he stood up and dusted his pants off. Jim settled down beside Thorton and gave him a friendly shove as well. Jim’s long legs stuck out of his faded jeans as he stretched out.
“Sorry dude,” Jim said to Tucker, “I didn’t see you there.”
Tucker was about to say something and Donnie cut him off.
“Let it go Tucker, don’t get your panties in a wad. He was just messing with you.”
Tucker took a deep breath to calm himself. It didn’t take much to get him to start jumping
around like a frog on a hot skillet. He focused on cleaning his glasses with the bottom of his t-shirt. The right eye piece was cracked and held together with a piece of tape.
“Well, what do we do the rest of the afternoon?” I asked.
Donnie used a stick to corral a couple of black ants that were trying to get away from
“I say we get in the river somewhere, do a little floating and a lot of beer drinking.” He
replied as he focused on the ants. He used his massive paw of a hand to wipe away the sweat from his forehead. It was a hot summer in Crainesville, South Carolina. Even the crickets sounded hot and exhausted.
“Anything to get my mind off my draft number, it’s pretty low.” complained Jim.
“How about a little bridge hopping?” I suggested as I waved away a fly.
People around here had been jumping off bridges ever since there had been bridges. Most of the overpasses we jumped off were about one to two stories high, no more dangerous than jumping off a high-dive diving board at one of the local pools. It was all about the rush. First off, it was illegal. There were signs on all the bridges forbidding it. You were some sort of desperado, breaking the law. Secondly, when you jumped off a bridge, it really got your heart going. As you jumped away from the edge, there was this jolt of adrenaline as your body suddenly realized, This is a little higher than I thought. We shouldn’t be doing this. It’s hard to describe the feeling of the wind rushing past as you hurtle towards the water and the wind howls in your ears, getting louder as you pick up speed. It’s like you are almost defying gravity, suspended for that brief moment. You pressed your hands to your sides, grabbed a gulp of air, pointed your feet, and felt the water explode as you entered. Thousands of bubbles wrapped your body and face as you entered. The higher the bridge, the bigger the rush. For a brief moment, while you were in the air, it was like you were free from everything.
“Hey guys, I have an idea. Let’s go jump the trestle,” Thorton said excitedly. His plans had a tendency to get us in trouble. That’s why he was my best friend. He had the daring I wished I had. He would just do things and not care what happened or what people thought, kind of just let the chips fall where they may. I had no problem getting into mischief, but when it involved Thor, it could get out of control pretty quick. It was that running on the edge that made it fun.
“Naaaah,” all of us said in unison.
Tucker moaned, “Not again.” Tucker was a small guy, the smartest fellow that I ever knew. I think all of those brains made him a little paranoid. He saw the problems with everything.
Thorton pleaded, “Come on, guys, we can do it. We’ve jumped off every other bridge around here. Think about the high from jumping off a bridge. Can you imagine the rush of jumping off that thing? There’s nothing but wind and the water rushing to meet you. Just floating in the air. I don’t know, it’s kind of like for one brief moment, time is suspended, like you don’t even have a body. School is ending soon, this may one of the last times we all hang out together. We have to do this, for old time’s sake.”
Thor referred to the train track that crossed the Savannah River outside of
town, near the high school where we are all seniors. About four stories high, we revered it as the Mount Everest of bridge hopping. No one we knew could claim that span as a prize, but we had rumors of college kids jumping off it. To jump this bridge was a particular goal of Thorton’s. He’d always angled for more of a rush than the rest of us.
Tucker replied, “We don’t have to do anything.”
“Aw guys, you’re not going to make me jump off that thing all alone are you?”
Donnie spoke up, “Yeah, well, you remember the story about the college girl, don’t you?”
Thorton replied, “Ha ha, that’s not true, nobody ever found her body. It’s an old wives’ tale.”
“What story?” asked Jim,
“You’re kidding,” I replied. “You’ve never heard of ‘The Tale of the Trestle Walker?’”
“No, I’ve never heard of any trestle walker story.”
Donnie said “It’s been a local legend for years. A bunch of college kids went to jump off the bridge under a full moon and one of the girls died. They never found her body. All they found was a pink ribbon that had tied her hair back that night.”
He paused for dramatic effect.
“It is said that on certain nights in the summer when the moon is full and the wind is blowing in from the west, you can see her ghost as she walks the span hunting for the pink ribbon for her hair.”
“Dang,” Jim said to Thor. “Let me get this straight. You know about this story, and you still want to jump off this bridge?”
“Yep, I heard it. It’s just a story. It never happened.” Thor replied.
“I wouldn’t be so sure couple that,” Donnie replied
Thor dismissed him with a wave of his hand. “Listen, guys, this will be the last year that all of us will probably be together. If we don’t do it soon, we will never do it. Most of us won’t see each other after school gets out. What do you say, one last hurrah?”
“You know we are always going to see each other,” said Tucker.
Thorton continued, “Seriously, we don’t have a lot more time to do things together. Summer‘s coming fast, and then we will scatter to the wind. How often do all of us get together anyway?”
Everyone thought for a moment.
“Sure, why not, works for me. I mean, you only live once,” said Jim.
Tucker replied,” Yeah, and you only die once.”
“I’ll go, but Donnie, will you promise to hold my hand and not let go?” I asked.
“Aw, what the heck, count me in,” grumbled Tucker.
Donnie said, “I’m not gonna hold your hand, but I’ll tell you what I will do. I’ll get my dad’s boat and drive up close to the base of the bridge where you guys are going to jump so in case anybody gets hurt, I’ll be there and pull him out. There will even be beer for the survivors.”
We realized he had outsmarted everyone. He seemed pleased with himself.
Tucker, seeing an opportunity to bail, volunteered to go with Donnie.
“I can go with him and help pull all you guys in the boat.”
“That’s okay little buddy,” Donnie told him. “I can handle the boat fine by myself. You need to go jump so that you can have a story to tell your grandkids. Provided you have grandkids after this. Maybe you will learn something about yourself today”
Jim and I grabbed Tucker by the arms. “Come on with us, Tucker. Maybe he will make up a ghost story about you.”
“Yeah, maybe they will call it The Wandering Egghead,” I said.
“Hey, why are you guys grabbing me?” Tucker asked.
“We want to make sure you don’t disappear between here and the trestle,” said Jim.
“Ha, ha, real funny! Don’t forget, you guys are jumping, too.”
“Sure, we are,” I replied. “We’re gonna throw you off the bridge first to make sure the water is deep enough.”
“Yep, you guys are a real bunch of comedians. That settles it. I’m not going.”
Thor was surprised and said, “Tucker, come on, you know they are only joking. Nobody is going to throw you off. Nobody is going to get hurt. I tell you what, I will jump first. When I surface, I can show you the best place to jump. It’s a piece of cake.”
Tucker mumbled, “Alright, I’ll go, but I’m not happy about it.”
“Proud of you, Clarissa. I will see you at the bottom with a cold beer,” Donnie said.
We dropped Donnie off by the marina.
“Alright, see you guys at the bottom. I should be there in a couple of minutes.”
“I think I should go with him. You never know what could happen. He might need an extra hand,” remarked Tucker.
Donnie showed his hands to Tucker. “Do I need another hand? You go along with them and have your fun. I’ll have a beer with your name on it waiting for you at the bottom. Oh, I forgot to ask: Any last words?”
“Yeah, bite me.”
After a quick ride, we arrived at the east side of the bridge. Driving through the open gate, we pulled up close to the bridge.
After pulling off our shirts and shoes, we walked towards the rails. Tucker lit a cigarette before he left the truck and inhaled deeply. He acted like he was about to trudge out in front of a firing squad. The span appeared different today for some reason—very old, very somber, very large. A massive structure, it consisted of concrete piers and a rusting wrought-iron deck. It seemed like several giants had walked into the river, clasped hands on each other’s shoulders, bowed their heads, and never moved again. Because it was a train trestle and not a road bridge, the structure had no guardrails or retaining wall of any kind. There was a short but steep embankment covered in gravel that we would need to climb in order to get to the track. The rocks slid nosily under my bare feet as we made our way up. Once we got to the top of the ridge where the tracks ran, I spotted Donnie pull up beside one of the bridge supports.
“There he is,” I said as I waved.
“Great, so now he can fish my remains out of the river,” moaned Tucker.
A large murder of crows in a pine tree at the edge of the woods cawed loudly, as if laughing at our foolishness.
Donnie waved back and revved the motor on his dad’s old green jon boat. He relaxed by the motor in the back, one hand on the throttle, the other hand holding a beer. The boat seemed small and a long way off, like a toy in a kid’s bathtub.
“Alright, guys!” Thor exclaimed, “This is it! We are really going to do this. It will be so wild!” He bounced up and down with excitement. The rest of us focused on each other, trying to guess which one of us would chicken out first.
Tucker shielded his eyes from the sun as he gazed at the clear blue sky. “Oh well, not a bad day to die.” He grimaced. “At least this way, I don’t have to finish my science project.”
We stepped onto the tracks. The rails looked almost white under the afternoon sun.
“Whoa, these rails feel a little toasty,” said Jim. “Glad it’s not any hotter.”
The beams felt sticky from the sun heating the creosote, and the gravel was rough. We proceeded gingerly down the rail line. I walked a little on the rail, and when it felt too hot, I walked on the gravel. We hiked about twenty-five feet before we even approached the edge of the river. The gravel fell away as the bridge pushed out from the bank, revealing about a five inch gap between the crossties. Looking in between the rails, we could see the water swirling below. That’s when the reality of it all hit me. My stomach began to churn, from a nasty combination of fear and excitement.
As expected, Tucker cracked first. “Guys I don’t think this is such a good idea.”
“And we have a winner!” Thorton yelled out. We all laughed, and it seemed to lighten everyone’s mood.
“Quiet, Tucker, are you trying to get everyone to bail?” Thorton said.
“Bwock, bwock,” said Jim in a high-pitched voice, flapping his arms as he walked.
Tucker repeated, “I don’t think this is a good idea.”
Thorton said, “We can do this. Don’t believe those old ghost stories. Besides, Donnie is right down there.” Thor waved, and Donnie waved back.
The boat still seemed to be a long way off.
“How much farther do we need to go?” asked Jim.
We walked about forty feet out. Down below rolled the edge of the river. The stained water swirled around the rocks at the river’s edge. I said, “I figure we are about halfway to where we need to be before we can jump. What do you think, Thor?”
“Sounds about right. We need to find the deeper channels. Jump in the wrong place and you land on rocks that are barely under the surface and break a leg.” Thor was leading the way.
“Now that piece of information really makes me want to jump,” whined Tucker.
“Relax, dark water is deep water, pretty simple. Like I said earlier, I‘ll pick the spot and go first,” Thor said. The river pushed up little waves and whitecaps where it encountered shallow shoals.
A gust of wind almost knocked me off the rail. This far out, the tree line no longer offered much protection. “Guys, the wind is starting to pick up out here, so be aware of it. Don’t get too close to the edge.” There wasn’t even two feet from the rail to the edge of the beams. Not a lot of room for error.
“Just dandy,” muttered Tucker. “And if I die, all Donnie is going to do is pull me out so that I can get buried.”
Thorton turned around. “Will you put your big boy underwear on? Stop whining!”
I noticed that the crows in the tree behind us suddenly fell quiet. I didn’t hear anything at all.
Guys, do you hear anything?” I asked.
“Hear what?” asked Tucker.
“Everybody stop for a second.”
“I don’t hear anything,” replied Thor.
“That’s just it,” I replied, “it’s too quiet.”
“If you are trying to freak me out, you have succeeded,” complained Tucker, “I’m out of here.” He turned to leave.
“Just stop for a second,” I said. I reached down and felt the rail. There it was, a small, faint vibration. I remembered that feeling from when I was a child. When I was younger, my dad would take me to the train station, and we would watch the trains come in. He showed me how you could feel the train coming before you could see or hear it. I would place a penny on the rail and watch it dance as the engine approached. The wheels would crush the penny and toss it aside. We looked for what was left of the coin after the train left.
The vibrations increased. They ran from my fingers and worked their way to the center of my chest. My face flushed. I could feel sweat erupting on my face. My stomach was in full revolt, preparing to come out either end. There was no excitement now, only fear, the primal fear of death and dying.
“What are you doing? Are you okay?” demanded Tucker.
“There is a train coming, but I don’t know from which way,” I whispered, frozen in my crouch.
“You’re kidding right?”
As I forced myself to stand, I heard a faint, low moan in the distance behind us.
“Oh, Jesus,” wailed Tucker, “is that what I think it is?”
We listened, hoping not to hear what we already knew was there. The sound came again, a long, low pull of a train whistle. It was headed our way.
Everybody’s eyes went wide open. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” wailed Tucker.
“We’re going to have to make a run for it!” Jim said.
No way could we make it to the far side. “We either run and jump into the river or run back the way we came and try to jump for the bank before it gets to us. What do we do?” I asked.
Tucker had already made his decision. Without saying a word, he took off for the bank, towards the land, towards the train. Scampering like a bird that had lost its feathers, his arms flailed wildly. He struggled to keep his balance on the railroad ties. What little confidence we possessed evaporated like water on a hot griddle. The panic became too much. We ran after Tucker without saying a word. I ran towards the bank as well. After a moment, I realized Thor was not behind me. He could run like a jackrabbit being chased by a pack of hounds when he wanted to. I turned to see what had happened to him.
“Thor’s not with us!” I yelled. Jim was right behind Tucker. Jim slowed long enough for me to catch him. Thor had run in the opposite direction, towards the far side.
“Holy crap!” Tucker said, “He’s crazy! He’ll never make it.”
“Not any crazier than the rest of us,” Jim panted.
I then realized what Thor planned to do. “He’s not running to the far side! He’s going to jump!”
“Holy crap!” replied Jim as we ran. “Tucker, get your butt moving, or I will toss you off this bridge myself.” We bunched up behind Tucker.
“I’m doing the best I can! Leave me alone!”
The whistle wailed louder. The engine leaped from behind the trees moving faster that I had expected, getting ready to pounce on us. The closer the train came to us, the angrier it sounded and the faster we ran. The low rumble of the engine vibrated the rails. I focused on not letting my feet land between the railroad ties. Given that there was a good gap between each tie, if you slipped or stepped wrong, you could easily snap your ankle.
Jim yelled, “Like hurry up, we have to get off the track!”
I watched his long hair sway back and forth in front of me. Given that he was the best athlete of any of us, there was almost a grace to his stride even amid all the chaos.
Gravel reappeared on the tracks as we approached the bank. My feet began to feel as if someone had been hitting the bottoms with a hammer as I stepped on the loose rocks. The train reached the straight part of the track, hurtling towards us. Dozens of old red boxcars and rusty flatbeds stretched out behind a grimy black engine. My calves ached from trying to stay on my tip toes as I ran. I almost fell as the balls of my feels landed on a large piece of gravel.
“You have to run faster Tucker, or you will get us all killed,” I yelled.
“Tucker pick up the pace!” yelled Jim.
Jim tried to pass Tucker and nearly knocked them both off the rail.
“Don’t touch me. I’ll fall!” wailed Tucker.
Tucker stumbled to his knees and wailed, “My glasses, where are my glasses? My Mom is going to kill me!”
“Forget about your glasses. I said as I jerked him up by grabbing underneath his shoulders. There was blood coming from his right knee.
A howl from the engine’s whistle raced towards us. Suddenly, the pain in my feet disappeared. My adrenaline roared into overdrive. Everything intensified. I could feel the energy of the train. I sensed my heart racing. My head began to swim. I didn’t need to see the train to know where it was. The rails rumbled as the engine bore down on us. I focused on my feet, trying to make sure that I didn’t miss any of the crossties. Glancing up, I saw the engineer leaning out the window waving at us to get off the tracks, pulling on the horn. Every time it wailed, my heart felt a little closer to popping. He kept blowing that whistle; it grew louder and louder as the train approached. Tucker must have felt it felt it too, he was a couple of steps ahead of everyone now.
“Why does he keep blowing that thing?” I yelled. “Doesn’t he see we’re moving as fast as we can?”
“Dunno, maybe he’s hoping he can get us to run a little faster,” Jim replied, breathing heavily.
“I can’t run any faster without falling over the side,” wailed Jim.
“Run, run faster!” I shouted at Tucker. We were piling up behind him again. I was debating whether to push him off the trestle in order to save the rest of us.
I glanced up and saw the dirt and grime on the front of the locomotive. The rumbling and roar of the engine grew louder. Loose gravel danced on the crossties from the vibrations as the train bore down on us. The whole bridge began to shake. Finally, the bank emerged below us. Twenty feet to the ground… fifteen feet… ten feet…
“Sweet Jesus, have mercy on my soul!” Tucker yelled.
“Oh God, oh God, oh God!” Jim shouted as he jumped, Tucker leapt right behind him.
I watched as they fell with their arms flailing wildly and then I jumped.
The grinding of those metal wheels against the rails drowned out our yells as we landed in the grass and dirt below. I was so close to the engine that I could hear sand and rocks being crushed as I fell. Rolling about ten feet down the rocky bank, I wound up landing on top of Tucker.
“Get off of me, you moron!” he whined. “I banged up my arm!”
Pieces of gravel fell on us as the boxcars above rumbled angrily past us. The diesel fumes singed my nostrils as it flew by.
“Is everybody alive?” Jim shouted. We had made it. Bruised and cut up from the fall, but nobody seemed to be seriously injured.
“Oh my God,” Tucker yelled above the rattle of the wheels. “I can’t believe we made it!”
I thought of Thor.
“Thor!” I yelled, “Where is Thor?” The wooden boxcars continued to clack by above our heads.
We turned around just in time to see him leap away from us on the other side of the tracks as the train bore down on him. He floated in the air, his arms outstretched, trying to keep his balance. We saw the wind rushing through his hair and then he vanished behind one of the supports.
“He’s dead,” said Tucker “I knew at least one of us would die.”
“Shut up, Tucker, you can be a real pain in the ass!” I yelled at him. “Let’s go to the other side and see what happened. Maybe he did make it.” We ran across to the other side and saw Donnie steer the boat downstream.
“Do you see him?” I yelled.
“Not yet,” replied Tucker. “The boy lost his mind.”
“I hope that is all he lost,” said Jim. “Hey, wait a minute, I can see him! He’s a little bit in front of the boat!” We saw Thor’s head about ten feet from the jon boat.
“Oh my God! He made it!” I cried. We all whooped and hollered and patted each other on the back as if Thor had won a gold medal in the Olympics.
“He’s crazy! He’s absolutely crazy!” shouted Tucker. “I can guarantee you one thing: I am never coming back up here!”
Even from this distance, I could tell that Thor felt pretty good about himself. He waved to us as Donnie pulled alongside him and then grabbed the edge of the boat. I heard both of them yelling and laughing as the train roared away from us on the far side of the trestle.
We scampered down the hill and made our way to them. Donnie pulled Thor into the boat and gave him a beer. Dangling his feet off the front of the boat, he grinned like a mule eating briars as they pulled up to the shoreline.
“What were you thinking?” I asked.
“Well,” Thorton said, “given the circumstances, I felt that I might not ever get another chance to jump. I figured that with the train coming when it did, it probably scared you guys off that bridge for good.”
“Yeah, but the train could have killed you,” Tucker said.
“I know, but it almost hit you guys as well,” laughed Thorton. “Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Glad it worked out the way it did.”
Donnie grinned at Tucker. “So, tell me little buddy, who was the first one to make a run for it?”
“I would rather not talk about it. I want to forget this day ever happened. I did learn something about myself today though. I learned that I am never going to set foot on that bridge again!”
Donnie then turned to me. “What about you? Were you scared?”
“Naw, I wasn’t scared at all,” I replied, “I was absolutely, one hundred percent terrified out of my mind.” He laughed.
“Donnie,” Tucker asked, “do have any more beer in that cooler? I need something to calm my nerves.”
He smiled. “As a matter of fact, I do have a beer or two for some chickened-out bridge hoppers.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, like you would have done anything different. Give me one of those stinking beers,” said Jim.