Spaces in the sparse frame reveal a green and languid creek 40 feet below us. We are standing on the weathered oak slats, at least the ones still in place after 70 years of the passage of tractors and trucks and school buses, that cover many of the gaps between iron girders. In both directions the water stretches into the cover of trees and rocks and gravel shoals. The two girls standing closest to me step gingerly between the planks to peer over the edge, while their friend, a much larger girl, is still slowly trying to pick out the safest way up the end of the bridge to where we stand in the middle. Given the circumstances, I have about as much free will as the water and stones below me. The girls stand close, each displaying their own version of that uniquely teenage girl coquettishness. Being 15 years old, it is only with the greatest effort that I can tear my consciousness away from the short shorts they wear. With hormone-induced boldness, I climb over the thin metal guardrail and hang out over the drop. My attention never leaves the girls.
The US Deep South gets hot in the summertime. This isn't the dry heat of Extremadura or the pleasing warmth of a windy Caribbean beach. This is a smothering, oppressive blanket of humidity that makes movement after lunch miserable and sleeping after dark almost impossible without fans or air conditioning. In the rural farming community where I grew up, few people had more than a window unit air conditioner, and most relied on fans and ancient shade trees for cooling. Because of this, almost all socializing occurred near water. After work, my dad would drive us up the valley to a flood control reservoir where he and his friends would sit in the shade and smoke while we boys splashed in the runoff. On the weekends families would spend the day camping at the lake or canoeing down one of the countless creeks. Mostly, though, people congregated at the bridges.
Bridges are as much a part of the landscape in the hill country that makes up the final reaches of Appalachia as barns or fence rows or cows. Some are newer, built as recently as the 1990s, but many in our area predated World War II. Out in the sticks (which is how people referred to our heavily wooded and barely populated end of the county), most of the highway money went towards more affordable improvements like paving and potholes. A bridge didn't get replaced until it fell in or became damaged during a storm or drunk driving incident. Both were common, but rarely severe enough to warrant replacement. This happened once when I was very young, someone had car trouble on a bridge, a second car stopped to help them, and while both were parked on the span, a third vehicle drove up in the night. Too many cars, too old a bridge.
Every bridge that had more than five or six feet of water under it had a swimming hole. The deeper ones would have ropes and cables tied in the overhanging trees that we used as swings. A few of the bridges covered water deep enough to allow jumping directly from the bridge itself. Some of these bridges were 15 feet above the water, others could be as high as 30 feet from the surface. One bridge, purchased by the community in the 1920s from a different location (and thus already old at that time) and brought in by mule wagon, was framed by a huge trapezoid of weathered iron and wood. We measured it over 40 feet once with a borrowed surveyor tape. This bridge could be scaled to the top of the frame, and from that precarious perch a daredevil could see across the tops of the trees bordering the creek and on into the pastures beyond. The climb could be tricky, but the jump more so. The water level shifted, rising and falling as the TVA flood control men 15 miles upstream deemed appropriate, and a careful jumper generally had a friend walk down to test the depth. But being the country boys that we were, equal parts bravery and stupidity, we did not always check.
The two girls make eye contact with me. One looks frightened, the other has a more challenging look, something that carries an unspoken dare. I hesitate for only a moment and then drop into the sky.
There's something about the feeling of falling from a height, a total loss of control, that mixes with the surge of adrenaline and creates a sense of newness and thrill. No matter how jaded, I have never been able to pretend boredom as my body accelerated downward. This time it is all fear. In the heartbeats it takes for me to reach the water I have forgotten about the girls and remembered I have not been swimming here recently. I have no idea how deep it is under the bridge.
I plunge into the water feet first and fully clothed. The water is down, but enough remains to slow me down so that my legs crumple underneath and my ass slams into the sandy wash covering the bottom. It hurts. The air is knocked out of my lungs, as much from surprise as from force, and for the briefest moment I stay on the bottom. But time speeds back up as soon as I start sucking in water and I work back to the surface.
The girls are yelling from the bridge. I cough and spit and gasp and just float on my back with the lazy current. Moving out from under the bridge where the girls are more clearly visible I can see the three of them looking down at me. Two of them still appear deeply worried. But one, the one with the daring eyes, grins down silently. I grin back, thinking to myself "Totally worth it".