Five adults stood on the east sidewalk of the Yaquina Bay Bridge in Newport on the central Oregon coast. They leaned over the green rails, talked, touched one another on the shoulder, and stared at the water, 133 feet below. One held a bouquet of flowers. Behind them, vehicles blasted up and down Highway 101 and a man driving a log truck hauling a load of Doug fir texted a message to God knows where.
I took all this in from the west sidewalk of the bridge, on a Friday afternoon in September, after teaching at Newport High School. I was bicycling home, saw the spectacle, and stopped. A few hours earlier I'd lectured my Beginning Photography class that the enterprising photographer always has a camera in the holster, ready to draw, shoot. Start looking, start seeing, I told them. Unplug and get out in the world. Document the experience with your camera and do it the right way!
What was going on with these people? I pulled my camera from a pannier and started to take a picture... but couldn't. Something in the group's collective demeanor made me hesitate.
During a lull in the traffic I shouted a crude question across the road, "Hey, what's going on over there?" The group turned to me in unison and an older man answered but I couldn't hear a word he said. To my complete shock, a younger man bolted across and came up to me. We said hello and he told me the story:
Nine years ago, his brother had died in an automobile accident on Highway 20, a few miles east of Newport. Every year on this date, his family, father included (the older man), gathers at the middle of the bridge to drop flowers into the bay to mark the tragic loss.
I asked the brother if I could take photographs of the event. I also apologized for intruding on his privacy. He said "sure" and "no worries" and then sprinted back across the highway to rejoin his family. The family regrouped on the rails. The father worked the bouquet loose and distributed flowers. A few seconds later I clicked away and then remounted my bicycle. I couldn't capture the flowers falling. I didn't get the perfect shot but I documented a perfect moment.
I never got the family's name, but I can email the photographs if someone who knows them contacts me.
On the ride home I thought about my family, how I might want my untimely death commemorated, and what a miraculous and visionary thing it was that in 1934-36, during the Depression and the New Deal, Oregon built a bridge — with considerable aid from the federal government — so elegant and accessible that three-quarters of a century later it compelled an Oregon family to walk to its middle and grieve together.
I call that socialism with a beautiful human face, with a little help from the bridge's master designer, Conde McCullough.
Can we build a bridge like the Yaquina Bay Bridge in Oregon anymore? Can we build something that does more than span and transport? More than a slab? Can we build a new bridge that extends the subtle metaphor all of our best Oregon bridges provide? I am beginning to wonder.