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A bridge to memories…

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I wasn't there this week when they gathered to cut the ribbon for the official opening of the new $200-million-plus Highway 82 bridge across the Mississippi River near Greenville, Miss.

I wasn't there this week when they gathered to cut the ribbon for the official opening of the new $200-million-plus Highway 82 bridge across the Mississippi River near Greenville, Miss.

I’ve seen photos of the bridge, and it’s a beaut — the longest cable-stayed span in the U.S. and the third longest in North America.  I’ll cross it another time.

It’s the old bridge, a couple of miles upstream, that evokes memories: the long approach to the hulking steel span, the narrow, shoulder-less roadway on the bridge itself that always made me grip the steering wheel a bit tighter when meeting an 18-wheeler, and finally the drop-down into the Arkansas Delta, where the first sight off the bridge was the Cow Pen restaurant. I always meant to stop and eat there, but never did. I’m told they have great steaks.

Many’s the time I crossed that bridge going to south Arkansas or to Louisiana, but the crossing that sticks in memory was twenty or more years ago. I’d overnighted at a Greenville motel and was going the next day across the river and up to Stuttgart, Ark., to meet with a farmer.

It was winter, and during the night, it snowed. Not just one of the piddly snows we get now and then, but a real Christmas card-type snow, with knee-high drifts.

Had I been sensible, I would’ve scrapped the Stuttgart appointment, holed up in my motel room until the snow had melted, and gone home.

But no, I just had to give it a try, and at daybreak I set out for the river bridge. Fortunately, there was almost no traffic. Unfortunately, the absence of traffic meant the snow had not been beaten to mush by a lot of vehicle tires, so there was much slipping and sliding.

Crossing the bridge that morning was a classic white knuckle experience. I don’t know how long it took to get across and onto the flat Arkansas highway, but it seemed f-o-r-e-v-e-r.

Things weren’t much better as I drove north. It started snowing again — huge flakes of wet, slushy snow — and the car defroster wasn’t adequate to keep the windshield wipers from becoming great blobs of ice, which required me to frequently stop (in the roadway, because there was no place to pull off) and hack the ice off the wiper blades.

Somewhere along the way, there occurred an amazing sight: Up from the snow-covered rice fields, as if at a signal only they heard, arose what seemed millions of white snow geese. The picture of those fluttering white geese, in synchronized flight against the backdrop of falling snow, remains etched in memory.

I made it to Stuttgart and managed, miraculously, to connect with the farmer, who laughingly said he hadn’t expected me to show up because “nobody with any sense would be driving in this weather.”

Though still considered structurally sound (but functionally obsolete, engineers say), the old steel truss bridge at Greenville, built in 1940, will be demolished, at a cost of $30 million or so. It will not be missed by those who guide barges up and down the river; since 1972, it has sustained more barge collisions than any other bridge on the Mississippi.

There is much interesting information about both bridges at www.greenvillebridge.com

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