The bridge stretches out over Mayo Lake-
Reaching for the other bank.
Yearning for the other side.
Worrying about the stress it was designed to carry.
Eyeing the boats swaying beneath it.
The clock on the wall said 9:28 as the drafting teacher walked up to the front of the class with a cinderblock in each hand. He placed one on the floor, meticulously measured two feet with a tape measure, and sat the second on the concrete floor.
“We’re gonna take a break from house plans and AutoCAD for a few days for a project,” he said with a smirk on his face. “You gotta build a bridge using just glue and popsicle sticks. It has to stretch from here…” He paused to point at one cinder block. “…to here. That’s exactly two feet, and it needs to hold up as much weight as it can. You got three days. Pick a partner. Go.”
“So how do we-”
The bell for the end of the first period startled them, and the class jumped as confused looks and quick discussions overtook the students to decide partners.
A couple notes passed during the next three classes; a haphazard lunch discussion, and a few shouts over loud, crowded hallways led to an unofficial meeting that afternoon around a black, ‘89 Firebird beside a faded Bronco that always parked too close. A dent in the middle of the door of the Firebird and the edge of the door of the Bronco proved it.
“So… ummmmm… what do we do now?”
“I have no-”
All at once, it hit them. One yelled.
As if someone fired a gun that signaled the start of a race, they were off!
Eight drivers and many passengers all with one mission.
They descended on the store like a plague of locust, scouring the aisles trying to find the elusive popsicle sticks that held their bounty. The group dispersed, turned corners around end caps, worked its way to the back of the store, and then reconvened when the kids saw her – standing with a grin on her face and a package in her hand.
“Guess y’all need to go shopping more with your grandma and learn where the crafts are,” their redheaded classmate said with the only box of sticks in the store.
“In the whole store?”
“Uh-huh. You can ask if you want to.”
The clerk shook his head before anyone could.
“Nope,” she said. “And I’ll probably need to get more.”
“And will you get more in before-” The clerk’s shaking head cut him off.
“Wait! The glue!”
And they were off again, but this time with more success: hot glue, super glue, and one desperate person settled for the last two bottles of Elmer’s white glue.
“That’s all I could find,” he said.
Back at the checkout, a conversation broke out about where to find popsicle sticks.
My mom’s in Durham. I’m headed to Danville as soon as I leave here. You think Rose’s got any? I think we are eating in Chapel Hill tonight. I’ll try Family Dollar. What about C&G and Bullock’s? I think we are going to South Boston this afternoon.
Building sessions in garages progressed to late night construction in basements. One guy even bought two cinder blocks and placed them in his living room, which led to two successful tests but also a few of his mother’s Denim Days statues destroyed and super glued back together. Luckily, she never noticed the head on one glued backwards.
As the day got closer, bridges were built while others were “built.” Small dowel rods reinforced some. Hopes and dreams held at least two together. A few were painted – one purple with flowers, and another black with anarchy symbols and metal bands. One was actually coated with epoxy.
Then the day came-
Forty pounds. Our baseline is set. Fifty-six pounds. Yes. Thirty-three pounds. Ugh! Twelve pounds? Really? Twelve pounds? Twelve pounds? That’s all. Thirty-three pounds again. How’d both bridges hold exactly 33 pounds? Forty-one pounds. And a half! Forty-one pounds AND a half!
“ONE HUNDRED AND TWELVE POUNDS!!!”
“He coated it in epoxy!”
“The stupid thing is just bending and won’t even BREAK!”
“But it ain’t against the rules!”
“So…is that it?”
“Nope. We have one more.” The class turned as their classmate, head down, approached the front of the room.
The bridge struggled to remain structurally intact on the long journey from the school parking lot – where earlier they saw him putting the finishing touches on it with Elmer’s glue – to the front of the class.
He delicately placed the bridge on the blocks. Both the class and the bridge sighed as it sagged between the blocks. Half the class covered their eyes as the first weight approached it.
“Well I guess that settles it. Our winner is-”
The teacher’s voice drowned out as the class erupted.
Yessss! I don’t understand. Great job. We spent hours on it and it only held TWELVE pounds! Well we spent two days! Ummm…we made it last night. How’d it hold so much? Not that one…the one made with regular glue. This Elmer’s glue is still wet and stuck to my shoe! Ewwwww!
A massive group hug and highfives followed the official stomping of the bridges’ remains. The one coated in epoxy survived.
“Y’all know I gotta retire one day,” the teacher said. “Maybe one of you should come back and teach the class. Some of you might need to put in a little more work-” He paused and glanced down at the poor, destroyed, wretched heap on the floor. “… but I’d be honored if one of y’all did.”
Two guys are teaching high school a few miles apart in the same small town.
Both taught by the same teacher years ago.
Both self-proclaimed accomplished bridge builders.
Both with the same assignment.
“Two hundred popsicle sticks and a hot glue gun. That’s all. No epoxy. No superglue. And don’t even think about using epoxy and then deciding to paint it because it ‘needs to be pretty.’ That’s all. Oh! And try not to burn yourself. Now find a partner.”
The class scrambled to partner up and decide where to buy supplies and who has a hot glue gun and where they can meet up to start on the bridges and who will get to what store first.
“One last thing… We will use a unique method of measurement. No weights for us. We use outdated, discarded, purple textbooks.”
The day ended and off they raced.
At Hardee’s the next morning, a meeting of three drafting teachers, one former and two current, was broken up with a laugh.
“You remember that one bridge?”
They smiled and one said, “Which one? The epoxy or the Elmer’s glue?”
“I’m pretty sure I actually saw you putting it together in the parking lot that morning.”
“That wasn’t me, and if I remember correctly, your bridge probably couldn’t even decompose in the landfill with all the epoxy you used!”
“Thank you, Virgil.”
“Thank you, boys.”
The bridges stretch out not just over Mayo Lake-
And South Boston.
And Person County.
And North Carolina and Virginia and so many other states and more than a dozen countries.
Two friends, both teachers, are sitting in a 22-foot pontoon boat and looking up at the bridge above them.
“Hell of a bridge, ain’t it?
“But I guess that’s our business.”
Learn more about the author at https://ncvamedia.com/authors/phillip-gillis/