the museum of americana

a literary review

Afraid of the Arch and Terrified by the Truss: My Fear of Bridges—Nonfiction by Linnea Cooley

There are over 600,000 bridges in the United States. I am afraid of all of them. When I see the lofty red towers of the Golden Gate Bridge or the swinging cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, my knees knock together with fright. While a fear of driving over bridges is an embarrassing phobia for a former engineering student to have, it’s not the worst one out there as far as fears go. It’s slightly more niche than a fear of heights or deep water, but it’s common enough that you can find other people who can relate. While it’s not the most realistic phobia, it’s not ridiculous enough that people will snicker about it behind your back, like a fear of small dogs, escalators, or magicians.  

I have found that you can get away with having at most two fears. If you have more than that, people will begin to label you as high maintenance. One of your fears should be something that you are deeply, viscerally afraid of. The other fear can be a “pretend fear” that you use for convenience. My great Aunt, for example, had a “deep fear of the woods.” that after decades of deception was revealed to be a mild dislike of camping. 

For me, my truest and very real fear is driving over bridges. Every time I have to do it, I find myself holding my breath until I make it to the other side. Paradoxically, holding my breath in no way increases the safety of the bridge, but it does exponentially increase the chance that I will pass out and veer my car off the side into the water below. 

When I am about to cross a bridge, I always read the informational sign that is located at the entrance of the bridge so that I know what I am getting myself into. Or onto. My biggest pet peeve, however, is when the sign lists how old the bridge is. If the bridge was built in 1904, I’d prefer that this be kept a secret. In 1904, women couldn’t vote and people used cocaine in children’s cough medicine. The engineers back then might have designed a bridge that was good enough for the era. But people didn’t drive big SUVs and wear such heavy jewelry back in 1904. 

Another thing that rubs me the wrong way is when the informational sign describes the bridge as an “incredible feat of engineering.” Do they think that bragging about this will impress me? Instead this just makes the experience even more anxiety-inducing. I would rather the bridge be described as “a very normal, very straightforward piece of engineering that has been crafted hundreds of times before and is nearly impossible to mess up.”

It reminds me of the circus when the Ringmaster tries to build tension by announcing that the acrobats are about to attempt a very complicated and very dangerous maneuver. “That’s okay!” I want to yell from the audience. “Don’t worry about trying that stunt! I’ll still be impressed if you do one that’s twice as safe!” After all, I’m not a gymnast so I probably won’t be able to tell the difference. And that way nobody has to get hurt. Do circus performers even have health insurance? 

My fear of driving over bridges undoubtedly stems from my experience as an engineering major in college. While I can’t remember much of the math, physics, or structural mechanics that I was taught during my engineering courses, I do remember learning the following joke. 

A group of professors is sitting on a plane waiting for takeoff. The pilot comes over the loudspeaker and says, “I have a very special announcement! The plane you are about to fly on was designed and built by your students!” 

Immediately, the air is filled with screams as the professors jump out of their seats and run off the plane. Only one professor remains seated with his hands folded calmly in his lap. The pilot walks out from the cockpit and shakes the Professor’s hand. “You must be very proud of your students,” he says, beaming. The wizened professor leans back in his airplane seat and chuckles at the pilot.

 “Sir,” he says. “If my students really were the ones who built this plane, then I am confident it won’t even leave the ground.” 

My engineering professors tried very hard to instill us with knowledge, and it is only mostly their fault that we didn’t learn much of anything. For four years, they stuffed us with equations and practice problems with the desperate hope that something would stick. When nothing did, they tried to warn us of the consequences of our incompetence by showing us videos of plane crashes and bridge collapses. “This is what happens when engineers make mistakes!” they would say, wagging their fingers in our direction. 

The favored video among my professors was a video of the 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse. Every year, without fail, we were shown the same video of the  bridge swaying in the wind until it broke. We watched the video so many times that we all memorized exactly what would happen. The bridge would swing wildly, the deck would shake, and one by one the cables would snap. Then, as the deck collapsed into the churning water below, the man recording the video would say  “There it goes,” and all thirty of us crammed into the small classroom would mutter, “There it goes.” 

After four years of watching bridge failure videos, one can imagine how I developed a considerable fear of driving over bridges. The image of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge crashing into Puget Sound often flashes through my mind as I wait in line at the grocery store or listen to a boring date. But what am I to do about this unfortunate phobia? I can’t go through life avoiding islands, river valleys, and peninsulas. Maybe this will be the year that I finally confront my fear of bridges. Or maybe I’ll just buy a boat.

 

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Linnea Cooley is an undergraduate humor writer at the University of Maryland. Her essays have appeared in Pif Magazine, Boston Accent Lit, and Robot Butt among others. More of her work can be seen on her website, linneacooley.weebly.com, or by following her on twitter at @linnea_cooley.