Bridges

 

He drove up the valley, choosing the old El Camino Real over the faster and more heavily travelled 101. The El Camino Real runs through the heart of Silicon Valley, passing the citadels of modern technology - Mountain View, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Redwood City. How, in the midst of all of this opportunity, had he squandered his big chance?

Ben Sato was a second year physics major at Stanford University. At least he had been until an hour ago when he walked out of the Dean’s office. Dean Carlton had told Ben that his performance wasn’t up to the standards of the Physics program at Stanford, but that Ben would be allowed to transfer to one of Stanford’s engineering programs. In the Dean’s opinion, Ben was more suited to the world of applied science than theoretical science. Ben did not agree and, worse, neither would his father.

Born Benjiron Sato, he was the son of Japanese immigrants. His success as a future physicist was his father’s dream, a badge of honor for his family. It would open the gate of opportunity for the next generation of Satos. Already a source of great pride for his father, he had told the entire San Francisco Japanese community that his son was a physics major at Stanford University.

As he drove, he descended deeper and deeper into a state of depression. For Ben, life was essentially over. Maybe he could at least accomplish that ending with some level of competence.

He was on his way first to the campus of the University of San Francisco to say goodbye to his girlfriend, then to the Golden Gate Bridge, an icon of American engineering brilliance. Ben would tell his girlfriend, Emily, that he needed time to be alone, time to figure out what to do with his life. Truth was, he already knew.

The El Camino Real enters San Francisco from the south, where it becomes Mission Street. From here it is a short drive over to Golden Gate Park. Ben chose the road through the park that took him past the Japanese Tea Garden, where his parents used to bring him and his sister when he was young. The elder Satos wanted their children to assimilate into American culture, but they also wanted them to appreciate and respect their Japanese heritage. The Tea Garden was a symbolic bridge to that heritage. Ben’s Stanford education was a very real bridge to the future.

Just on the other side of Golden Gate Park is the University of San Francisco. USF surrounds the peak of Lone Mountain, with some of the best views in San Francisco, and in particular of the Golden Gate Bridge. Emily was waiting on the sidewalk.

A diminutive, soft spoken girl from Providence, Rhode Island, Emily was a third generation American, descended from Irish Catholic immigrants. She had disappointed her family, particularly her father, when she chose the University of San Francisco, one of America’s bastions of liberalism. They had their hearts set on Emily going to a nice Catholic school, like Notre Dame. Her father was certain that nothing good could come from his little girl going off to any college in San Francisco.

“Hi,” she said cheerfully, as Ben got out of the car. “Now, what is it that’s causing you to be so gloomy? Whatever it is, it can’t possibly be all that bad.”

“Actually, it can. And it is. Emily, I’ve flunked out of the physics program. Dean Carlton told me this afternoon.”

“Ouch … that’s not good. You must be bummed,” Emily said.

“It’s worse than ‘not good’ Emily. I can’t face my father with this. He’s told the family and the whole community that his son is going to be a physicist. He and my mother have gone deeply in debt to make that possible for me. He will be disgraced; his son is a failure. This will devastate him.”

“No, Ben, it won’t, not really. He’ll be disappointed, but he’ll get over it. I mean, I’m supposed to be a pre-med student at Notre Dame, not an Art History major at USF or, as my father calls it, Fruitcake U. Remember? My dad had to get over that – and he did. You can transfer to the school of engineering, become an engineer, and have a great career, doing something you love. How does that disgrace your family?”

“You don’t understand Emily, you can’t possibly understand, you’re not Japanese. This is a matter of family honor.”

“You’re right, Ben, I don’t understand. I don’t understand the concept that you are somehow responsible for the honor of your family and all of your ancestors. It’s not an American concept, Ben. We get back up and try again. It’s really just that simple.”

“That’s right, for Americans everything is simple. You’re simple people, aren’t you?”

“You’re an American, Ben, remember?”

He just glared at her. This hadn’t gone at all as he had intended. The worst day of his life had just taken a sharper turn downward. Now he had alienated the love of his life. Young Ben Sato suddenly felt very alone.

He said, softly, almost inaudibly, “I think it would be better if I left for now. I need some time alone.”

“Where are you going to go Ben? Can I go with you?”

“No, I have to sort all of this out myself. I’ll call you when I’m able to discuss it more rationally.”

“Ben … everything will be OK, it really will. This is just one event in your life, there will be many more. Call me before you go to bed tonight. OK? Will you?”

“Yes, I will. Goodbye Emily. I love you.”

He parked the car in the nearly empty lot beside one of the beaches adjacent to the Golden Gate Promenade. In summer the Promenade is alive with activity - runners, roller-bladers, cyclists, moms and baby strollers - all manner of human traffic. There are beaches along the trail and the views of the bridge are unobstructed and breathtaking. Now, in late December, Promenade traffic is light. The beaches are deserted; the waters of San Francisco Bay are now frigid.

As Ben walked along the Promenade, he tried to focus on what had happened. He thought about enrolling in another university and working night jobs to pay his father back. But the overwhelming shame of his failure made any kind of recovery plan seem trivial. It was like confessing to murder and saying that you’ll give up chocolate for retribution. Christians believed in this kind of nonsense – confess your sin, say ten Hail Marys, and all is forgiven. Sorry Emily, it doesn’t work that way in my world.

The other side of his brain was busy calculating the distance between the two towers of the bridge. Let’s see now … if it’s 220 feet from the water to the roadway, at the middle of the bridge, and the towers are 375 feet tall, and if I compare the visual distance between the towers to the height … No, stop this. You’ve more important things to think about. There you go, wasting time again. That’s why you failed – you wasted your time.

His father and mother, his sister, his whole family, disgraced by his failure. He was a good-for-nothing, ungrateful son. The Sato name tarnished because of him. Maybe he could personally apologize to his family and the whole community, and enter a period of unpaid apprenticeship, maybe in his father’s print shop, for as long as it took to pay back all of the money his parents had saved and borrowed for his wasted time at Stanford.

Those graceful cables, they’re catenary curves, the perfect geometric arc for a hanging-load distribution. he thought. Form follows function. It’s when you use perfect functionality that you achieve perfect form and, with it, true beauty. Listen to God, that’s where the answer lies. Too bad he hadn’t listened to God himself.

 Maybe he and Emily could move far away, have children, and start a new life. No, he committed a grievous sin; there must be accountability and retribution. I must suffer the consequences of my actions, he thought.

Nearing the end of the Promenade, Ben walked out on Torpedo Wharf and stood looking up at the majestic bridge. From this close, the bridge filled his field of vision, from left to right, with the hills of Marin County just visible at the far right. The bridge was an engineering marvel. At this time of day, with the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean, it was a vision he would never forget, for however long he lived. It was a frightening vision, dark and foreboding. The sun on the back side of the bridge made the outline of the bridge stand out like a huge, black skeleton – a dragon. His mind was filled with an almost surreal mixture of emotions, ranging from awe to dread.

As he turned to walk off the wharf, he reflected on how different the bridge would look from this wharf in the morning, with the rising sun illuminating the orange girders and superstructure. The bridge would be glowing, golden, iridescent in the morning light. He felt a deep sadness that he would miss it.

It was 6:05 and the pedestrian gate would close in 25 minutes - plenty of time, and likely to be even fewer people on the bridge. As Ben stepped onto the walkway, he remembered that he had calculated how he would know when he was exactly half way across. For some reason, this precision mattered to Ben. He couldn’t help himself. He was constantly calculating things, designing things in his mind, analyzing the world around him. He knew that it was 1.7 miles across the bridge, and that he had a 32” stride. From these calculations he knew that it would take him exactly 1,683 steps to reach the half-way point, the apex of the gently curving arch, the high point of the roadway. From there everything was down, no matter what you did. He reached in his pocket and turned on his pedometer. He had also computed that it would take him approximately 17 minutes to get there. He would check his pedometer in 15 minutes.

Ben walked deliberately - neither fast, nor slow, just deliberately, almost hypnotically, north along the pedestrian walkway. He was barely aware of his feet striking the walkway boards. His mind was a jumble of thoughts. As he predicted, the bridge was nearly devoid of pedestrian traffic, only cars and trucks thundering by. It was late in the day, late in the year, and it was cold.

He alternately thought about his family and his culture. What was his culture? Japanese? American? Both? Neither?  He thought about Emily and the family that they had talked about having. He thought about the stresses on the vertical cables, and the relationship between the diameters of the vertical cables and the long, looping support cables that they hung from.

Ten minutes into the walk Ben pulled the pedometer from his pocket and checked his step-progress. The numbers on the digital readout said 893. He was a little behind schedule. He should be closer to 965 steps into his journey. Why did it matter? He just knew that it did.

He began to realize he thought this way and he did these things because he had to. Central to Ben’s life and to all of his thinking, was the need to understand how things worked, all things. He was an engineer, all the way to his soul. He wasn’t a physicist, was never meant to be. Listen to God, he thought. I’m just like these cables and those towers up there. I was meant to be an engineer. If only this realization had come sooner.

He checked his pedometer again, 1617 steps, nearly there. He turned and looked back at the south tower, and then at the north tower. Yes, they were just about equal distance apart. He was nearly in the middle. It was almost time.

As he approached the bridge’s mid-point, he looked to the left, out to the ocean. The sun was now below the horizon and it was quickly getting dark. He knew that sunset at this latitude, on this day, was at 5:59, and it was now 6:25. When he looked to the right he was surprised at the contrast. To the left was an empty darkness, to the right a sky lit by the lights of San Francisco. The city lights were shining brightly and reflecting off the water in the bay below.

Ben stopped when his pedometer registered the magic number, 1638. It was time. He looked both ways, saw that he was alone on the walkway, and calmly climbed over the four foot railing, turning and standing, facing with his back to the city, toes perched precariously on the narrow ledge just below the walkway. He stood there for a moment, contemplating the darkness before him. Balancing his footing carefully, Ben turned around so that he could take one last look at what was spread out in front of him. The city of San Francisco and all of its hills were spread out on the right. Up there on the hill farthest to the right was the University of San Francisco and Emily. Directly in front of him, about a mile up the bay, the lighthouse on Alcatraz Island blinked, as though it were mocking him. “Go ahead fool, jump” it seemed to say. “I’ve seen over 1,600 people do it before you. 98% of them die. Maybe you’ll be one of the lucky ones.”

It was at this moment, as he contemplated the thousands of lost souls that had suffered and died over the years, right underneath that very light, in the bowels of Alcatraz Federal Prison, that a belligerence arose in Ben’s breast. No, by God, he wasn’t going to live his life, much less give up his life, for other people and their imposed expectations. He was going to go back and live his life, live it as the engineer that he was meant to be, as the husband and father of his and Emily’s American born children. That would be how he would serve and honor the Sato family heritage, by carrying it forward and making his contribution in this life, not by ending his life.

As Ben turned back around to climb over the railing and to safety, a Roadway Express eighteen-wheeler roared past, dragging along with it a side-blast of wind. The timing was perfect. Just as Ben let go with his right hand to make the pivot on the ledge, the wind hit him broadside. In a split second Benjiron Sato was falling, accelerating toward terminal velocity. Ben knew, of course, that it was 220 feet to the water and that it would take exactly 4.3 seconds to cover that distance. What to do with the time? 


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