Building Bridges

Sunday’s story about the people who share the birth year with the Manette Bridge grew out of a pretty simple idea. The notion was to talk about people who, like the bridge, have or will turn 80 this year and find out what they’ve seen. You don’t know what you’re going to get sometimes when you approach a story that way, and it does run the risk of being “all over the place,” as commenter bigballaj wrote.

The idea was based on the same one we use when we describe something that’s 1,200 600 feet as “the size of two football fields.” A one-room school, a kid working at age 9 and mentions of the WPA say much more than “80 years.”

Not one of the people I spoke with was too concerned about the changes proposed for the new bridge. They just want wider lanes. That was one surprise.

What didn’t surprise me was how difficult it would be to combine the lives of so many people into one relatively short story.

There was one other surprise, a really big one. In trying to convey the mood I want for a story it often helps to be in that mood. The closer it gets to deadline, the more difficult that is to maintain. I suppose the true master can be in any mood and know how to write in another. For most stories that’s easy. In this one, not so much.

For part of Friday, when I was writing, I exiled myself to Cornerstone Coffee to escape the newsroom chatter. When I had written much of the piece, I returned to the newsroom and pretty much reworked the whole thing. In the midst of that there came a call over the scanner that “Mom shot Dad.” We’re not above emotion here, and that was a call troubling to many of us. Then the truly unusual details came in when it was revealed that the alleged shooter was born in 1930, the same year as most the people I had spoken with for the piece I was in the middle of writing.

It took a while to let that situation go on outside me and continue making progress on the story. I did OK, but when I left Friday, early enough to catch the last three innings at the Bluejackets game, I was pretty sad. Most of that was the lingering unease about the shooting, but as I was walked to my car from the newsroom I was already thinking of things that should have gone in the story.

It was my good fortune that Vince Dice, assistant local news editor, came back into work on Saturday and read the story again and had questions. The solutions we came up solved the concerns I had Friday night.

My guess is when we do revisit the bridge’s story in a couple years it will be much more about the bridge itself. When drivers are crossing the new span and crews are dismantling the old one, that will be the time to focus on the emotions the bridge itself generates, the loss some will feel to see the green steel go. Like the people profile in Sunday’s story, I thought it appropriate this time to focus on the things people the same age as the bridge treasure, which is the other people in their lives. We won’t long have the chance to do that again.

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