Despite its metaphorical name, The Rickety Bridge To Adulthood was a real bridge in Stroudsberg, Pennsylvania, a real town neatly wedged halfway between the Delaware Water Gap and Beautiful Mount Airy Lodge.
In 1962, Beautiful Mount Airy Lodge was known as “Your Host In The Poconos With The Most In The Poconos”; a simple line for a simple time. 1962 was an equally uncomplicated year; likely the very last one our nation would ever enjoy. Two popular icons of the time best tell us why The Rickety Bridge To Adulthood could have existed then – and only then.
Barbeque Grills and Dads.
Barbeque grills were so sturdily built, they doubled as concussion-proof boxes for safely exploding hand grenades and artillery shells. With brand name starter fluids not yet in wide use, men instead lugged jerry-cans full of gasoline from their local Texaco. Lit cigarettes jitterbugging on their lips, these casual arsonists splashed on more flameable explosive roasting a wienie than The 5th Division Marines used capturing Iwo Jima.
Likewise, 1962 featured extremely sturdy Dads, perhaps more so than any other in the long history of fatherhood. Unlike adult males in today’s slippery chain of family command, The 1962 Dad was the sole hand on the tiller of authority. What Dad said, went; even when what Dad said – went dreadfully haywire.
The 1962 Dad was like Google, Wikipedia and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not rolled into one. Even when you knew in your the gut things he said were plain screwy, there existed no source of info you could counter with. Worse, these Dads never looked even vaguely like authority figures. He grew scraggly mustaches, smoked smelly, cheap cigars known as cheroots, and, in a frontal assault on good taste, Dads wore fire engine red socks beneath black high-top sneakers. Should Mom lodge a protest, Dad had but one reply:
To understand the true meaning of this response, note that in 1962, TV featured “Dad’s Toenails Week On The 4:30 Movie”; five motion pictures starring his yellowing, ugly, razor-sharp protrusions; accidentally irradiated to gigantic, Earth-threatening size. Think wrecked skyscrapers, trampled crowds and no way modern science could ever stop these lethal monsters.
Which brings us back to The Rickety Bridge To Adulthood. It was Dad’s unshakable, belief in himself that required he pressgang his first born son into that best captured in 5 words: Just Like My Old Man. In order to be Just Like His Old Man, the quivering minnow (more often than not known as “Junior”) was absolutely and irrevocably required to cross that bridge.
Although dads were themselves often baptized by lethal combat, they still gave presented two choices, not unlike helping a kid get over his fear of water: the kid could jump or dad could toss him in. The crucial difference here was the water. It was over three stories below, a foot deep and dotted with humongous jagged boulders – in the unlikely event the little shmoo didn’t drown on impact.
In 1962, first born males had their first brush with the inevitable. Cavities, hurtful rejection by girls they deeply loved and The Draft Board would come later. For now, on the far side of a deep rocky gorge there stood Reamys, a frozen custard stand. Even at a tender age, young boys could sense that very little good could possibly ever come from a place called Reamys. While they had no idea what reaming was, either literally or figuratively – they knew it just had to be bad.
Of course, Reamys was, for miles around, the sole provider of ice cream unceremoniously blown full of air before being glopped into sugar cones. Junior never held any real hope his siblings would ignore the offer, the word “custard” always had an effect similar to the plink of a can opener on cat ears.
The one way to get to Reamys was a 60 foot long, foot bridge in ugly disrepair; lovingly ignored by local authorities for decades. Haphazardly strung across the gorge, this fresh-air tunnel to certain doom would shake, shimmy and shiver violently with absolutely no provocation – and the slightest hint of a breeze would cause it to violently sway side to side.
There was no detour, no “long way around” and more than anything else, there was no turning back. If he didn’t cross, his siblings would dutifully report back to Dad. This was freely translated which in turn meant the boy’s absence of backbone would then be transmitted across the free world on all major television networks. The instant a young lad bravely took that initial step on a termite-ravaged cross-beam, an ugly apparition would appear on the far side – what could only be identified as The True Warthog From Hell. Cackling fiendishly, this beast would give the overhead steel wire stanchions a nice, friendly slap – turning the bridge into an unstable mass of gunmetal grey Jello – and the victim’s world into a nightmare. When he somehow got his wits back, he instantly had a truly sickening realization there were fifty nine steps still to go.
While a kid’s natural reaction was to grab the jokingly named “support” wires, this unfortunate move instantly transferred into his very core a spine rattling vibrato. Imagine the keening voice of Dr. Fu Manchu as he repeatedly jabbed bamboo spikes dipped in sulfur into the flesh of the white missionary devil. The unmistakable yang!yang!yang! of the bridge quivering indicated that an entire legion of True Warthogs From Hell had joined the first True Warthog From Hell in performing their deadly task in unison.
These one-yard-high sadists that flocked to either end of this bridge were rumored to be sub-minions of the infamous “Lehigh Creek Gang”. They knew the only way they might effectively graduate to adult thughood was by making each step on the bridge feel like it was indeed the last one taken on Earth.
So, as the little brothers watched (and often snickered), the kid moved slowly ahead, tried not to look down and did his best not to picture a jagged bolder moving from thirty feet down to one inch from his face – in five short seconds.
It would be a mistake to call this a test of bravery. You either made it across or you scampered back into the shame and disgrace of extended childhood. In fact, in 1962, a year of bomb-proof barbeque grills and marauding giant yellow toenails, the spectacle on The Bridge was simply everybody’s idea of a swell time. Adults would watch from either bank swigging endless Genny Creams and laughing uproariously when a poor lad got himself frozen halfway, wondering if back or forth might provide the fastest egress from this jiggling purgatory.
If somehow the lad made it to Reamys and brought back the goods; The Creek Gang urchin-ettes had by this time tired of the fun and the return trip was never as eventful. And Dad? Well, Dad, if he chose to notice his brood had returned with chocolate custardy beards – likely uttered his second favorite expression after “Tough Toenails!” –
“Where’s my change?”
All of this is not to say kids were tougher in 1962. Perhaps it was mostly that they were a generation who witnessed the first weapons that could instantly annihilate all life on earth. Or maybe it was that a “police action” had ended 10 years before and another would not heat up for another 5. In the absence of deadly gunfire, rituals were still necessary to indicate passage to manhood.
In any case, there is very little chance The Rickety Bridge To Adulthood is still in the condition last seen in 1962. Worse, a rumor reported recently in a Poconos newspaper talked of a certain establishment that delivered frozen custard to picnics. So nowadays, Dad probably is the shnook chosen to Google the number on his Blackberry; the only test remaining was figuring whether the correct spelling for “ream” applies.
And last, it is safe to assume that no toenails, tough or otherwise, are still involved.