|Narrative history of Big Money Opening Day: VI
||[Jul. 29th, 2005|03:30 pm]
You Big Dummy
Stoneys love a party and hate to wait in traffic to get to one. So the completion of this bridge, which almost doubled up the capacity of both the old ones, was twice as nice. When the Grace bridge opened it wss a three-day event. This time the celebration took up a week.|
The weekend before was "Open House," in which foot traffic was invited to walk across. There were also shuttles running back and forth between the towers and the access points for folks who were unable to walk. The opening committee under Bobby Clair expected that during the five hours the bridge was open on Saturday morning and the five more hours on Sunday afternoon, a total of about forty thousand people would show up. They got about twice that. Since only one-half of the deck was reserved for the walk, it was a bit crowded, but everyone thought, you know, so what.
On Monday evening came a big money, black tie gala on the main span. Something like a thousand people paid two hundred dollars apiece for food, drinks, and music played by the Charleston S.O. More than one TV person called the orchestra a "band." The event ended at ten, but the last cars, carrying the straggling revelers with their gift baskets, didn't scoot until eleven.
Thursday night was really the climax of it all, including the dedication. At 9.30 there began a $350,000 fireworks show that damn near blew the bridge apart. They shot them off of riverbanks, barges in the harbor, the deck itself. The towers glowed in a dim red and green, echoed the noise of the explosions across the harbor. Half an hour later there was a hell of a lot of smoke on the water; the show was over. I watched the spectacle on television, and trying to use words to describe it is vain. Go find, copy, or download it yourself.
Next, some citizen chosen in a drawing gave the command to the light crew to illuminate the bridge, using its own lighting system, for the first time ever. The crowd at Patriots Point cheered and clapped. And on the bridge, nothing happened. Personally, I was scared shitless. Finally, the M.C., whose day job was county administrator and who was not supplied with copy, told the folks that it would take a while for the lights to warm up (like stadium lights). It would have been nice to know that earlier.
So the bridge gradually grew brighter, but on TV it wasn't all that impressive. There was a lot of dead air, so the director whistled the reporter to go find somebody to interview. She finally caught the county administrator (and lousy M.C.) and asked him some uninteresting questions. And again, with Bobby Clair. After that, the show awkwardly ended.
Opening Day was quite a bit more structured. Twenty seconds after 9 o'clock Bob Harrell stepped to the podium, greeted everyone, said a few words about what today meant, then yielded to Moot Truluck, of the 6th district (my own), who added some remarks of his own. The two shared the duties of presiding over the opening exercises.
Three men each delivered an invocation: a Charleston city councilman, the senior of the Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy, and Arthur Ravenel's own pastor. The last was entitled to, and did, say a few words about the down-to-earth man everyone knows as "Cousin Arthur" before offering his prayer.
A color guard detached from the Washington Light Infantry marched in from the south rail with the gilded banners: the United States flag, the Palmetto flag, and two of their own standards. Gentlemen doffed their caps as representative Mack led everyone in pledging their allegiance and the Magnolia Singers rendered the national anthem.
Harry Hallman of Mt. Pleasant and Joe Riley of Charleston offered their welcome to each of their cities (we were slighly on the Charleston side of the city limits). Senators Graham and DeMint and former senator Hollings spoke. So did Congressmen Clyburn and Brown. Tee Hooper, chair of the DOT commission, offered his words, then gave the podium to Speaker of the House Harrell. Next came the transportation officials: Buck Limehouse, ex-commissioner; from the SIB, chairman of the board Donald P. Leonard; Elizabeth Mabry, DOT executive director; Robert L. Lee of the FHWA. Chairman Stavrinakis of the county council added his remarks. So did Bobby Clair. After he was finished he had the honor of introducing Cousin Arthur himself, who tried to stifle the abundant applause thus: "Sit down, sit down, lemme lay a few words on you."
More than two hours after the welcome Representative Whipper offered the benediction; then the officials formed a long line and each cut a bit of the red ribbon. We were long gone by then; Cliff wanted to see the WLI and none of us really wanted to listen to hours of talk in the hot sun when we could watch it later on television. So we turned and began the long walk back down.
Most of the out-of-town news reporters and photographers had seen enough, also. Tom Crabtree of WSPA waved us a greeting as he and his cameraman sped down the deserted bridge. A crew from WYFF lingered by the now-quiet east tower, getting a few more feet of film to be used for that evening's news. Many of the news helicopters had left by now, headed back to the other corner of the state. A few runners were taking advantage of the foot lane, which, officially, didn't open until after the ribbon was cut.
The rest of the bridge wouldn't open right away, because the cars, the people, the chairs, the platform, the speakers, the podium, the tents, the step ladders, the congratulatory banner signed by well-wishers during the open house weekend, all had to be cleared away. The Post and Courier said the bridge would probably be open to general traffic by 2 o'clock, but we noticed temporary DOT message signs that claimed that the gun would fire at 3. So for a time there were three bridges back to Charleston, but none were open.
That meant we were stranded. We cranked up, pulled out, and drifted south on the road to Patriot's Point, where a friendly police cop, directing traffic, pointed out to us a vendor's tent in a gas station parking lot, right on the corner of the Patriot's Point road and the Coleman on-ramp (the one we passed under on the way up). Under the tent were insulated bottles, keychains, koozies, magnets, postcards, lanyards...and a hell of a lot of T-shirts. I paid fifteen bucks for one, but the rest of the stuff was pretty much a rip-off, including the four-dollar magnet. Damn, I bought that, too.
We then headed south, going through the town and over the Ben Sawyer swing bridge to Sullivan's Island, trying to find a beach access parking lot. Once we finally hit one Cliff realized he needed a towel, and while he was at it he might as well buy a Frisbee (my golf discs aren't made for catching, now). So we drove over to the Isle of Palms, crossing the inlet through which the Hunley passed on her final journey. In the town market Cliff got that towel and Frisbee, after which we started looking for free parking, without success. So it was back over the bridge to Sullivan's, when Cadet Cliff realized he could get us on the beach before the Citadel house. Back on IOP, we drove almost the entire length of Palm Blvd. and reached the house moments before eleven.
There was a big cookout there, so we went around the huge picnic shed to get to the beach. Good thing I didn't bring a surfboard: the tide was low, and IOP's notorious wave-killing sandbar was only yards out. It did enable me to walk and then swim way the hell. Besides, going to the beach gave me a chance to get rid of that tie.
After a shower in the Citadel house the uniform of the day was much less formal: I had on the shirt I had just bought, cross-country practice shorts, Rainbows. At the Subway in the town market I ordered the most expensive sandwich they had, not because it was Opening Day, but because I had never tried it and felt like it.
The bridge was still hours away from opening, so we jumped over to Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's. (As part of the Grace opening ceremony, dignitaries toured the fort, at the time still in use, but I had forgotten that.) As usual, only a handful of people were wandering the grounds. That's actually normal; everybody wants to see Sumter, which was less important to history.
At 2.30 we left and headed back to the northwestern corner of Mt. Pleasant. Already a line of a dozen or so cars were waiting on Coleman to get on the still-unopened bridge. We turned by that same gas station where I bought that stuff and joined the end of a slightly larger line on the Patriot's Point road. For ten minutes we all sat and waited for the new traffic signal to be activated, letting the line of cars cross the bridge.
Truly the tension was palpable as the vehicles--cars, vans, motorcycles--moved slowly forward, inches at a time, as if getting that much closer to the starting line made an appreciable difference. We were all as horses ready to bust out of the gate, except most folks had cut their cars off, rolled down their windows, and chatted with nearby drivers and passengers. We waited about fifteen minutes.
Far ahead of us a flash of white passed before a green wall of trees. We realized it was a DOT truck moving slowly southward on Coleman. Through binoculars Greg watched and waited for the bed of the truck to come into view; when it did, he saw orange cones in it. The bridge was ready.
For a time our line did not move, then it finally lurched forward for half a minute or so before stopping again. We had to wait for the light to change. One car trying to get out of the gas station pulled athwart the lane going the other way, trying to cut in front of us in line. This blocked traffic in that lane, hence blocked traffic turning from Coleman into our road.
The light, still far away but visible now. turned green again. The line moved quicker this time. We just might make this light...we've got to hurry...this light can't stay green this long. Three cars away...two...don't yet see yellow...across the white line...quick turn, maybe too fast...we made it. A jet black stretch of road seemed to lead to a pile of sand, then curved suddenly and led directly to the white concrete ramp.
I was afraid it was going to bore me to tears, with no dips, curves, narrow roadways. I thought it would be too easy. I was half right. It was not a challenging drive over, but it was far from boring. Greg, almost as a joke, found some Strauss and Copland to put on.
Drivers around us honked, waved. One flew a Jolly Roger, for some reason. We got behind a car with a Wofford sticker, changed lanes, pulled beside him and had a short, shouted conversation, despite the 50 knots of apparent wind. The other side of the bridge was empty, but then a line of motorcycles appeared on the horizon, leading the first cars from Charleston across.
It seemed as if we were going a lot slower than we were, but the bridge was so big. The cables didn't flash by, but each just seemed to majestically drift by, one by one, almost pausing to welcome us aboard before giving way to the next one. The highest parts of the old bridges' superstructure just poked over the level of the edge of the deck.
On the way down we crossed over the old bridges and peered respectfully at the Town Creek spans. The deck leveled off over Charleston Neck, where we selected the South 17 ramp. Once again up, over the former I-26, long, soft left-hand curve, a more abrupt right turn, a cloverleaf circle, and we were on the surface of downtown. What a way to get to King Street!
We wound up in front of Rainbow Row, whence we walked to Waterfront Park to look at the bridge. Already (3.30) traffic was backing up on the eastbound lanes, on account of the new signals, the higher volume of cars going east then west because of the higher abundance of entrance ramps, and the general demand. Then to the Market (where I bought a book about the new bridge, written already!), South King, Marion Square (where I bought some Ives, Ravel, Bartok), the Aquarium, the tall ship South Carolina under contruction, and back to the Market for seafood. We then drove to White Point and walked around, just because it is a beautiful spot.
By then the sky was turning orange and the shadows were lengthening, so we journeyed back up East Bay, through the railroad yards and docks, and passed under the old bridges. Nearby, we took a ramp back onto the new bridge for our first west-to-east crossing. At eight o'clock, the traffic was as slow as it was at 3.30, but not sluggish. And it was fine with us; this allowed us to savor the crossing at a leisurely pace. We were moving about as fast as the walkers but were within the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle. Finally we landed, once again at the vendor's corner, turned about, and crossed again, driving into the setting sun.
Some folks think that Stoneys will soon become numb to the greatness of this bridge, will ho-hum whilst speeding over the harbor, under the towers and cables. I doubt that. The bridge is already being used in local business logos, being included in local paintings. Stoneys, and all Sandlappers, are interested in, also proud of, the story of the bridge. Count the number of hits of the DOT's official webpage, of Frank Starmer's unofficial one. If the Grace and Pearman really were tourist attractions, which, because of their dimensions and personalities, they were, I'd bet folks from hours away would come to Charleston to see the bridge. It might not be as magical as the first crossing, but surely every trip over, on foot or by car, will excite.
This bridge truly is a most durable monument.
Back over the Neck we took the direct ramp to I-26, which to us was the road home. When we reached Oakdale just before ten, after a fast ride north, we had not stopped since the Mt. Pleasant gas station. It was as dark and almost as deserted as before. We were sixteen hours in.