Galloping Gertie and our unshakable need to connect

Andrew Homan of University Place is one of six News Tribune reader columnists for 2019.
Andrew Homan of University Place is one of six News Tribune reader columnists for 2019. News Tribune photo

I live 10,280 feet south of a world-famous disaster.

People all over the world have seen film footage of it. I’m speaking of the infamous twisting, rolling-wave “Galloping Gertie” collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940.

It was a spectacular engineering failure. The lessons learned from it, however, have contributed to the safety of every suspension bridge built anywhere in the world since.

I moved to the Tacoma area in 1993. I was a 25-year-old chaplain’s assistant in the Army and had just been assigned to the 14th Engineer Battalion at Fort Lewis. I had family in Bremerton and often traveled over the bridge.

Most of us in the area call it the “first” Narrows Bridge, even though it’s technically the second. It straddles the remains of Gertie 200 feet below the water line.

Like many people, my trips over the bridge used to grind to a halt on state Route 16, often right by the bend in the highway near Cheney Stadium. Forward momentum stopped suddenly, only to be replaced by a stop-and-start crawl to the bridge.

There were many occasions I chose not to make the trip to see my family because I was unwilling to stare at a stranger’s bumper for an hour.

It’s easy to forget that experience now. After the new bridge opened in 2007, our hour-long grumble has been replaced by a 10-second gripe about paying the toll while heading eastbound. I understand the new bridge will be paid off at some point in the distant future between “never” and “forever.”

Most of the time I don’t give the bridges a second thought. They’re just a part of the highway I use a few times each month. Sometimes I’ll ride my bicycle over the old bridge and stop at the midpoint to admire the view. But for the most part the bridges barely register in my thoughts.

Most of the year I can’t see them from my house. The view is blocked by trees in the neighborhood behind me. Some time each year, though, after the leaves have fallen, I’ll catch enough of a glimpse that I’ll stop for a moment and admire them.

This year I keep thinking about them. Not just our beautiful Tacoma bridges, but bridges in general. I think about the cost and effort it takes to build one. The engineering, the precision. The years of planning, community discussions, wrangling over tolls, timelines and responsibilities.

I think about the countless hours of checking the physics and the math over and over in order to prevent another disaster.

For all that effort you might think we’d just say it’s not worth it to build a bridge. It’s too hard. It costs too much. It might fail.

But we always do.

There’s something inside us that calls us to connect. To look up and over. To reach out and across.

There’s a longing deep in our psyches that compels us to bond with others. We may fight the tug for extended periods, but eventually we make the effort.

We always have. We always will.

Building bridges is challenging work, but the rewards are enormous. It requires honesty, transparency, authenticity, precision.

It asks us to confront painful failures and learn from them.

But building a bridge is about trying again, and doing it better the next time.

And when we do, we connect. We share our lives and stories. We grow and flourish.

And we change the world.

Andrew Homan of University Place is a network administrator at the YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties. He’s one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Reach him at NoelNHoman@gmail.com and read some of his other work at www.andrewhoman.com