SECTION FIVE 

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COLUMN SIXTY-TWO, AUGUST 1, 2001
(Copyright © 2001 The Blacklisted Journalist)

BIRTHDAY BRIDGE

Among the first contingent starting out from Philadelphia at 5:30 a.m. on July 1 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Ben Franklin Bridge was a woman scattering the contents of a sandwich bag on the roadway as she walked toward Camden.

"Are those bread crumbs?" I joked.

"Are you leaving a trail so you can find your way back?" my companion chimed in.

"No," the woman explained, "actually, it's my mother.  She spent so many years in this area that I felt she'd be happy and proud to be left on the bridge.  She was 75---just like the bridge---when she died."

The possibility that thousands of others walking across the bridge that day might carry her mother's ashes to their homes on the soles of their shoes didn't seem to bother this woman at all.

My companion was Ida Becker of Linden, New Jersey, and we were in Philadelphia at the invitation of her son, who owns the Larry Becker Contemporary Art gallery on Second Street in the heart of the historic district of that city.

We'd been up past 12 watching the spectacular display of fireworks launched from a pair of barges below the bridge, which spans the Delaware, before we were awakened too few hours later to join the throng waiting at the Philadelphia side of the river for the police signal permitting the start of the one-and-a-half mile walk to Camden. 

"You're all crazy!" a sleepy-headed me called out, but by time I got to the other side of the River, I was ready to eat my words. The walk across the bridge and back---as the red morning sun smiling meekly through the dawn mist rose to white heat---proved to be not only a healthy exercise but also an emotional and inspiring experience.

Curiously, I was puzzled when I reached the apex of the bridge to be confronted by a crowd coming from the other side of the river. Not until one of them told me, "We're coming from Camden," did it occur to still sleepy-headed me that this was a bi-state event.

The Delaware River Port Authority had taken great pains to ensure that this would be a gala party---from the red T-shirted DRPA employees stationed along the bridge as monitors to make sure that nobody got out of line or jumped off to the dozen or more porta-potties ready to answer nature's call.   These conveniences were strategically placed at the apex of the span---about halfway across.

I was treated to a display of antique fire engines and antique automobiles, including a Model T just like the one in which Seymour Schwartzbach used to drive us around when we were seniors at Abraham Clark High in Roselle, New Jersey.  And also to a display of a lot 


 Some who had walked 
across the bridge as children
were there at the ceremony


of people wearing antique clothes, such as colonial outfits and even flapper duds from the roaring '20s. That was when an immigrant Polish engineer named Ralph Modjeski built the bridge, opened with a party on July 1, 1926, when, just like on its 75th birthday, everyone was allowed to walk across.

Some who were kids accompanying their parents across the bridge on that day---including an aged nun flown in from Honolulu---were later introduced to the crowd from a stage near the apex of the bridge, the longest suspension span in the world when it was built. On that stage, a portly figure wearing Colonial clothing (as were many others among the more then 100,000 walkers) was introduced as the bridge's namesake, none other than Ben Franklin himself.  But he was merely someone posing as the man whose face looks out from our c-notes. He complained that the span was called The Delaware River Bridge for 10 years before anyone had the sense to name it after someone with "electricity," like him, Ben Franklin.  He also pointed out that as many carriages without motors as with motors crossed the river at that time.

Also on the stage, the flapper-dressed ladies gave a lesson in how to dance the Charleston, which was the rage of the '20s.  In addition, there was a delightful jazz concert played by the Philadelphia Clef Club Student Ensemble, featuring a 13-year-old guitar prodigy named Ben Lieberman who mesmerized me. Also, there was a ceremonial unveiling of the refurbished and gleaming bronze "Four Angels," statues that once stood at the entrance of the span.

Jugglers, balloon sculptors and magicians playing card tricks entertained along the way and a trio of vintage bi-planes flew overhead in formation.  I also saw men crossing the bridge high atop antique bicycles, with a giant wheel in front and that tiny wheel in the rear. And I found myself tickled pink by the sight of three-year-old triplets with painted faces riding in a four-seater wooden wagon pulled by their father.

There was also a booth on the Camden side giving away free sponge birthday crowns that I saw many persons wearing. But by the time I got to the booth, they had run out of those valuable souvenirs.  However, there were several other booths giving away free souvenirs, and I was able to collect a supply for my grandsons Julian and Noah, whose great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was none other than Ben Franklin's nemesis, John Dickinson  Dickinson was the guy who refused to sign the Declaration of Independence but who went on to become a hero of the Revolutionary War, one of the signers of the United States Constitution and the governor of  Pennsylvania and then Delaware.

I was so impressed by the party, I even parted with $18 to buy a souvenir T-shirt despite the fact that my dresser drawers are jammed with far too many souvenir T-shirts because Iíve gotten them free at too many memorable events. I later was able to recoup at least part of the $18 by using my Swiss Army knife to dig out a penny, a nickel and a dime embedded in the tar in the middle of the bridge roadway. My plan is to maybe auction off those tar-encrusted coins on e-Bay.  ##

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