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Al Batt: At least I wouldn’t have to bother to burn it behind me

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt

I built a bridge once.

I’ve been to Jerusalem. I picked up newspapers from a smiling vendor without a stand. Stacks of papers rested upon the ground. Large rocks held them in place. He had 14 children at last count and was 81. Each morning, he’d hoist me high to prove he was strong enough to sell me newspapers.

He claimed his longevity, strength and happiness came from four things. His family. A sabich, a pita filled with slices of fried eggplant, hard-boiled egg, hummus, crunchy pickles, potatoes and Israeli salad drizzled with tahini sauce and amba (a pickled-mango chutney). A falafel, deep-fried balls made from ground chickpeas and spices served inside a pita, wrap or flatbread with lettuce, tomatoes and tahini. And reading newspapers.

His method of building a bridge between us was by lifting me literally and figuratively. 

I have an active imagination, but limited spatial abilities. There is an artistry to building things, and being able to look at a pile of lumber and see a house. I see a bill. I’m able to insert tab A into slot B and use an Allen wrench to secure the bond between the pieces when putting furniture together. I was named after that wrench. But by the time I’ve slapped the kit together, it’s gone past its expiration date.

I’ve heard an older gentleman described this way, “He’s no spring chicken.” That means he was a spring chicken once upon a time.

I was a spring chicken. As part of a physics class I took in school, we had to build a bridge. It was my chance to save the American educational system. The only catch? I had to build it using only two materials: toothpicks and glue. It was a bowlegged project. I had plenty of time to work on it, which gave me ample opportunity to walk around it. Putting off homework is like waiting for the emergency plunger I need to go on sale. I didn’t slap it together because it’s impossible to slap toothpicks together. I devoured a roll of Certs while putting the finishing touches on the baby Golden Gate Bridge. Certs featured a sparkling drop of Retsyn. I didn’t know what that was, but I figured it couldn’t hurt my project. I argued with myself as characters did in the Certs commercials. “It’s a breath mint!” “It’s a candy mint!” I solved the taxonomic dilemma as they did in the commercials. “Two, two, two mints in one!” I digress. I was no civil engineer, yet I constructed a bridge of triangles and flaws, not stopping until good enough was good enough. That’s why I hire someone to do my taxes. I’d send everything to the government to speed the process.

My efforts were feeble because I was a ninnyhammer, but I brought the project in under budget. I hadn’t tested it for strength for fear it’d crumble, but I expected it’d be curiously effective when I took it to school where its strength would be measured.

A bus is a way to shrink a group of unruly kids down to a manageable size. The bridge sat next to me. As the bus motored down the road, we watched a neighbor carrying a stick chase his son down a driveway. It was comic relief for us, not for the boy being pursued. I’d no idea why there was a chase, but there might have been a reason. A bus mate stood up to watch. He didn’t know the man could run. He flopped down on my seat in astonishment and plotzed onto my bridge. Did he break it? Is water wet?

I suffered momentary discomfort that provided a sinking feeling as if I were mired in ambitious quicksand.

My bridge looked as if the bus had driven over it. The driver gave me a paper bag, but nothing for the pain and suffering. He told me to make sure I put every bit of the broken bridge into it.

Weights were added to students’ bridges until the structures collapsed. When it was my turn to present my bridge for load testing, I dumped the contents of the paper bag onto the desk. Bits of broken and gluey toothpicks bounced and scattered. Tumbleweeds rolled by. Mine needed no weights to break it. There was no wild cheering, but there were gasps and chuckles. My weary teacher looked even wearier.

I said, “I promised myself I wouldn’t cry. It’s a bridge. I’ll get over it.”

That went on my permanent record.

Al Batt’s columns appear in the Tribune every Wednesday.