By now news of the Interstate Bridge's reopening on Saturday has penetrated to the darkest hollows of Winona and Buffalo Counties, relieving much anxiety, and blowing away the collective gloom over Winona like a fresh breeze on a humid summer day. Our lifeline between Winona and Wisconsin will not be coming down soon, but will survive and serve another seven to ten years, when it will be replaced, after a long, full life, with a minimum of inconvenience (we hope, God and Mn/DOT willing).
I am one of the few not the first time placed in deadly peril by that bridge's possible collapse. It goes back to June of 1964, right about this time of year. My friend John Duel and I were celebrating our recent honorable discharge from Winona Senior High by taking an afternoon out on the river. On Cotter Island, just across from Dick's Marine on the Minnesota side, we were fortunate to run into some of that year's junior class of girls, Candace Meyers, Renee Walz, Jackie Ames, and Peggy McGrath. They had food and bikinis - perfect. We frolicked away a long, sultry afternoon water-skiing and mooching goodies, Duel and I rubbing it in about all the fun and excitement we were going to encounter in the wider world next year, while the girls drudged away another winter at Winona High, no distractions to be had other than what the pimply and undergrown lads of their class could offer.
Meanwhile, on the western horizon a black line came up, like a curtain slowly rising. We didn't even care and, heedless youth, paid no attention until the curtain suddenly blocked out the sun and the wind came up. Now it seemed like we should have left earlier, particularly since the young ladies had no ride back to Winona from Dick's. Duels kept their boat in the old Mertes harbor on the Wisconsin side of Bathhouse Slough; by the time we got there the wind was so high that we could scarcely tie it up. At Dick's, the girls ran up a gangway from the dock a second before it snapped in two, and jammed into the old VW micro bus which was left over from the days when my dad sold Hammond organs. It made a perfect wind sail, broadside to the storm, as we drove out onto the Interstate Bridge, and I could feel the tires chirping as the VW skipped sideways in the worst of the gusts. I had to fight the wheel, steering sideways towards the west railing in order to get the mini bus to creep slowly down the Minnesota side. I was more afraid than not that we would blow into the river, hunching down in the driver's seat to lower our center of gravity.
We came down onto Winona Street on the corner by the YMCA, into a snarl of downed power lines and trees, branches and miscellaneous trash swirling all around us. After what seemed an eternity of tortuous detours around the various scattered hazards, the girls scrambled out, white under their tans, at Ray Meyers' house on East 7th. By the time I dropped Duel off on Johnson St. near the college and drove home to our house on Sarnia, the worst of the storm was over. The sun would come back out again that day.
In the morning we learned on the radio, that Mn/DOT was speculating that the highest of the storm winds could possibly have brought the Interstate Bridge down. So you see, we had nothing to fear this time around, as I said many times.