Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Pigeon Bridge

Colonnade Drive didn't exist, nor did the industrial park. It was all overgrown fields and forest, with a railway line that separated Viewmount Drive and Borden Side Road from the massive oil storage tanks that have now all but rusted away. There was a creek that ran from Merivale High School, east, that travelled under Prince of Wales Drive and emptied into the Rideau River.

Most of it has vanished from the Borden Farm landscape. The woods are gone, filled in with a housing community. Borden Side Road, which used to be a straight, narrow cut-through, where Viewmount ended at Chesterton Drive, was a quick thoroughway to Fisher Avenue. That road is also gone, replaced by a meandering extension of Viewmount Drive.

My friends and I would go into those woods, either by walking to the end of Chesterton Drive, or my cutting through the long, narrow field behind Century Public School. There were a couple of trodden paths, and then we would follow the creek to where it narrowed, to where a few stepping stones where strategically placed, where we could hop across and work our way up to the railway tracks.

The trains didn't come often, and along this corridor, we had a clear view of any oncoming locomotives. When the trains did come, we would lay pennies along the rails, on the gap between to steely lengths, so that when the iron wheels rolled over the coins, the outer edges would be flattened but the center would remain legible, yet sunken.

We would wander east, along the tracks, toward Prince of Wales, the cars speeding underneath us. Two railway lines would join, just before the overpass, where the passenger line and freight line would meet and become one, before heading over the Rideau River. The passenger line, coming in from the southwest (today, that line passes near my home, in Barrhaven), would bend at the junction, was not clearly visible from where the overpass stood.

We called the bridge that spanned the Rideau River Pigeon Bridge. I don't know who came up with the name or whether it was even recognized by that name outside of my friends' circle. But when we would decide to wander out to Pigeon Bridge, we all knew where we were going.

The bridge was wooden, with no superstructure, no railings. At about one-third intervals, small platforms extended off the edge of the ties, no doubt to offer refuge to anyone caught on the bridge when a train was crossing at the same time. The river was some 20 metres below—too far to jump.

When we stood on the western end of Pigeon Bridge, we would look west, from where we came. We could see a signal light, and we could always tell if a train would be approaching from the east. We would venture onto the bridge only if the signal was red, safe in the knowledge that no train would surprise us from that direction. We had a solid view of the CN freight corridor, to the west, would see the bright light of a locomotive from several kilometres away.

The only blind spot was the passenger-rail line, that came from Barrhaven. We would only see a train as it rounded the bend, joined the single line, before crossing the Prince of Wales overpass and approaching Pigeon Bridge.

Passenger trains weren't that common. We rarely saw them. And when any train approached, we were always safely close to the end of the bridge. We would see an approaching train and would scurry under the bridge, to feel the rumbling of the ground and the near-deafening rattle of the train rolling over the ties, no more than six feet above our heads.

It was a bright, hot, summer afternoon. We had lingered in the woods along the tracks, only deciding at the last minute to head to Pigeon Bridge. As we walked the line, we moved aside to let a freight train through, pressing coins. The only coin I had was a nickel, and I kept that flattened souvenir well into adulthood, to remember that day.

I saw the sun-dried skeletal remains of some small animal: perhaps a rabbit or a skunk, possibly even some unsuspecting cat that misjudged the speed of the train. I considered keeping the skull as a souvenir, but my friends talked me out of it. What if it's diseased? What if it's full of maggots or bugs, crawling in its deep recesses.

Walking over the Prince of Wales overpass, one of my friends kicked a stone between the ties as a Mini drove underneath. The stone hit the windscreen and we could hear the small car slam on its brakes, come to a screeching halt. Our gut reaction was to run, but it was slow-moving on the ties, as we stayed face-down, not to risk tripping and falling. My friend's sense of responsibility made him stop and face his consequences when the driver called to him.

We all joined our friend at the car, the driver scolding us for being on the tracks in the first place, and for causing a rock to fall. There was a scratch on the windscreen, but the driver sensed that there was no serious damage, and he let us go with further chiding.

We didn't heed his warning, of not walking along the tracks, and as soon as he drove away, we ascended the overpass and continued our journey to Pigeon Bridge.

We had never wandered out any further than the first escape platform. I had a fear of heights, was always afraid that a gust of wind would sweep me into the river below. The furthest I ventured out onto the bridge was about halfway between the end of the bridge and the first platform.

That's where we were, on Pigeon Bridge, when we heard the train horn.

It was the passenger train, coming from Barrhaven. It had just started rounding the bend when it blew its horn. The engineer, being attentive to his duties, had seen us as soon as we came into sight and he sent his warning.

There were too many of us to fit on the platform. One of my friends, at another visit, questioned whether it could hold the weight of more than one grown man. But we were closer to the start of the bridge than to the platform, anyway, and we ultimately made the decision to turn back the way we had come, towards the train.

The memory of this day came back the first time I saw the film, Stand By Me. The fear, as the boys ran across the bridge, eyes down, feat moving as quickly as possible but with focus. If you fell, you were dead.

But unlike the film, my friends and I were running toward the oncoming train. Even in bright daylight, the headlamp of the locomotive was blinding. The engineer was issuing long blasts of his horn, as though the deafening tone could move us faster, or could warn us any more of the imminent danger. With every footstep, we were more and more committed to our task, of saving our lives.

It's really difficult to judge the distance from the front of a train. It is such a large object, that when you think that it's upon you, it keeps coming. With every footstep, my friends and I tried to gauge whether we should jump off the bridge or keep going. We could feel the ties beneath our feet vibrating, the steel against steel shrieking. I could see where the bridge touched ground, the trail that lead below the hiding spot, below the bridge, a few metres beyond.

We didn't wait to reach the trail. As soon as we saw ground, we dove off the tracks, rolling into bushes. We fought our way further away from the tracks, and we could hear the engineer yelling at us as he passed, calling us idiots, crazy kids.

We could have been killed, but we weren't. It was the last time we ever went onto Pigeon Bridge. We would never again risk our lives, would settle for the vibration of the rails above us, from underneath the hiding place, under the bridge.

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