A Bridge or Two into the Exquisite Distance

Photograph by Jose Padua
Seven years ago on the first day of October, we closed on our house here in Front Royal. It was late in the afternoon. Out in the waiting area at the MBH Settlement Group office were Maggie, my Dad, and my brothers, Tony and Pat. Julien was three years and one month away from being born. Back in the office conference room, Heather and I were seated at a long table with Lisa, our realtor from our old neighborhood in Alexandria, and opposite us was Lilian (the James Madison University anthropology professor whose house we were buying) and her realtor, while at the head of the table was the dark-haired, somewhat daunting woman from MBH who was conducting the closing.

Sitting there, signing page after page of one ridiculously named document after another, I expected her at any minute to say, “OK, let’s speed this shit up so we can get the hell out of here.” Or maybe that was just me thinking that. Maybe it was me, having finally started to feel nervous about this move away from the city and to this small town in the Shenandoah Valley. Yeah, me–having second thoughts at a point when it’s a little too late to do anything about it, because whether I liked it or not, we were about to become part of small town America.

The Front Royal branch of the MBH Settlement Group is no longer where it was back then, when it was on North Shenandoah Avenue, just down from the old bridge that spans the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. This is the bridge that provides my favorite view in town. Going north on it, you’re high over the river; looking east, the river disappears quickly into some dense woods, but looking west you can follow it for a while toward the horizon until it squeezes between the mountains.

As for the bridge itself, it feels, to me, like a structure that would have served well as the backdrop for a few scenes from an old film noir; and whenever I’m going south on it, into town, I imagine that I’m leaving the present time and going back into the past. Of course, the bridge’s significance goes back to the civil war, when Union Colonel John Reese Kenly gave the order to take it–and the bridge several hundred yards north going over the North Fork of the Shenandoah River–and “burn those motherfuckers down.” Well, maybe those weren’t his exact words–but putting out the flames and saving these strategic bridges for the Confederates were men under the command of General Richard Taylor, son of Zachary Taylor.

Zachary Taylor, who himself was a general and, of course, the twelfth president of the United States, has an eight mile stretch of highway south of town named after him. These bridges, though–as far as I know–aren’t named after anyone, not even Richard Taylor. The bridge over South Fork of the Shenandoah River is called, simply, the South Fork Bridge, and the bridge over the North Fork is called the North Fork Bridge. That they’re not named after any confederate general is fine with me. Though perhaps there’s an unofficial name for it, just like back in DC, where I grew up, we started calling the park on 16th Street between W and Euclid streets Malcolm X. Park. Its official name is still Meridian Hill Park, but for us, since the late 60s, it’s been Malcolm X Park.

I suppose there may be some people here who have their own names for these bridges, but no one’s tried to make it official. And with that in mind, I propose, on the occasion of our seven year anniversary of living here in the Shenandoah Valley, renaming the South Fork Bridge the General John Reese Kenly Memorial Bridge (yeah, he was bumped up to general during the course of the war). I know, he was the one who tried to burn these bridges down, but to me, the cause of the Confederates isn’t what we want to commemorate here, or anywhere. We want a name that commemorates the attempt to move into the future, even if that future meant going, for a while, without any bridges directly north of town. As for the bridge over the North Fork of the Shenandoah, I’ll propose we name that the Cosme Tuazon Padua Memorial Bridge, after my father.

I know. Not many people here are going to go for these names. But just like back in DC we call that park Malcolm X Park, I’m going to call these bridges, whenever I talk about them and whenever I write about them, the General John Reese Kenly Memorial Bridge and the Cosme Tuazon Padua Memorial Bridge. Because for me this general’s efforts at taking us toward a better future is worth celebrating–and sometimes burning a bridge is what it takes to do that. And also because my Dad’s gone now and whenever he was visiting here and we’d be driving up north to Winchester or maybe to Shepherdstown or any of those other places I liked to show him, I’d always look over to him, sitting in the passenger seat as we drove over the bridges. Every time we passed that way, I wanted to know what he was seeing–if he was looking at the river, at the dense green of the forest, or at the mountains.

Because sometimes I see the most beautiful things when I imagine what someone else is seeing. When I see that gleam in someone’s eyes, that look of surprise or revelation, that look that says about a thousand ideas and images are coming together in that person’s mind and forming some kind of truth. That look that gets passed on to each generation. That look that sees a certain amount of distance in front of it—a distance that seems too far to travel—and then moves on ahead. Right into it.

-Jose Padua

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