Sunday, May 27, 2012

Open Up That Golden Gate

There are a handful of landmarks in the world that I can identify by sight, whether I have ever been near them or not.

For example, I know the Eiffel Tower when I see it. I think I was there once. I was born overseas, and my parents and I returned to the United States when I was about a year old.

I guess you could say we took the overland route back to the States. We traveled through Europe, and I think we were in Paris at one point. If we were, I'm sure we must have been in the vicinity of the Eiffel Tower at some time.

But even if I have never been close to the Eiffel Tower, I know it when I see it.

I know the Egyptian pyramids when I see them, and I know we visited Egypt while we were making our way back to the States. I've seen pictures of myself in the Cairo Airport.

I probably saw the pyramids when I was small, but I have no more memory of them than I do of the Eiffel Tower.

Nevertheless ...

When I was 13, my family spent the summer in Austria, and, at one point, we rented a car and drove through Yugoslavia to Greece, where we saw the Parthenon.

With all the economic woes the Greeks are facing these days, I'm not sure I would want to duplicate that trip today.

But, even before I saw it, I could identify the Parthenon.

I also know the leaning tower of Pisa when I see it.

Of course, how could anyone fail to identify that?

I've never been there, but my father and my stepmother have. They even brought me a coffee mug — which leans, of course. I keep it on my desk to hold my pens.

I know the Gateway Arch in St. Louis when I see it. I've been to St. Louis on a number of occasions, and I have even been inside the Arch a time or two.

And I could identify the Twin Towers in New York — until terrorists brought them down more than a decade ago.

Why all this talk about landmarks?

Well, 75 years ago today, the Golden Gate Bridge was opened in San Francisco (although the finishing touches were completed the next day).

Frommer's travel guide calls it "possibly the most beautiful, certainly the most photographed, bridge in the world."

It is certainly one of America's most recognizable landmarks — if not the world's.

Before the bridge was built, the only way to cross San Francisco Bay was by ferry. Construction of the bridge began in 1933, but it was not a new idea then. People had been talking about a proposal to build a bridge for years, but the estimated cost of the project was prohibitive at the time. Also, until the plan that was ultimately adopted — which called for a suspension bridge — was proposed in 1916, it was believed that winds and currents would be too strong to allow construction of a bridge.

The cost was still pretty high when construction began in 1933, but it has proven to be a great investment. Tens of thousands of vehicles cross the bridge every day.

I've never been to San Francisco, but I have friends who lived there, and I have at least one friend who lives there today.

And at least one of my friends used to commute across the bridge to go to work in the mornings and to come home in the evenings. She drove across it on the day in 1989 when the "pretty big one" struck during the World Series between San Francisco and Oakland.

I didn't know about that at the time. If I had, I probably would have been extremely worried. I didn't hear about it until much later.

And, when I did hear about it, I learned that I had the World Series to thank for my friend not having plunged into the bay when the earthquake hit.

A lot of businesses closed early that day, she told me, so that people could either go to the game or get home (or go to a bar or whatever) in time to watch it on television.

As a result, traffic on the bridge was much lighter than it normally would have been during rush hour — and she had been off the bridge for about five minutes when the quake struck. If it had been an ordinary day, she once told me, she would have been in the middle of the bridge when the earthquake occurred.

Last Sunday, the San Francisco Chronicle observed the many ways that the bridge has inspired inner poets.

For example, a San Francisco Examiner editorial in 1925 wrote that a bridge across the bay would be a "perpetual monument that will make this city's name ring around the world and renew the magical fame which the Golden Gate enjoyed in the days of '49."

"The Golden Gate Bridge's daily strip tease from enveloping stoles of mist to full frontal glory is still the most provocative show in town," wrote Mary Moore Mason, editor of the British magazine Essentially America.

It's fair to say that the bridge, like most iconic landmarks, means different things to different people.

Paul Liberatore of the Marin (Calif.) Independent Journal writes that "[w]hen musicians look at its harplike towers and cables, they hear it as much as they see it.

"That's why Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart plans to celebrate the bridge's 75th anniversary by 'sonifying' the span."

Happy birthday, Golden Gate, and many more.

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