July 13, 2010
By Claire Sykes
The heavy, steel door shuts out the day we leave behind, as we walk single file down the narrow steps deep into the belly of the Morrison Bridge. It’s all concrete and steel in here, with these huge, greasy gears and criss-crossed beams.
We’re standing inside three stories of a bascule drawbridge, the swoosh of cars above us. Warning bells halt the traffic and suddenly all is silent. Then the gears begin to turn, and a massive, 960-ton slab of concrete right in front of us slowly tilts upward, growling and groaning, letting in a ribbon of sky as the bridge opens above the Willamette.
A little later, we meet the man who flipped the switches that turned the gears that moved the concrete that opened the bridge—a “test” opening during this half-day tour led by “The Bridge Lady,” Sharon Wood Wortman, author of The Portland Bridge Book. Here in the Morrison Bridge tower with its canted windows (looking a lot like an air traffic control tower), Lyle the bridge operator sits more than 70 feet above the river, with a 360-degree view that helps him keep a lookout for boats and barges too tall to fit under the bridge without him.
We’re up pretty high in this place that takes me back to the fire tower I once spent a few days in in the Absarokas. But instead of a ring of mountain peaks, it’s a view of Mt. Hood, I-5 lining the east side, downtown Portland, and to my right and left, bridges marking the river like seamstress’s pins in silk.
That morning at ODOT’s (Oregon Department of Transportation) Region One Center, Sharon begins the tour by telling us all about these bridges. We hear about the history and the technology. We learn that the Steel Bridge is the world’s only telescoping double-deck vertical lift bridge.
At 1,255 feet, the Fremont is the longest tied-arch bridge in North America.
And that the Hawthorne, the world’s oldest lift bridge, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
We watch live (unrecorded) video of the bridges through the eyes of 180 cameras. In ODOT’s bridge museum we play around with the old black dial phones and control panels of the Burnside and Morrison Bridges, and I feel like I’m in some 50s science fiction flick.
We hear more poetry from her up in the bridge tower, and some from Sharon, too, before we’re done with the tour that continues across the Steel Bridge, riding a MAX train to the Rose Quarter stop and then back to the bridge. Waiting on the Eastbank Esplanade with a bunch of bicyclists, we watch the bottom deck of the bridge open and close.
Then we walk across and follow the concrete path of the Greenway Trail north along the waterfront, the river swollen with recent rains. Sharon leads us across Naito Parkway and we do a “test for synchronous vertical excitation” on the suspended pedestrian bridge by Union Station. This means we all jump in unison to make it shake—while an Amtrak train barrels underneath, the conductor waving back to us.
Nearly 10,000 people (many of them school kids) have taken Sharon’s bridge tours here in town for the past 20 years. This is her last, at least for Portland Parks & Recreation and large school groups. How fitting that 2010 is also the inaugural year of the Portland Bridge Festival, July 15 – August 7, with over 63 arts and cultural events celebrating what brings us all together—our bridges. And everything they represent.
For Sharon, these bridges carried her out of a grim childhood, more than one addiction and even an attack by a serial killer, and into a rewarding life of writing. She holds her pen like the Willamette’s banks holding these bridges—and lets the words flow.
Claire Sykes: Why do you love bridges so much?
Sharon Wood Wortman: I live in a city of rivers. Yesterday I used three bridges to keep my life dry—the Sellwood, the Broadway and the Steel. They’re good for getting us where we want to go.
CS: Portland has 12 bridges. What’s special about ours?
SWW: In a lot of cities, big highway bridges are not accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists, but not here. Portland is a giant outdoor living bridge museum. We have all three main bridge types—suspension, arch and beam/truss; and all three main movable bridge types—bascule, vertical lift and swing. Bridges also are inherently great for poetry.
CS: How so?
SWW: The bridge must be one of the world’s oldest metaphors. From the pages of newspapers to literary essays, writers use the metaphor of the bridge to get their ideas across. And I’m always amazed by how many movies include the image of a bridge in the opening sequences.
CS: How have bridges symbolically gotten you from one place to another?
SWW: When I think about bridges, I think about writing. And about how my writing, and continuing my education, have drastically changed my life. And still do. I just finished a six-week narrative lyric workshop with Cindy Williams Gutierrez, and now I have three poems I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
CS: How did you get into writing?
SWW: In 1983 I was working for the Union Pacific Railroad as a clerk. At that time, I had only a high school diploma, but I found that I had confidence in my letter-writing skills. I submitted a story to a Weight Watchers newsletter and they sent me a cookbook, a tote bag and a check for $25. After that, I wrote a profile for the Albany Democrat Herald, which paid me another $25. Soon after, I attended a weeklong workshop sponsored by the Oregon Writers Colony called “Writing for Fun and Funds.”
I was very unhappy in my job and the boredom pushed me to think about college. Besides, I figured real writers needed more than a high school diploma. I was 39 when I enrolled as a freshman in Linfield College’s Credit for Prior Learning degree program, in 1984.
Then that spring, The Oregonian hired me as a stringer and I pitched a story about the Willamette River bridges that turned into an 11-week series, which they published. When the Union Pacific downsized that year, I took a buyout, and the money became a bridge that allowed me to become a full-time freelance writer.
CS: There are any number of other subjects you could’ve pitched, but you chose bridges. Why?
SWW: Bridges are awesome structures. Here in Portland, there is a bridge every one-third mile, yet we often don’t really look at them. I think maybe it took someone who grew up isolated from downtown Portland to cross the Willamette and question their wow-ness.
CS: What was your situation growing up here?
SWW: I lived near Southeast 122nd and Foster, only about ten miles to downtown, but my family rarely made it into the city. My grandmother suffered from fears of many kinds, including a fear of bridges, and my mother had severe emotional problems that sometimes kept her at home. My father and grandfather were pretty crazy, so both women had their hands full just surviving.
Years later, I would come to believe that the volumes and volumes of domestic violence I saw growing up might have allowed me to survive an attack by a serial killer, though that term hadn’t yet been coined and at the time of our encounter I didn’t know the stranger’s motive—rape, murder, kidnapping, I had no idea. What I realized later was that of all the women (and we don’t know for sure how many died, but at least four), I was the oldest. Because of my childhood experiences, I knew what some men were capable of and I was not going to go off with this guy.
CS: What happened?!
SWW: I was the History Department secretary at Portland State University, then called Portland State College. One bright sun-shiny April afternoon in 1969, I was going into the basement of the parking structure, right there on Southwest Broadway. I was walking between floors, unable to remember on which level I’d parked my car. I felt this guy tap me on the shoulder and my first thought was, Oh, this is going to be an exposure. I was shocked to turn around and see a gun.
He said, “If you don’t scream, I won’t shoot you.” It was the end of my life and I knew I wasn’t going to see my children again. I was terrified. Of all the things that happened to my mother and my grandmother while I was growing up, I’d never had a gun pointed at me, even though we had lots of guns in our homes. So there I was, 24 years old, in my cute red mini dress and high heels. I’m backing up and backing up from him and he keeps coming toward me. Finally, he reaches out and grabs me and puts his arm around my neck. We’re struggling and twirling in a circle.
CS: And you’re not screaming because you don’t want to get shot, right?
SWW: I did yell, “NO!” very loudly. And this next part is pretty bizarre. Somehow, his thumb got in my mouth, and I’m so terrified I clamp down really hard, and my jaw locked on his thumb. The detectives later called this “fear paralysis.” He couldn’t let go, and now he became my prisoner. We were just whirling around, and the next thing I remember—I had long, long hair then—he grabbed me by the hair and bent me over backwards and beat my head against the concrete. As I started to pass out, my jaw relaxed and released his thumb. Then he got out of there because by then cars were coming. I had bought just enough time. But he came back to pick up the gun, dropped on the concrete floor. I was hurt, dazed, confused, stunned. And I was very happy to be all those things, because I was alive.
CS: Who was this guy?
SWW: Jerome Brudos. Ann Rule wrote a book about him called Lust Killer in the early 1980s. I’d heard about him before my attack and knew he was bad, but I didn’t fully understand what I’d escaped until I read that book.
CS: Talk about a life-changing experience.
SWW: Yes, but I believe things had to happen in my life exactly as they did for me to get to that day at age 39 when my byline appeared in print for the first time, my eyes open and ready for the next thing.
CS: That is so fascinating that the thing you chose to explore was also what your grandmother dreaded.
SWW: Yeh. In learning about the bridges, I was learning my way around the city, a place I didn’t really know anything about, especially not the Willamette or Columbia Rivers.
CS: Where did you find information about the bridges?
SWW: Scattered in many places—newspaper archives, the Oregon Historical Society, at Multnomah County and ODOT, in city files—but nothing cohesive. The bridges have been around since 1887, but there wasn’t even a book on them in 1984. Then one of my friends told me she had read a story in The Oregonian about how this fifth grader had written a report on the bridges. So I drove to Capitol Hill Elementary School to pick up Derek Ranta’s one-page “Portland Bridge Data Sheet.” This was the first single place where I found the bridges’ names, types, opening dates, cost, span length and who owned them.
CS: Then you ended up writing your own book, The Portland Bridge Book. How’d that happen?
SWW: When I was struggling with the first stories in the Oregonian bridge series, I called the editor at the Oregon Historical Society Press and complained that if there’d been a book, my job writing the series would be much easier. He said he’d been reading my series and to call him when it was finished. I did, but he turned down my proposal to write a book because I was writing newspaper style and they didn’t want that for a book.
Then in 1988, he called saying he had an illustrator for the book. A few months after signing a contract but unable to write, I entered a treatment center for my addiction to prescription drugs and for codependency. I’ll never forget what the editor told me: “Concentrate on getting well and the book will only be better.” After many rewrites, OHS Press published The Portland Bridge Book in 1989. The preface, which I wrote, won the Willamette Writers award for nonfiction that year. There have been three editions of the book, the last two written with a collaborative husband.
CS: A collaborative husband?
SWW: It was 1993 and the Fremont Bridge was turning 20. During my research for an anniversary story for The Oregonian, I walked for the first time between the flagpoles on top of the bridge. I also met and interviewed the construction engineer who directed the ironworkers in erecting the Fremont in the early 70s. Ed Wortman. On our first date, he took me to the footings of the Fremont Bridge and showed me where its 30,000 tons of gravity go into the ground. “Be still my heart,” I said. We were married in 1998, the same year I graduated from the University of Portland with an MA in Education.
CS: The bridges brought you together. That is so romantic! So is listening to poetry up in a bridge tower. How did you get the idea to lead walks for Portland Parks & Recreation?
SWW: In 1991, desperately seeking ways to maintain my life as a freelancer, the Union Pacific buyout money long gone, I picked up a Portland Parks catalog and saw that a guy named Dick Pintarich was taking people around to see gold mines and cemeteries in the area. I thought, I wonder if they’d pay me to take people to see the bridges? They did. And after that, it was bridges and me all the way. I started leading bridge walks for Portland Parks in 1991 and that led to a class for OMSI [Oregon Museum of Science and Industry] summer camps in 1993 and later for Saturday Academy.
CS: Then you put poetry into the mix.
SWW: I started seriously studying and reading poetry in 2003. Then I began writing poems about my difficult childhood, the problems my mother had. The poetry was a bridge to all that, and something that I wanted to bring into all aspects of my life, including my work with the public. In 2006 I invited Portland poet Melissa Madenski on a bridge walk to recite her poetry. This is my fifth year to lead “Poetry and Bridge Walks” for Portland Parks that feature local poets, including former Oregon Poet Laureate Lawson Inada, Kim Stafford and Judith Barrington; and even musicians. Upcoming walks feature Paulann Petersen, just named the new Oregon Poet Laureate, David Hedges, and singer and guitarist Mary Flower.
In 2007, I worked with artist Kirsten Rian to put together the book, Walking Bridges Using Poetry as a Compass—Poems About Bridges Real and Imagined By 70 Poets, with Directions for Five Self-Guided Explorations, with help from a Regional Arts and Culture Council grant.
CS: What other bridge-related things have you done?
SWW: I created a slide show about the bridges for Multnomah County, which led to an Oregon Chautauqua Scholars presentation I gave called “Bridge Stories—A Storytelling Slide Show.” The interpretive panels along the Eastbank Esplanade, about the bridges and the Portland harbor wall, are mine. I was also one of the historians for a study about the lower Willamette River bridges, published by the Library of Congress. And I designed a curriculum for families called “Bridge in a Box.” I also wrote a one-woman play, “The Bridge Lady,” now available on DVD. Most recently, Ed and I helped write and edit a series of books about the movable bridges of Portland for Wilsonville third graders. We are also working on another book for third-grade readers with a Portland public school elementary teacher. In between my 11 grandkids, reading poetry and encouraging Ed to consider full-time retirement, I’m working on a collection of my stories and poems, Elevation Gain—A Memoir of Isms.
CS: You’ve done so much with bridges. When you look at the totality of your life, how do you see that bridges have most shaped it?
SWW: They’ve allowed me to be curious and creative at the same time, and they’ve given me a place to direct my energy. The things that were denied me as child—freedom of movement, love of knowledge, being able to learn things—I get to do now, because of bridges. So bridges have afforded me those opportunities. Bridges and writing and learning. And then Ed came into my life and so love became a part of it all.
CS: It’s amazing what you came from, your deprived and violent past, and then living long enough to discover bridges and walk across them to arrive at this whole other side of your life.
SWW: I’m really very grateful. I think the bridges for me were, and still are, God-given. I say “God” because I don’t know what other word to use to describe the obvious serendipity that’s directing all of this.
Two poems by Sharon Wood Wortman:
Talking to the Reporter On the Eve of My Retirement
It’s as if I am the bridge everyone else has built.
If there is a keystone (the part of the arch holding
everything together), its name is Husband,
this third one a sturdier batch of cement than the rest.
Nor can I emphasize enough that my daily struggle
with the gravity of genetics remains upright due to
the caisson retrofitting that goes on
in my weekly women’s meetings.
I would not want your readers to think
I have been the main engineer of my life—
that story wouldn’t hold water.
Poem for First-Year Teachers
On Amtrak once, all the way
from Portland Union Station
to Vancouver’s Depot
where we get off to sketch
an old riveted swing bridge,
a storyteller half a window high
informs our corner about the teacher
just retiring from the experience
of this soon-to-be-fourth grader:
At the party, she said, Miss Hadley
brought in pictures, pictures
of her first day teaching school
twenty years ago when she wore
her black hair in long braids.
When she moved up
from second grade to third
ten years later, she started
And then there was Miss Hadley
when I met her in September.
And you know what?
You could really see it in the last picture—
It wasn’t until this school year
Miss Hadley started looking like herself.
For information about Sharon’s bridge walks and everything else bridges, see her website at www.bridgestories.com.
Introduction and interview © Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.
Poems © Sharon Wood Wortman. All rights reserved.
Poem for First-Year Teachers originally published in Windfall: A Journey of Poetry and Place.