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A Father’s Day Swing Bridge Farewell and Fish Fest

Here in that misty and melancholy level of consciousness known as “Geezerville,” the Alameda of 60 years ago, fondly known as “Mayberry by the Bay,” still beckons. Back then, long, slow-moving Southern Pacific freight trains regularly blocked traffic at Park Street and Clement Avenue, the Fernside Grocery at Fernside Boulevard and Versailles Avenue sold terrific tenderized top round slices for chicken-fried steak, and the homely old Fruitvale swing bridge still pivoted open for anything higher than a rowboat.

Alameda Post - the Old Fruitvale Bridge
The old Fruitvale Bridge.

Watching an opening of the old bridge was an experience that reflected the amazing technology of the steam locomotive era. A boat would signal for an opening with three blasts from a horn, then the bridgetender would stop traffic with red flashing road signals and two sirens that screeched an intensely loud buzz. Ancient red-and-white-striped road barricades would descend with a creak, and after its road anchors retracted with a thud, the bridge’s electric pivot motor would hum and whine, and the bridge would slowly turn counter-clockwise to its open position, parallel to the channel.

I witnessed dozens of Fruitvale bridge openings during the four-year period that my best friend Danny and I spent most Sundays fishing from the silty Oakland bank of the estuary. Armed with Garcia rods and reels, 20-test fishing line, two-ounce weights, a variety of lures and hooks and creepy-crawly pile worms, we regularly pulled a lot of fat perch and five- to 10-pound striped bass from the murky, salty water.



Alas, the now defunct Alameda Times-Star newspaper announced that the old and narrow two-lane bridge had been deemed obsolete and was to be demolished and replaced by a new four-lane drawbridge that, in design pictures, appeared to resemble a freeway overpass.

The end of our Sunday fishing trips was also at hand, as Danny was bound for college at UC Davis and I was busy with my burgeoning apprenticeship in electronics sales and repair.

Alameda Post - a cartoon burrito

For our Fruitvale swing bridge and Sunday fishing farewell, on a Father’s Day, Danny brought some of his mother’s bean and cheese burritos with homemade tortillas de harina, and I pinched a liter bottle of Old Crow bourbon from my Uncle Dante’s stash. For lunch, we munched burritos and toasted the old bridge several times with discreet swigs of the bourbon. By early afternoon, we were smashed, but continued our final quest for one last fat perch or striper.

A drunken and newly brave Danny boldly slurred, “Ya know, Gil, I’m gonna do something I’ve always wanted to do, but was afraid to. I’m gonna cast my line from the middle of the bridge. To hell with the bridgetender and his ‘no fishing from bridge’ BS! I’m gonna use my new bass lure and a big pile worm, and see what happens. Who cares if I get arrested? This is my last chance to do it!”

What happened over the next hour bestowed our Father’s Day Fruitvale bridge farewell with an appropriately surreal and memorable ending.

Danny drunkenly struggled up the steep riprock bank and staggered to the center of the bridge, fishing pole perched on his shoulder. He grabbed his pole and prepared to cast, despite the bridgetender’s loudly amplified admonition of “No fishing from the bridge!” Danny responded with an alcohol infused three finger salute, and made his cast, the lure gleaming in the bright sunlight.

To my sodden amazement, the second the lure hit the water, I saw a large fish’s head break the surface and Danny’s fishing rod bent over in a U shape.

“Gil, I gotta got a big one!” he yelled.

“Tighten your drag, don’t let him pull all your line off!” I slurred.

Alameda Post - a tractor trailer truck with no load and a record for Act Naturally by Buck Owens

To our great fortune, Danny’s U-shaped fishing pole caught the eye of a semi-tractor driver who was cruising over the bridge with the eight-track tape player in his grungy truck blaring country singer Buck Owen’s “Tiger By The Tail.”

He parked his truck and jumped from the cab. “Y’all need help with that big’un there, boy?” he called out. He approached a weaving Danny and grabbed the pole. He apparently got a whiff of Old Crow and bellowed, “Whoo-wee, son, you’re pie-eyed and sky high!”

Then he looked down at me and barked, “Hey big stump, your buddy needs help. Are you tore up too?” I staggered as I nodded yes.

He yelled at his truck, ‘Hey Mayvene, get your a** out of the truck and grab this here pole! These boys is zazzle-zazzle zoo-zahed!”

To my shock, the truck door opened and a very plump, Rubenesque woman with puffy bleached blonde hair, wearing red lingerie, panties, bra, a sheer black chemise, and bright red sparkly four-inch heels emerged from the truck. She was angry.

“Gawdammit Earl, what about Motel 6?” she screamed. “You didn’t mention no effin’ fishing trip!”

As Earl fought the fish, he loudly responded to Mayvene, “Just get your big a** over here and hold this rod. This here’s about a 20-pounder, and I’m gonna need my net. I’ll fetch it out of the truck.”

Alameda Post - cartoon lipstick stamp and sparkly red high heels

Mayvene’s face was flushed as she toddled precariously onto the bridge in her heels, amongst honking horns and hoots and whistles from passing cars. She held the pole tightly and spewed a litany of profanities at Earl.

A laughing bridgetender, with his amplifier up so loud that all of Alameda and Oakland could hear, again shouted, “No fishing in lingerie from the bridge!”

Across the estuary on the Alameda side, residents heard the announcement and crowded their docks, watching the show, in hysterics.

Danny had sobered up sufficiently to regain control of the rod. Mayvene handed it over, and began teetering back to the truck, garnering more honks, hoots, and whistles from passing cars. As she teetered, she loudly griped, “I’ve never been so gawdam embarrassed in my life. Fishin’ in my drawers from a drawbridge! Earl, this is gonna cost you!”

“Put it on my bill,” Earl replied. He had thrown a fishnet and a heavy rubber mallet down to me on the shore. He coached Danny on reeling in the fish. “Slow and easy, don’t make him wriggle free,” he ordered. Danny carefully descended the steep bank down to the water. With the rod straightening out, the large, hard-fighting fish was visible. When Danny reeled it in about 10 feet from shore, Earl jumped in the water with his net, and with a mighty heave, yanked the squirming silver-striper to the shore.

Alameda Post - an illustration of some fish, a net, and a rod
Image Flirckr / Boston Public Library.

We all looked at it with gaping eyes. “It’s huge!” Danny exclaimed.

“Yeah, looks close to 25 pounds to me,” Earl replied. “Hey Mayvene, check out this big lunker the boy just caught,” he yelled.

“Go to hell Earl!” she bellowed. You just like to watch me flouncing around in my drawers, for all the world to see. I might die right here in this truck from embarrassment, because of all them whistles and hoots. I’m gonna stay right here and listen to Buck Owens.”

Earl looked bemused. He took the mallet and bopped the wriggling bass on the noggin, sending it to fish nirvana.

“What you wanna do now?” He asked Danny. “I can gut him and filet him for you right here.”

Danny pondered this, then answered, “I think I’ll take him home and give him to my dad for Father’s Day. But I’ll need a ride.”

“Hell, I’ll give you a ride, but your friend big stump over there needs to share some of that hooch y’all been a-guzzlin.”

I gladly handed him the half-empty bottle of Old Crow.

Alameda Post - a bottle of Old Crow bourbon

“Have mercy Miss Percy, you boys guzzle the good stuff! Hey Mayvene, I got me some Old Crow!” he joyfully exclaimed.

“Well, hell, bring it on up here and give me a nip!” Mayvene yelled back. “Then get me to the Motel 6 so I can wash off this damn fish bait smell.”

Earl grabbed the big fish by the gills and wrestled it up the bank to his truck. He wrapped it in an old blanket and set it in the back of the truck’s cab.

Danny gathered up his gear, then walked over to me. We bumped fists.

“The last trip is the best one,” he yelled. Then he looked serious and said, “Do me a big favor and smell my breath. If my dad smells booze, he’ll kill me on Father’s Day.”

Only because he was my friend, I agreed to the noxious deed. He leaned into me and blew into my nose. I gagged, then said, “You’re okay, it smells like a dead dog.”

“Perfect,” he replied. “I’m gonna ride home with Earl and Mayvene. Just pray that she doesn’t get out of the truck and hand me the fish. If my mom or dad see her, I’ll have to go to New Mexico and live with my cousin.”

He trudged to the truck and climbed in the cab next to Mayvene. Earl started the truck, and with clouds of black exhaust billowing from its pipes, it roared down Oakland’s Alameda Avenue to Danny’s house, with Buck Owens singing, “Act Naturally.”

I gathered up my stuff. Buzzed from the bourbon and the preceding events, I solemnly trudged up the bank and across my beloved Fruitvale swing bridge for the last time. When I reached the Alameda side, I bent down to the bridge’s rusting iron railing and kissed it goodbye.

Unnecessary tears fell, because I was too young to know about Geezerville, where the old Fruitvale swing bridge will pivot forever.

Gil Michaels is still swinging at [email protected]. His writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Gil-Michaels

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