Leadfoot Lucy
Illustration by Norma Jean Zahner

In the early 1940s, Leadfoot Lucille, sister-in-law to my 20-something mother, was driving my mom across the Gandy Bridge, the original wooden two-laner that spanned Tampa Bay. It was the war years, and the womenfolk were in a rush to do their part, so much so that Leadfoot Lucy, lost in thought, lost something else: the sense she was born with (jury’s still out on whether there was any to start with). But worst of all, she also lost control of her car.

Her Plymouth coupe went spinning down the bridge corridor, splintering the railings as it caromed side-to-side, dodging oncoming traffic as though it were a pinball and Lucy’s steering wheel the flippers. To Lucy’s credit, she did some mighty fancy flippin’ that day, for the car came to a screeching halt in the opposite lane, facing the wrong direction, and teetering over Gandy’s edge. Passengers were shaken, though unharmed. But for the next two decades my mom refused to drive across a bridge, even a short one, if water were below. 

As a child I remember stopping at bridges, letting Mother out, and following her in the car to the far side. Bear in mind she never learned to swim, so crossing bridges via automobile became a symbol of a one-way ticket to Davy Jones Locker. Why she thought walking was safer we may never know, but that’s the joy of phobias. They are the gift that keeps on giving.

In my early teens Mother and I were touring the Blue Ridge Parkway. Everything was fine until we came to the King Kong of bridges, so long, so narrow, so high, that even my legs went wobbly. Mother had been learning to swim using a ski-belt and swimfins. Luckily we’d brought them along.  We stopped the car. Mother crawled onto the floor behind the driver’s seat, slipped on her flippers, snapped on her ski-belt, pulled her wig down over her eyes, grabbed her knees, and yelled, “Drive, damn you! Drive like the devil is about to crawl up our tailpipe!”

So I gunned it, focusing on the distant trees at the end of the bridge where we skidded onto good ol’ terra cotta (thank you, Laurel & Hardy). Mother finished up a fortissimo chorus of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” muffled somewhat by the wig.

You may wonder how we got back over the bridge. Well, glory, glory hallelujah, just remember that tranquilizers were an easy score in the 60s. 

“Here, Mother, I know it doesn’t look like aspirin, but it’s a new brand … really, you’ll like it.”