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James R. Stout

Barney Fife and The Watusi

            There’s a highway overpass that crosses over some railroad tracks not too far from where I live. When I was growing-up it was the other way around. The train tracks were on a bridge over the highway, but sometime in the late 60’s or early 70’s the railroad bridge was torn down and the highway bridge built in its place. I must have driven over that pass a hundred times. There’s no other way to go from Trinity to Lovelady than on that highway. Not unless you want to drive 50 miles out the way.

            I always felt completely safe riding or driving over that bridge. Not so much anymore, but like I said, there’s just no other way to go south than on Highway 19. So, I drive over that bridge at least once a week and sometimes more. What changed, you ask? Well, it was about 2007 that I decided that I wanted to take some pictures of the railroad tracks from atop that bridge. I had previously noticed that the tracks made a pronounced curve leading up to the bridge from the east and then another curve leading west after going under the highway. It was late spring, and the flowers were blooming beautifully along that way as well making a picturesque view of wildflowers around the rail tracks and those curves. There’s not much of a shoulder on the highway leading up to the bridge and there’s no place on the bridge park at all. Therefore, I had to park in the grass about half a mile from the bridge and walk up the small shoulder to the bridge to get the pictures that I desired.

            I got up to the top of the bridge and started to snap pictures. Traffic was very light that day and I was easily able to take pictures from both sides of the highway. After I had been up there for a few minutes a regular passenger sedan crossed over the bridge. That’s when the bridge shook like it was afflicted with St. Vitus Dance. Which meant I felt like I was afflicted with St. Vitus Dance as well. I don’t mind telling you that it made me want to get off that bridge post haste. It also made me think twice about walking down through the tall grass to the rail tracks to take pictures from the vantage point beneath the bridge. In all the times that I had driven across that bridge I never felt it shake. It was only when standing on top of it when a car drove over it that I felt it move. Perhaps an engineer would explain the perfectly good reasons why such a bridge would move like it did, but as my Dad used to say, “That don’t cut no ice.” It was unnerving. Period.

            Let’s go south by about 110 miles. Downtown Houston, Texas has a lot of tall buildings. I used to keep up with which ones were the tallest when I was a kid and in my early adulthood. The Neils Esperson building is 32 floors high or about 410 feet from street level to the top. It was completed in 1927 and for a whopping two years it was the tallest building in Houston. But in 1929 The Gulf Building, now renamed the Morgan Chase Building, was completed and it stands 37 stories high. It was not only the tallest building in Houston for a time, it was for a while the tallest building west of the Mississippi River. A side note to this is that during the late 40’s and then in the late 60’s my mother worked as a secretary in both of those buildings. But by the 60’s The Humble Building expansion (later named Exxon/Mobile and then recently purchased and remodeled with apartments and a hotel) that was 44 floors high was briefly the tallest building. I remember going to the observation floor in 1968. It was something that I had wanted to do ever since a friend of mine had gone a couple of years before and had bought a replica of the building in the tourist shop. The replica wasn’t quite so tall. Perhaps 10 inches or so. Over the next 20 years new buildings were being built regularly in downtown Houston. The Shell Building, Pennzoil Building, Tenneco Building (I’m sensing a theme here), and then there were the big two buildings that still rank as the two tallest buildings in Houston. These were originally known as The Texas Commerce Tower and The Allied Bank Building. There’s about 10 feet difference in height between the two. The Texas Commerce Tower is now known as the JPMorgan Chase Building and is the 16th tallest building in the United States. It’s this building that I want to mention. Trust me, there is a connection with that little bridge near Lovelady, Texas.

            In the mid-80’s I had to go to many of the buildings in downtown Houston for business. I likely went into most, if not all, of those buildings. I could name them, but I will save you that misery. On one such occasion I had to go to what was then The Texas Commerce Tower. The meeting was on the 73rd floor. Holy moly is all I could think at the time. There was an express elevator that takes you up to the observation on the 60th floor. That was the highest that I had ever been up in a building in my life. For that matter, it still is. I got to the 60th floor and looked out the big glass wall and could see a great big swath of Houston and outlying areas. For that moment, I thought it was pretty cool. But I needed to get to my meeting and that meant taking another elevator up to the 73rd floor. I got off the elevator on the chosen floor and was ushered into a fairly small yet functional conference room. The room was rectangular, about 15 feet long and perhaps 12 feet wide, with one of the walls being the exterior glass. Another stunning view. So far, so good.

            The two people that I was meeting with came in and we shook hands and then sat down to discuss the business at hand. It didn’t take long. About 15 minutes or so. The meeting was over and when we stood up to shake hands and leave, I felt like I was on a rollercoaster. The Building MOVED! And it wasn’t just a little movement. Well, I guess my eyes fairly well bugged out and I probably looked like Barney Fife when he would get surprised by something. The other two guys looked at me and just laughed. I didn’t see what was so funny about this giant skyscraper swaying in the wind. They told me that it happens all the time. Something to do with the way the building is built and a “floating” foundation. Just for the record, where I come from, foundations aren’t supposed to float! The Bible verses about building a house and the foundation being built on rock instead of sand came to mind. I know there are architects with perfectly good explanations why these big buildings are built on such foundations and the safety aspect etc. Did I mention what my Dad used to say about, “That don’t cut no ice”?

            So, what have these two incidents have in common? First, things are not always what they seem to be. You can’t see that building swaying in the wind. It is basically not visible to the eye when gazing at the building. You can’t feel that bridge doing the Mashed Potato or The Wah-Watusi when driving over it. But that doesn’t mean those things don’t happen. Second, like it or not, we have to trust the architects and engineers. They are certified and went to school to learn what they needed to learn to make sure things that are being built are safe. If we’re going to trust those people with our lives, then it also means that we are going to place our faith in their abilities. Here’s the final thing in common. Sometimes they make mistakes and it costs lives. Bridges have collapsed and people killed. Buildings have collapsed or become unsafe due to mistakes in either the way they were engineered or not built correctly.

            All this said, on this Easter Sunday I think about who I place my faith in and who I will never have to worry about His plan for my life failing. Sometimes I might feel some trepidation about something in my life, but I have faith in Jesus that no matter what may happen, His plan for my life is not flawed. He will see me through. He is the rock, the foundation on which I need never worry about. In Jesus, I have complete faith. Things may happen in my life that are nothing more than a part of being human and living a human life. But through it all, I know that my eternal life is secure and only because He lives.

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