Some people think 800 pounds of explosives and champagne mimosas might not be a smart combination, but they’ve never met Heidi Brousseau. Heidi is an accountant and she happens to live in a house on Lake Champlain perhaps a half-mile south of where the Lake Champlain Bridge stood regally as late as 9:59 a.m. Monday morning. Frankly, I think Heidi is on to something.
About two hours before the blast would crackle through the falling snow, I was looking for a nearby place to park and I saw the remnants of a boat dock with a picture postcard view of the bridge. Standing in the driveway across the street from the dock was a woman who would prove to be an accountant but in reality should be catering Super Bowl parties. This was Heidi, and she said two things to me: First, I could park in her driveway. Second, she was serving mimosas.
When I got inside her house to warm up, I saw she was also serving chicken wings, fruit, chips, dips, pickles, sandwiches, deviled eggs, doughnuts and hot coffee. She was entertaining close to two dozen of her friends, opening her house and giving them front-row seats for a moment in Champlain Valley history that was both poignant and powerful and sure to appeal to the 8-year-old child in all of us.
Sure enough, among her guests was 8-year-old Jack Halpin of Vergennes. I think Jack and I would have been fast friends if I were four decades younger: He told me he likes snowboarding and dynamite, though he admits that he has a lot more experience with the former. Also present was Barbara Fitz-Gerald, perhaps among the more elderly guests at Heidi’s: She has been traveling across the Champlain Bridge since 1952. Her granddaughter, Jill Fitz-Gerald, a junior at the University of Vermont told me, “Gran has always thought it would be fun to jump off that bridge.” Barbara smiled and did not deny this ambition.
For the next two hours, the snow swirled across Vermont, and from my vantage point on Heidi’s dock, the bridge would appear and disappear and reappear in the storm. One moment it would be clearly visible, and in the next only the barest outlines could be seen through the squall. There was something Narnia-like about the vista and the way the bridge would dissolve in the snow.
At one point I wandered a half-mile up the road to the Bridge Restaurant, about as close as most of us could get to the demolition. The Bridge Restaurant is open all year long when there’s a bridge. That means, these days it’s closed. But the “No-Bridge Cafe” on the restaurant’s front porch was selling doughnuts and coffee and T-shirts. And while the snowstorm might have meant I would have a better view from there, it was hard to beat the mimosas and the hospitality back at Heidi’s.
Heidi told me she was having a party because she “wanted people to watch this historic moment. It means a lot to people in this area.”
She’s right. Jack Halpin’s grandmother had come up from Brandon in 1929 to see the dedication when the bridge opened. Now Jack and his mom and dad were present to see its demolition.
Soon enough, we all heard the first of the three warning sirens from our perch on the dock and the shoreline just north and south of it. There were people braving the snow all along the slope at the edge of the lake, but it wasn’t so crowded that anyone’s view was obstructed. And then we saw the dim sketch of the bridge grow indistinct and a millisecond later heard the explosion as the structure pancaked into the water amidst a cloud of dust.
It was over so quickly that for an instant I feared that the death of an 80-year-old bridge opened by Franklin Roosevelt had been overshadowed by the snow. But then I turned to Jack and asked him what he thought. A little wide-eyed he said simply, “I could feel the vibration.” And another adult just off the dock added, “That’s history.”
And so even though I hadn’t one of Heidi’s mimosas there with me on the dock, I raised my gloved hand symbolically and toasted to the bridge.
Then I got the heck out of the cold.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on December 29, 2009.)