Football fields and churches

Football fields and churches

I am inclined to disbelieve in life’s exactness, but I swear this to be true. Precisely in the middle of the 10-hour drive that connects my old home of Washington, D.C., to my hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana, a drive I have made many times in many emotional states and will continue to make for the foreseeable future, sits a bridge over the Ohio River that begins or, depending on your direction, ends in Wheeling, West Virginia.

I-70 bridge over the Ohio River
Location: Between Wheeling, WV and Martins Ferry, OH
Distance from Charlottesville:
328 miles

Bio of James Wright, with audio of “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”:
Martins Ferry High School football team:

From that bridge it is five hours to your destination, no matter if you’re chasing the sun or running from it. Below, the Ohio River cuts through the valley that separates the long-forgotten steel town of Wheeling from Martins Ferry, Ohio, the birthplace of the poet James Wright. The town on the Ohio side is the setting for Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” where men whose lives have been used up by steel mills hide in bars and dream of their sons on the football field, who grow “suicidally beautiful,” as Wright puts it, galloping terribly, crashing into one another.

For seven years I’ve crossed that bridge going one way or the other, and I have yet to stop in either city that hugs the muddy river. From the bridge, both look like forgotten places, untouched by modern development, shoeboxes made of bricks and black shingle roofs, church steeples rising from the grid. In the midday sun, and it’s always midday when I cross the bridge, the masonwork of those churches gleams between the wire bridge supports whipping by.

I’ve never stopped, partly because there is always a rush to arrive wherever I’m going, the promise of something at the end. Comfort at the end of a bad marriage. A mother who is set to die. The face of someone new. Or there is the thing I’ve tried to put behind. The hazy mistakes of the night before. Rituals I cannot stop performing. False hope. Sometime around the fourth year, it became impossible to tell promises and dead ends.

The river comes, bending south as it wraps itself around Wheeling. In the middle of the bridge, if you take your foot off the gas just for a count of three, you can see Wheeling Island, the Manhattan-like chunk almost exactly in the middle of the river, its small clapboard house neatly in line with its gridded streets.

Rolling by, 50 or 60′ above it all, there is no time to stop, but there is enough time to wonder about the houses and the lives they contain, to imagine what the place becomes when the sun drops behind the rolling hills of Ohio, how the high school football stadium that sits just on the tip of the island looks when it’s lit up on Friday nights.
How many boys created the most fruitful times of their lives on that field, and did they have the awareness at 16, 17, 18 years old that they would long for those times for the next 30 years? There is time for questions like these, but only in a space of a few seconds before you touch your foot back to the gas and leap ahead.

Back then, the most satisfying thing about traveling was being unleashed from my life. It still is. Rumbling over the pieced-together concrete slabs of that bridge, the river spreading out on either side of me like a set of wings, I was the farthest I could possibly be from both beginning and end. Those 10 or 15 seconds of suspension above a town I know only by its rooftops were the equivalent of a pardon or reprieve from something that, I knew, would be waiting for me when I stopped the car.

During the first couple of trips in my early 20s, I came to think about Wheeling and the river as being the great divide of the East and Midwest. On the Ohio side, traveling west, you roll over gentle hills until the land gradually flattened, as if some enormous rolling pin had taken a single pass at it. Traveling east across the river, you immediately began the climb into the mountains of West Virginia and Maryland. 

Sitting exactly between the two topographies, between East and West and old and new, I used to feel unbound by everything I had ever done, the person I’d somehow become. In the noon sun, I finally felt able to start writing that second act that Fitzgerald had claimed—mistakenly, I thought at the time—didn’t exist.

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