The Bridge Maker’s Dozen School Upland Hills by Ted Strunk

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The Bridge
Maker’s Dozen School Upland Hills
by Ted Strunk

Just yesterday, July 12, 1994, my group and I finished a 2-year-long project –we finished our bridge! This is no namby-pamby bridge either; this one stretches 175’ across a gully that runs between our school and our Ecological Awareness Center which we use for theater, recording etc. It stands a good 20’ off the ground at center and weighs approximately 28,7000 lbs. It was designed and built by 13-15 year olds in the oldest group and it cost nothing. (We had to pay the local building inspectors about $150 for their building permits and inspections). But yes, that’s right, we used all salvaged material.

When I was first asked to teach, I felt these kids needed some kind of outdoor, physical enterprise to use up some of that incredible energy young adolescents have. I couldn’t see myself sitting in a classroom for very long with all this roiling energy just beneath the surface, ready to explode.

Now just behind our school there’s this gully we call “Toboggan Hill” because every winter we all sled down its very steep slopes. It’s great. But also we all have to tread these same slopes in Fall, Winter, Spring and Summer, carrying armloads of costumes, papers, files, props and musical instruments, and it can get treacherous. The very first time I walked that gully I thought it would be a great place to build a bridge. After walking it 2-300 times, I felt rather strongly about it.

Anyway, I approached my director about the idea and much to his credit, he gave me the OK with only one stipulation — no money for the project. Well I’ve never been one to let that sort of thing stop me, so I set off thinking about what kind of materials were available for free that we could build a bridge with. Lo and behold! Right under my nose and all around me — utility poles! I called our local utility company and found out that yes, they have plenty of discarded poles we could have if we could haul them away. Okay! Step one. A source for possible materials.

That fall as the oldest group sat attentive and wide-eyed before me, I told them about the idea to build a bridge across “Toboggan Hill”. They didn’t know what to think. One outspoken 15 year-old was skeptical — said it was impossible and I was dreaming. I agreed. I told them I was dreaming, but why say something’s impossible before you even try it?

I had a blank bulletin board at the front of the class with the heading, “Kinds of Bridges”. I had each of them go home and draw pictures of bridges they could think of. I got sketches of suspension bridges and simple post and beam. One girl drew a beautiful sketch of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. We hung them up and looked at them for awhile.

Then I asked them to draw a design on graph paper for a bridge going across “Toboggan Hill”. Most of the kids drew suspension bridges so I called our local utility company and asked if they had any cable. Sure enough! They had enough to redo the Mackinac Bridge and yes we could have it. I was elated and began envisioning a swinging suspension bridge behind our school.

At this point my director suggested calling a local university and asking them for help in the way of design. I called the University of Detroit and talked to their Structural Engineering Dept. They were more than willing to have my group (17 kids and 3 adults) come down to their campus and attend a class on bridge design. I love being on a college campus so was quite enthused about this prospect.

It was great fun, the kids loved it and we learned an important formula — the relation between the length of a span and the width of a truss. Now we were armed and dangerous. The professor we met there, a young African — we called him Dr. David –came out to our site to see what we were trying to do. I asked him if he thought it was possible. He smiled broadly and said, “For an engineer, nothing is impossible”. He also gave us some great advice: keep it 1) simple and 2) easy to maintain.

We scrapped the suspension bridge design because it wouldn’t be simple to build or maintain. It would require much less material, which was a very attractive advantage, but require very skilled workers and an almost constant maintenance situation. We decided on a simple post and beam arrangement with a supplemental truss system designed to use the materials we were getting from our utility company.

By the time winter rolled in we were busy constructing models of the design we had come up with. I wanted the kids to go through the process of constructing the bridge on a scale model, so they could see what had to be done and in what order. It was great fun. I divided the group into 5 groups of 3 and one group of 2 and made it a cooperative experience. I got to build one too!

From the very beginning of that year, we had been studying architecture with an emphasis on bridges. We were familiar with the columns of Greece and Rome and the arches of the Etruscans. We read the histories of some of the great bridges and some of the great tragedies that befell them. It became almost an obsession with me. I looked at every bridge with new eyes. I studied its structure and design and materials and aesthetic. I began to appreciate these artifices that combine. They became things of wonder and grace.

Sometime that winter, I mentioned the bridge project to someone in our school community. He told me his father had recently retired from the utility company after working there all his life planting poles. Aha! I called him immediately. He agreed to come with me to look at the poles and help me pick out some good ones.

Someone else in our community knew someone who had a flatbed semi and would be willing to give us one haul. We went to the yard and there was a crew there with a crane for lifting poles. We asked for help.

And so, on a cold crisp late February morning, I came riding into the school parking lot on top of this semi trailer full of poles. We had set up an unloading spot with railroad ties, and once the poles were untied, just give a kick and off they rolled into a neat pile. I can remember sitting on that pile sipping on a cup of coffee with my good friend Nome, and watching a flock of pure white snow geese fly overhead in the bluest morning sky. I’d never seen that before. I took it as a sign.

That Monday morning the kids all ran out to look at these huge poles, some of them as long as 45’ and weighing about 1600 lbs. We had recently watched a documentary on the building of the pyramids. In the pyramid video, the ancient Egyptians moved those huge stones by placing them on rollers. We did the same. That first morning, I put the number 1 on the chalkboard and said that was my goal for the day — to move one of those poles from where the truck dumped them, about 100’ to our construction site. We went to work.

One of my boys knew how to tie a timber hitch. We laid down some old logs we found lying around as our rollers and everyone grabbed hold of the rope. The pole flew along the ground almost effortlessly. That first morning the kids moved 4 poles and were elated. We were off to a great start. Each morning I upped the goal and the kids always beat it. By the end of that week, we had moved all 26 poles to our site.

Bud, the retired guy from the utility company who knew how to dig a hole and plant a pole showed up the next week with some strange looking tools. He called them a spud and a spoon. The spud was a 10’ long flat shovel and was used for just breaking up the ground. The spoon, also 10’ long, was a real exaggerated shovel for scooping out the broken ground. Bud demonstrated how to dig a perfectly round, smooth 4’ deep hole. The kids go to work.

Planting those first poles was easy. We were going downhill and they just sorta slid into place. By the time the warm spring weather arrived, we were dealing with some pretty big poles. We were out to the middle now and needed to plant our largest uprights. These were the mothers of all poles. They needed to be at least 28’ long. We made a kind of rough sluice by laying two logs together, and ran these big guys down the hill on that. Now to raise them up.

I won’t go into all the details, but we learned some pretty fancy tricks with ropes and pulleys. Raising these big poles required the combined efforts of both our oldest groups–about 35 kids–stretched out on a 100’ rope outside the fall line of the pole. One, two, three, pull. Up, up it went, but over, over it fell. Our side guides couldn’t hold it from falling to one side. Undaunted (and I mean undaunted; these kids didn’t blink an eye at our obvious failure) we moved the big mutha back into position and tried again. This time, she fell into place.

And so it went. By the time summer was pressing her presence upon us, we had planted all the poles and started to construct the horizontal beams. Now it was beginning to look like a bridge!

In addition to the poles, the utility company had given us those cross members that actually support the wires. They’re 8’ or 10’ long and are essentially 4×4’s. They worked perfectly for our deck boards. At the end of our school year for ‘92-’93, we had completed two 25’ sections with decking. We could actually walk out on it and stare at the poles just waiting for their load to be laid on them.

Now that we had deck boards in place, all the kids in our group were able to carve their names into them. We put the years down and then Bud’s name on the first, mine on the second and all 17 of my kids’ following after. It was a significant gesture. They were a part of the structure themselves. We all felt a sense of immortality, somehow.

We ended our school year by watching an unedited version of a documentary about the bridge some of the kids did as a side project. The kids sat there transfixed, watching themselves doing the incredible. They saw themselves working together to accomplish something much bigger than any one could do by themselves. It had been a tremendous experience for all of us. I had hoped we’d finish the bridge, but all in good time.

About a week after school was over, we had a parent-and-child workday. It was wonderful watching the kids. They were so proud of all they’d done and so eager to share what they knew. And the parents who hadn’t seen the bridge yet were amazed at its size. It went well. The parents seemed to really enjoy rolling those huge poles out across the finished sections and hoisting them into place. There was a lot of self-pride floating around that day.

By this time the whole community was into the bridge symbolism. A beautiful black-and-white photo taken and processed by a girl in my group appeared on the cover of the final edition of our school newsletter. Our school’s auction committee asked if they could use the bridge as the theme for next year’s fundraiser. “Bridge to the Future” became the theme for our Annual Giving Drive and people were able to get their names on plaques that will be placed on the planks of the bridge. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross bought the first section of handrailing with her donation of $500. The bridge had become a focal point for our community and it wasn’t even half done yet. It was a powerful symbol — not being done. One could look at it and see all the uprights standing in their place. The course of the bridge was obvious. The vision was unfolding and had an air of necessity and inevitability.

The next September brought me a new batch of kids. It started out slow and painfully. We had lots of rain for one thing, and were now working at the bridge’s highest point. It was extremely difficult. We’d go out in the morning and try to place a horizontal beam across the next section, and one end would fall. Then we’d get one end up and the other would fall. Everyone was frustrated.

One of the new jobs we had begun that Fall was the installation of our truss system. We had originally designed a simple Warren Truss that would also serve as a handrail. We built a prototype. It was a failure because of the materials we had to work with. We had to come up with something else. In the middle of one of my many sleepless nights, I saw it — the simplest of the simple — a King Post Truss. And the materials had lent themselves perfectly! It would be integral and lightweight and a triangle. You just can’t beat that combination.

The old Warren Truss idea involved building the truss itself away from the bridge and then hauling it into place. Our prototype was heavy and cumbersome. The new King Post Truss could be constructed in place and each of the components was easy to manage. We designed a jig where we could precut all the pieces. We installed a Truss system on our first section. It decreased our flex to almost nothing! It made the bridge rock solid. We were elated. Work on the bridge progressed steadily. The end of another school year was fast approaching. Would we finish the bridge?

Along about mid-May, my wife suggested we have a Bridge Camp and invite all the kids from last year and this year to finish the bridge together. Well, I’d promised last year’s crew a chance to be there for the final moment, so the idea became reality. Dates were set so everyone could be there, invitations were sent out and the pressure to finish the bridge by school’s end was gone. As a matter of fact, one of the kids remarked we’d better slow down a little or there wouldn’t be anything left to do at camp.

Doing something for the first time is always a perilous proposition, and so it was with Bridge Camp. A couple of days before it was to start, Phil, the school’s director, asked me how many adults were going to be there to help me. Gee, I never thought of that. He wanted to know about safety goggles and work gloves and supervision. I became apprehensive and made a few calls to some parents inviting them to come and be a part of the crew. All answered noncommittally, that sure they’d like to and maybe… I was worried. What if 35 kids showed up? There wasn’t that much work to keep them all busy. Well, we’d have to wait and see.

Monday, first day of camp, I drove out with 5 guys in my van. As the morning rolled on, more kids showed up and by lunch time we had a good, manageable-size crew of 11. By Thursday, the crew had grown to 22 kids. I realize I’ve provided a FREE! week-long, meaningfully-engaged activity for young adolescents and it was growing like the Blob. That night I called more parents and got some commitments. Hurrah! Adults with power tools! More adults enabled me to have more work stations. We got tons done. It looked as if tomorrow would be the last and final day of bridge building. It would be done tomorrow!

Friday. RAIN! It was raining! Steady — that kind of soaking rain that goes on and on. The phone rang. “Well, are we going to work on the bridge today?” I decided to go. We got to work as fast as possible. We covered the areas we were working in with tarps and wrapped the electrical connections with baggies. We worked right through lunch. We were getting very near the end. A few more boards to go and a downpour came. We had to stop. I couldn’t believe it. About an hour’s worth of work left and we would’ve finished on time. Oh well, just another one of those setbacks.

We had one last work day a couple of weeks later and finished it. It was a rather anticlimactic event. No drums, no fanfare; just a simple “That’s it.” We looked at each other, shook hands and deep, deep down we knew what we had done.

On Sept. 25, 1994, we had a “Bridge Dedication Day”. The community shared in the celebration. We thanked all the people who contributed labor or materials and recognized those to whom we were grateful. It was a glorious day. I was a little nervous — the bridge had never held that many people before. It did fine.•

©2000 Vol. 18 No. 1

Ted Strunck is a teacher at Upland Hills, in Royal Oaks, Michigan. Upland Hills is one of the 13 visonary schools chosen last year by the School of Metaphysics as the “Maker’s Dozen.”


©2002 School of Metaphysics


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