I can tell this story today because it is a lifetime later and now all the pieces fit together; but as the tale unfolded it was one mystery at a time, with years between clues.
I heard about it from a retired cop, who was not the investigator assigned to the case, but he knew everyone involved. With his ear in the offices of law enforcement, insurance inspectors, and poker buddies, he happened to get all the pieces.
He told me, “There is a book in here somewhere, maybe a movie. I know you are a writer and I’m not: so I’m passing it off to you.”
The story involved a man who disappeared—a Man from Mansfield.
Men disappear all the time. Well, maybe not all the time, but often enough that there is a calculable science to finding them.
Some guy wants to leave his wife, or escape his gambling debts; or he doesn’t want to get caught embezzling the company funds, or he needs to run away from the Mafia. Maybe his life has simply gotten threadbare and he wants to try something new. Maybe he committed suicide and didn’t want anyone to know. And then again, some men simply forget who they are and where they live.
There are any number of reasons why a member of the community might want to jump ship.
No one knew why or what happened to him. One day he was here, the next day he wasn’t.
Naturally, there were a number of people who were alarmed, and investigators were on the case pretty quickly. They all knew the last day he had been seen, so that was when paperwork started accumulating in the folder.
In retrospect, it seems easy enough to say they should have paid more attention to the date of his disappearance. If they had been historians instead of cops it might have made sense sooner: because he disappeared on Dec. 15, 1967.
That was the day the Silver Bridge collapsed into the Ohio River.
50 years later
The Silver Bridge episode is called history now, so that takes some of the horror out of it.
And they made a movie about it, which tends to remove the narrative a few more degrees from real-time heartbreak. We call it a tragedy and that seems to cover it. You can call it a disaster, but even that doesn’t quite address the disturbing rift in the fabric of reality that the Silver Bridge caused. The world suddenly one day was no longer safe; and assumptions about the basic continuity of existence were dumped in the river as unexpectedly as all those cars that disappeared into the Ohio.
The evening it happened was during the Christmas shopping season, and it was Friday after work; so it should have been a time for all those warm things, like family and parties, that are supposed to feel comforting. It was a time to have a thousand things in mind: everything except imminent peril.
There was no warning at all. A couple loud snaps, and then in seconds the pavement vanished from underneath the traffic.
The suspension bridge folded up “like a line of dominos,” and dropped 104 feet into the river.
Witnesses miles away said there was a terrific roar, like reality bent over and howled as steel twisted in ways it couldn’t go.
There were scores of people who dropped into the cold river. There were dozens of cars on the bridge when it went down.
There was one car that had just cleared the far side of the bridge when the structure screamed. That car was driven by the Man from Mansfield.
Telling the story
If you have seen the movie about the Silver Bridge, then it would not be a far stretch for you to assume at this point in the narrative, on Dec. 15, 1967, that the Man from Mansfield had some sort of supernatural encounter. The Point Pleasant/Ohio River/Silver Bridge legend is famous for the huge winged thing with glowing red eyes.
That might make for an interesting book, but that’s not what happened.
When my friend the retired cop told me there was a book in this narrative, he was correct. There have been several books based on the bridge collapse, and one of them has a plot that is eerily similar to our story.
The book is called Beyond the Bridge by Jack Matthews, 1970. It is about a man just like the Man from Mansfield, who saw the bridge go down in his rearview mirror. The fictional character in the novel kept on driving and never looked back.
The Man from Mansfield felt the pavement start to lurch, and he checked his rearview mirrors.
He could tell, from the thundering furor of it, that he was witnessing an event of tumultuous magnitude. He couldn’t imagine, after seeing such catastrophic demolition, that everyone on the bridge could possibly be accounted for.
In that instant, he recognized there was never again going to be a second opportunity so consequential in his life.
He experienced the flash of genius that is available only at a crossroad of history and eternity, of chance and chaos: the clarity of destiny and will.
His Silver Bridge was already crossed, and there was no going back.
I’m sure it took a while to catch his breath, but he didn’t stop driving to do it; and he needed time to anguish and sweat and chew his lip in coming to a decision, but he didn’t stop driving to do it.
He may not have even made the decision until he was a thousand miles away. But the fact that he kept driving meant the choice was already made: his old life was already over. His former name was at the bottom of the Ohio River.
The river of time
They dragged the Ohio River for months afterward, and managed to bring up the entire bridge in its many pieces. They kept finding more vehicles, and admitted there were drivers and passengers who were unaccounted for.
No one could be entirely certain what on the bottom may have escaped discovery: it’s only 50 feet deep, but it is really dark down there.
No one could ever know for sure if the Man from Mansfield was not down the river. That’s what he was hoping anyhow.
My friend the retired cop told me that inspectors had considered the possibility that the answer to the sudden Mansfield disappearance may lie in the Ohio River, but that was only one small chance of many. They simply didn’t know, and they didn’t know for years.
They would never have known at all except for a random chance encounter. A couple from Mansfield happened to be vacationing somewhere in southern Mexico. They turned a corner, and there was the Man from Mansfield standing right in front of them; and it happened too suddenly for him to turn away.
My friend the retired cop didn’t have a lot of details after that surprise ending. Apparently it is not illegal to vanish.
The missing Man from Mansfield actually ended up becoming a well-known member of our community in later decades, and few people were aware of the discontinuity of his presence here: except his family and friends, of course, who were glad he came home.
There are a thousand interesting stories in our town that you never get to hear, but now this is not one of them.