Okay, here’s a game. I’m going to give you thirty-four letters. Absolutely no more. You get thirty-four letters to express all your love, sadness, joy, or pain — about anything. Thirty-four letters to sum up your life or the life of another. I’m sorry, that’s all the directions there are in the box. Whether you go the route of a tombstone or a campaign sign, that’s your business. And, if you’re from Iowa, thirty-four is probably thirty-two letters too many.
You need more information? Let’s start with the bridge.
In an old oxbow of the Raccoon River on the edge of downtown, there is a wonderful bridge. It speaks of romance and memory. It’s arcing form joins the southern sections of the Gray’s Lake Trail. It is a long-legged, willowy bridge, whose farthest curve appears to stretch to eternity — or at least Altoona.
When you’re walking or running the Gray’s Lake loop, this bridge might feel a little daunting because there’s no turning back, there’s no dropping by the wayside, and, most importantly, there’s no bathroom until the end. But if you look at the railings for a moment, this is what you see:
Memorials to the past. Expressions of love. Echoes of sadness. And joy of life. It’s all on the “brushed-aluminum rectangle measuring 4 x 2 1/3 inches” from the Greater Des Moines Community Foundation for a minimum donation of $100. Today only. Footlong hot dog included (okay, I made up that last one). You get the plaque, you get thirty-four characters engraved, and you get the “in memory of” on top, if you so desire. No kidding. For a measly hundred bucks, you get to adorn this gorgeous bridge.
But there is a catch. What do you say in 34 characters? Well, let’s take a gander at what’s out there amongst the many.
There are the memorials with citations to scripture, dates of birth and death, or expressions of loss. But wouldn’t you have liked to have known JD?
And then there are memorials put there by a loving son or daughter about their parents: “IN MEMORY OF DAD, I KNOW YOU’RE WATCHING OVER ME.” These memorials make you think about your own parents and how you really haven’t been that great of a son or daughter. I mean, couldn’t you have visited last weekend instead of going to Stormy’s Bar? However, if you continue following this thought, you’ll soon discover yourself a whisker away from turning your life into a miniseries where you get messages from the Bridge. I want you to take a breath. Re-tie your shoes. Good. Let’s move on.
There are personal messages that beg for picture identification so we can spot the subject; such as, “IN DENISE I SEE UNASSUMING GRACE.” Or messages that make you change your walking wardrobe so that you too will have a friend: “FOR MY FRIEND IN THE RED HAT.”
Finally, we have love messages. For an excellent use of the thirty-four character limit, look at the this one: “2-8-02 WEISSINGER SOULMATES 4 LIFE.” Really. Or another favorite that I want to believe was a magical proposal made while these two strolled the bridge with moonbeams dancing off the waters: “ANNIE, ‘GROW OLD WITH ME’ LOVE CIN.”
But what message best catches our Des Moines midwestern ethic? What uses the thirty-four characters in a way that says just who we are? What reflects the friendliness of Iowans, the lack of pretension, and the joy that bubbles under our surface?
So, game on. Top that.