I used to work the graveyard shift at the Ortega River Drawbridge in Jacksonville, Florida. It was usually a quiet shift, and that’s the way I liked it. I’m not someone who thrives on drama.
But there was a certain ebb and flow to that shift: people who jogged at the same time every day; birds that paddled past my window like clockwork; and a man who would take his little johnboat out to go fishing every morning around sunrise. He never needed me to open the bridge for him, but he would wave as he went through, and I’d wave back. He was often the first human contact I had after the long, dark night, a symbol of the end of my work day. He was also one of the few people who shared my secret: that sunrises are like snowflakes–no two are alike. Even though I never met him, he came to mean a great deal to me.
One morning he came through and smiled and waved as usual. Later I found out that shortly thereafter he had a heart attack and died and he and his boat beached on the shore of the river where it bends. So I was very likely the last person to see him alive.
This had a profound impact upon me. I kind of felt as if I was part of one of the most intimate moments in this man’s life. After hearing the news in the media, I even considered attending his funeral, but I didn’t want to intrude on his family. They’d probably think I was crazy. “I didn’t know your father/husband/brother, but he was my friend.” So I didn’t go.
I’ve regretted that ever since. They might have liked to have known that during his last few moments, he was smiling. Unfortunately I can never tell them that, because I managed to block out his name when I heard it for the first time after his death. It was hard enough without knowing his name, too, you know?
I told that story as a part of a StoryCorps interview I did in 2009. Now they want to publish that interview in their anthology entitled “Callings”, scheduled to come out in the Spring of 2016.
The problem is that their fact checkers can’t find any additional information about this incident. I don’t know if this means my entire interview is at risk. And I can’t come up with additional details myself. Did it happen in 2007? 2008? I can’t remember. I know it was a summer month. I know it was mentioned in the Jacksonville media. But which media? I’m running out of ideas. (If you have any suggestions or know of this incident, PLEASE contact me.)
But in my search for corroboration, this story is getting back into my soul. It’s very upsetting to know how quickly someone who lived and loved and waved and smiled can fade into obscurity. I think disappearing is even more tragic than dying.