Under the Bridge
Claire Jean Carpenter Dworsky, 1st Place
My great-grandfather sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937 on his way to Asia. The bridge wasn’t finished, so when he looked up from the deck of his Navy ship as it sailed between the city and Marin, he saw the suspension bridge’s iron trusses, the welders rushing to connect the span, and a bright blue sky. He always said the underside of the bridge was its most beautiful part, “Because it’s not glamorous, it just works.”
Like my great-grandpa, I’ve always preferred the opposites of things. When I was small and kids in the park would ask me, “Are you Chinese?” I used to think I was clever to say, “No, I’m the opposite of Chinese! I’m why they built the Great Wall of China – I am a descendant of Genghis Khan, the world’s fiercest warrior!” It didn’t win me a lot of friends, but it helped me feel strong in belonging to something bigger than me. In a city where, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, 62 percent of Asian people are Chinese, many people assume that Asian means Chinese. But I am from Kazakhstan, a Central Asian nation between China and Russia, at the far eastern edge of Europe. I know about it mostly from maps and books, since I was adopted as a baby and came to San Francisco with my mom and dad. It’s hard to know what being Asian feels like – the mirror tells me I look Asian, but inside I just feel like me.
I liked believing in my warrior heritage when I was little, because it helped me to push myself in my battle to get my legs back. Because I was born in a rural orphanage where there was a lot of poverty, I didn’t grow or move my legs as a baby. My legs shrank and the bones bent. The doctors told my parents, when they adopted me, that the best chance I would have for my legs to straighten out and regrow the muscles would be to do physical therapy, to take me to swim and do gymnastics.
So, after we flew home to San Francisco, my mom brought me to the Presidio to go to gymnastics classes even before I could walk. If I paid attention and worked hard in class, she would walk with me underneath the Golden Gate Bridge to count starfish and surfers. It’s a locals-only surf spot, where waves, currents and tides squeeze through the narrow strait and bend right onto the rocks. Instead of crowds of tourists stopping to stare at the bridge top’s organized Art Deco lines, the bottom of the bridge is a rusty mess. Kite surfers, kayakers and even swimmers pick their way over the bits of broken glass and around the safety gates and down the rocks to the rough green water. The high tide mark is ringed with salt foam, blue crabs, cigarette butts and bits of frayed rope from passing ships. In other words – it’s heaven for a child with imagination and a love for salt spray and wet sneakers!
I worked hard in gymnastics, because I didn’t want to miss a chance to go under the bridge. I loved hearing my mom tell stories of my great-grandfather and the three wars he fought in, sailing off under this bridge, of how he loved his crew and life at sea. And how incredible it is to stand at the edge of the rocks looking out and knowing that there’s nothing but water, the huge Pacific ocean, out from here. For my grandpa’s 87th birthday, my mom took him kayaking under the bridge again, under a full moon. And he kept the picture of them in the kayak on his desk until he died two years ago.
Not too long before he died, my grandpa brought my picture with him to a Bible study meeting at his church. He passed my picture around and told his friends, “Isn’t life amazing? I fought in three terrible wars in Asia, and now I’m so lucky to have my great-granddaughter, who was born in Asia. And I couldn’t love her more, she’s fought through so much to be here.” Because he was a war hero, he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, but I think part of his soul is still with us here where he loved to look out at the water, under the bridge.
I smile now when I see the Gate as I run at Chrissy Field with my cross country team. I am the fastest runner in my school, one of the fastest in San Francisco, and I hope to keep running through high school and college. I’m not a sprinter, but like Genghis Khan, like my great-grandpa, and like my parents who have worked so hard to help me, I am tenacious, a warrior. When I’m running and see the orange towers in the distance, I pick up my pace. I think that the bridges we build that connect us – over generations and geography, past differences and toward new understanding — must be even stronger than the greatest wall