Happy Birthday to Brother Butch, the Bridge Builder

A Remembrance of Carl Dale Pearce  (1942-2004)
Brother Larry Pearce

Carl D. Pearce
Patuxent Naval Air Station, MD (1960)

The bridge over the Ben’s Creek tributary in the middle of our Forwardstown farmette sits about halfway back the 900-foot stretch from Rt. 985, also known as Somerset Pike, to our nearly half-century old house in Somerset County, PA. No residential building could have taken place without this cement wonder, and this construction would have been impossible without the professional advice and perseverance of my father-in-law Richard O. Miller, the backhoe digging of my neighbor, Tom Moore, and the physical assistance of my late brother Carl “Butch” Pearce. Yes, and I did some of the planning, financing, and scheduling of the project.

Carl & Jean Pearce  – Mars, PA

But this article stands as a tribute to my brother Butch on what would have been his 82nd birthday. Let me start with the story of sweeping the dead sticks and leaves from the deck of the bridge earlier this week. This wasn’t much of a chore because we’ve had relatively little snow here in Northern Appalachia lately, although the natural debris wouldn’t have accumulated without our strong winds. As I was finishing the cleanup, I looked down at the tiny handprints cast in the bridge’s concrete curbs.

My Forwardstown family in a drift at the new bridge, 1976

There were the initials of our two children Annie (ARP) and Matthew (MCP) and the date that the top portion was poured, October, 1974. “Hmm,” I said, “that’s 50 years ago.” Then I thought to myself, “My dear brother died in 2004, twenty years ago. I need to write a tribute to this hard-working, wonderful man.” And, if you haven’t guessed, I like even numbers, which is what caught my attention in the first place. Here’s a better look at those numbers:
Butch’s vitals – 1942-2004 (Death coming at age 62; he would be 82 today.)
Birth of the bridge – 1974
Today – 2024 (The bridge is 50 years old and Butch is gone 20 years.)

I still remember waiting for the annual dry spell in October, after my wife and I had  purchased the 18 acres of farmland. We then called neighbor Tom, who lives just across the Pike, to create a narrow channel for the creek to flow through the bridge site with his backhoe. Then he dug two deep ditches, about 12-feet apart,  settings for the bridge abutments. That was all after another neighbor, Mel, dumped a path of course ground from the Pike to the site of the construction, just enough to allow the heavy cement truck to back to the creek for the first pour in the carefully nailed wooden forms engineered by my wife’s father, Richard, or “R.O.” as he was known, a professional cement contractor.

Once those walls were dried and the forms removed, Tom lifted three steel I-beams on top of them. Over those we perpendicularly placed smaller beams at two-foot intervals to hold  two-by-two-foot reinforced cement squares. Then the skillful R. O. nailed two rough wooden sides for the large deck and the inside of the curbs. All this, of course, had to be sturdily braced from the banks of the creek. At last we were ready for the second arrival of the cement truck and the hearty helpers to work the main deck.

l-r: cement truck driver, me, R.O., and Brother Butch

I remember my father-in-law leaving his work early that day in preparation for the pour. I wasn’t far behind from my work as a radio station manager in nearby Johnstown. Then brother Carl came in the cab of his 18-wheeler. He strolled from the Pike to the creek, stood on the bank, and removed his shirt, ready to work. The diesel mixer rolled the stiff white substance into the forms while we three leveled and smoothed it with shovels, rakes, and a long-handled trowel. That was a sunny afternoon in October, but we had to work fast, before nightfall arrived. We had witnesses: my wife Susan, mother-in-law Hilda, and the children, Annie (4 1/2) and Matthew (2 1/2). After the job was completed, the kids were quickly scooped up and their paws indelibly imprinted in one of the wet bridge curbs along with the date. Finally, a large sheet of plastic was placed over the pour to allow for a slow, rigid dry.

Springtime view from the bridge to the barn

Bridge invisible from the barn to the Pike (winter 2010)

I’m flabbergasted when I think of all the foot, cycle, and motorized traffic that has passed over that stretch in half a century. A memory was created that October day when Susan asked the cement truck driver as he was leaving, “Will this bridge hold all the heavy trucks that will be crossing here as we fulfill our plans for the future?” Without hesitation the old veteran replied, “Mame, if R.O. Miller built it, it will support anything.”  I’ve proudly referred to this sturdy accomplishment in several writings:

“Water Under the Bridge,” published as part of our pastor’s Meditations on Nature, and
“Forward to Forwardstown,” part of my Memoir, Every Breath a Gift.

Jean & Carl Pearce (c.2000)

Susan and I, now in our 54th year of marriage, have been so blessed, by children, wonderful parents and grandparents, three brothers and a sister, and countless extended family and friends. Despite surviving a year of scary medical emergencies and procedures (see forthcoming article), we are full of hope for the future, and pray that we can spend most of it down here on the farm in Forwardstown. And kudos to Brother Butch, whose bridge building consisted more than that of a cement structure. He lovingly linked our family’s younger siblings to the older one and kept the connection from where we live now to where we were both born and where he spent his final days, in the district with the unusual name – Mars. But certainly most importantly, Butch went ahead with our parents  to heaven, bridging the way for the “rest” of us with courage and conviction. Thanks, Brother, and Happy Birthday!

Revised 2/12/24