Carnett: A bridge to the past

I'm going to miss the Park Avenue Bridge.

Though not an A-lister like the Golden Gate or Sydney Harbor bridges, the Park Avenue Bridge is a graceful and distinctive 100-foot span that connects Newport Harbor's Balboa Island and Little Island.

The narrow 32-foot-wide bridge, which has two lanes for autos with pedestrian walkways bordering each side, was completed in about 1930. It spans the ribbon-thin Grand Canal.

The Park Avenue Bridge was the first bridge I got to know as a youngster. With its gently arcing span, it seemed to me venerable and elegant. I crossed it hundreds of times as a kid in the late 1940s and early '50s. The bridge, which is now labeled "functionally obsolete," was then in its heyday.

My goal was always to jump from the bridge into the Grand Canal waters below. Sadly, that goal was never realized. For safety reasons, my parents wouldn't allow it. They were obdurate — and wise.

Construction on a replacement is expected to begin in 2015 and be completed late the following year.

Modernization and new technology are almost always good things, but, frankly, for nostalgia's sake, I'm reluctant to part with this striking objet d'art.

I was born at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange in 1945. My family resided on Balboa Island's Marine Avenue for nearly 25 years. For seven years, my parents and I occupied a small upstairs apartment behind my grandparents' home.

We were half a block from the bay front and not much more than a catcher's throw to second base from the Grand Canal.

My first major accomplishment in life occurred at age 4, when I successfully swam the width of the canal at high tide from Balboa Island to Little Island — by myself. It foreshadowed by one year Florence Chadwick's inspiring conquest of the English Channel.

One of my earliest memories –- at about age 3 — is of me walking at my mother's side across that bridge. She pushed a baby stroller with my 1-year-old brother on board.

We'd cross the bridge from Balboa Island to Little Island several times a week and follow the sidewalk around the perimeter of the island in a counterclockwise direction. The journey was probably a little over a mile.

For me, it was a huge adventure. Little Island is only 90 feet across the Grand Canal from Balboa Island, yet visiting there was tantamount to entering a different clime — like going from the Isle of Wight to Antigua.

The cool thing was that the islands are in the same time zone, and you weren't required to clear customs.

After walking the boundary of Little Island, we'd again cross the bridge and return to our Balboa Island abode for lunch and a nap.

During my second- and third-grade years I had a school chum, Ross, who lived on Little Island, near the Grand Canal. I frequented his house and he mine.

Sometime during 1949 or 1950 — when I was 4 or 5 —- a Hollywood film crew came to Balboa Island to shoot the movie "The Breaking Point," starring John Garfield and Patricia Neal. My mother was a huge Garfield fan.

The Warner Bros. drama, released in October 1950, tells the story of a charter boat captain (Garfield) who is drawn into a shady deal in order to keep his boat. The film was adapted from the Ernest Hemingway novel "To Have and Have Not."

The bridge is featured prominently in the film.

I remember one particular evening after dinner, walking with my parents to the bridge to watch a scene being filmed. Cameras and klieg lights were set up along the bridge, and the Grand Canal was lit up like a Christmas tree.

Garfield was filmed walking from the bridge to his beach cottage on the canal. The short walk — shot at least a dozen times that evening — caused quite a stir in our neighborhood.

For me, Park Avenue Bridge harbors many warm memories. I miss it already!

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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