Before walking to school, a 7-year-old Highland boy used to scrub the maple floor of his father's restaurant every morning with lye soap made with cooking grease from the kitchen.
George Rogers, who is now nearing his 85th birthday, got to know a construction superintendent who came in every morning for breakfast before heading off to work at the job site of Hammond's historic Nine Span Bridge, which is now just a rusty memory. Rogers parlayed his fast friendship into a maiden trip over the iconic bridge with nine steel trusses that stretched over the sprawling Gibson Rail Yard before it was torn down earlier this year.
Rogers believes he and his father John Rogers, the late owner of the long-defunct Rogers Barbeque at Indianapolis Boulevard and Ridge Road in Highland, were the first people — who weren't construction workers — to cross the bridge that connected Hammond to East Chicago and a busy South Shore Line station. They drove over the 0.9-mile-long bridge in the superintendent's two-seat coupe at his invitation, after he had breakfast and dinner every day at their family restaurant for months.
"I remember looking up at all those trusses and all that steelwork, and thinking, 'My goodness — how long is this thing?'" he said.
The lifelong Highland resident hoped to attend the grand opening Monday of the new Nine Span Bridge, a more nondescript and utilitarian concrete structure. He was trying to line up a ride, but worried it might be too cold.
Rogers drove over the old Nine Span Bridge, with its arching steel trusses, almost every day of his working life. He was a trucker who hauled slag from steel mills, including Inland and Youngstown Sheet and Tube, and later a heavy equipment operator.
"I must have crossed thousands of times, probably a million times," he said. "I was going down the boulevard to the mills, to the old Standard Oil and to all the different industries."
When traffic passed on the other side of the bridge, Rogers could feel it shake. He always feared it was going to fall down.
They built the bridge in 1936, and it was originally four lanes.
At the time, the town of Highland had a few hamburger joints, but Rogers Barbeque was the only restaurant that served steak, chicken dinners and other big meals.
Rogers and his brother Pete used to have to peel 100 potatoes every night, empty all the coolers, stack glass Nehi and root beer bottles out back, and wash all the dishes. Every morning, they had to scrub the dining room floor and get the place ready to open.
That's how he got to know the superintendent, who was staying nearby with his girlfriend, an actress who lived across from Wicker Park. Some said she was in silent pictures, and she came in the restaurant to drink beer on some afternoons when the superintendent was at work, Rogers recalled.
The superintendent bellied up to the counter for breakfast every morning.
"We became great friends," he said. "When it was time for the ribbon cutting, he said 'come with me.' He had a two-door Ford business coupe with only one side seat, and my dad chose me to sit on his lap instead of my brother Pete because I was lighter."
They puttered at about 15 mph across the bridge, and Rogers had his head craned up the whole time. He marveled at seeing steel beam after steel beam splayed across the sky, and couldn't get over how long the bridge was.
"It was a momentous occasion," he said.