A sign to bridge the divide of time

Published 8:59 pm Monday, October 13, 2014

Early last week, our small family was motoring south on the New Jersey Turnpike, returning from a short vacation.

Having driven through the northern section of New York on the Cross Bronx Expressway and across the George Washington Bridge, my white-knuckled wife declared she’d had enough and I’d be taking over.

Somewhere past Newark Airport materialized an exit lane to the next rest stop. But though free of traffic, it had snuck up, and Elizabeth felt she didn’t have enough time to get over.

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She drove another 40 or 50 miles before the next opportunity. We parked, extracted our sleeping toddler from the backseat and made our way to the building housing the restrooms and Starbucks, carefully avoiding the vehicles negotiating the parking lot just as aggressively as they had the turnpike.

At a certain point, I realized it was just Charlotte and I heading for the crowded building. My wife had stopped a few paces back.

It was an important-looking bronze plaque that sidetracked her. The plaque declared the Basilone Bridge.

Standard for such occasions, the penny dropped with Elizabeth before it did for me. We’d been watching the HBO miniseries “The Pacific,” one of whose three main characters is John Basilone, the only Marine to receive the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross in World War II.

Just before leaving on our vacation, in fact, we’d watched Basilone’s death while leading his frightened young troops onto Iwo Jima. Reenacted by actors, of course, but it’s a show heavy on realism. Much of it isn’t easy viewing.

Though otherwise not, I believe, a superstitious person, such coincidences have always intrigued me. What are the chances of us visiting that rest stop, just after watching that episode, and — road-weary and bolting for a diaper change and caffeine infusion — of us not both walking past the plaque without noticing it?

It also makes me think of something else: the importance of remembering our history through roadside markers.

Though the Basilone plaque and bridge on the New Jersey Turnpike are admirable, Virginia leads the way with its roadside markers, which liberally pepper the city of Suffolk.

The Basilone Bridge spans the Raritan River, near the town of the same name that John Basilone was from.

Every time someone stops and reads about a noteworthy person or event, our sense of shared history is strengthened.