A story for Grandad
My grandad loved bridges. Around the dinner table, long after we'd finished the stewed feijoas and Talley's vanilla ice-cream, we'd listen to his stories, most of which could be loosely gathered under the titles My Love For Classic Cars, Letters to the Editor That Got Published, and Bridges I Have Known.
Bridges were in his blood. His father was a bridge-builder in Opotiki, and built most of the spans on the East Coast, including the bridge that was in the movie Boy, if family legend is to be believed. In family legends you grasp on to little treasures like this.
I wriggled with boredom back then, but now that he's gone, I appreciate his enthusiasm. The one thing I wanted to do in San Francisco was walk over the Golden Gate and see one of the wonders of the modern world up close.
I pretended it had nothing to do with Full House. Nothing to do with it at all. Ghoulishly, I was also curious what it would feel like to stand at one of the world's suicide hot spots and imagine the desperation that would lead someone to jump.
It was a windy morning, and the fog streamed across San Francisco Bay. On the walkway there, a series of information boards detailed exactly what happens to suspension bridges in high winds - including, helpfully, a picture of a collapse.
It's of the famous Galloping Gertie, up the coast in Washington State. Her construction workers christened her because of the way the deck pitched in the wind, a phenomenon that carries the wonderful moniker of aerostatic flutter - and indeed, four months after opening, in November 1940, she broke into Puget Sound.
A haunting eyewitness video, shows the entire structure twisting like a ribbon before finally tumbling into the sea. No one was killed, except for one small, frightened dog.
Gertie became famous as the most dramatic failure in bridge engineering history, and the disaster changed bridge design forever. Eventually rebuilt as a set of twin bridges side by side, she's now known as the more stately Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
I'd passed the spot as I rode the train south from Seattle to Portland, and thought the bridges beautiful: delicate, slender, the cables like the strings of a musical instrument. But the elegance of bridges is best admired from a distance, as I was about to find out. You cross them on foot to be stunned at their muscularity, not their beauty.
I stepped onto the Golden Gate's walkway and almost immediately got vertigo. Turns out this bridge is high - nearly 70m down. It was packed with other sightseers and cyclists coming from all directions. Windy, too, and six lanes of traffic rushed past in an unrelenting scream.
I fought against a sudden conviction that one of those infernal bicycle bell-ringers was going to dismount, pick me up, and throw me over the side. Then I fought against a weird attraction to the edge, to lean over and stick my face into nothing and stare at the sea churning below.
Pressed against the railing by the human crush, scared of the finality that lay a few inches over the side, I started to panic, and had to talk myself sternly out of being ridiculous.
Scattered along the bridge were crisis telephones. "THERE IS HOPE," signs said. "MAKE THE CALL." Ninety-eight per cent of jumpers die; out of thousands who have leaped since the bridge was built, just 34 have survived.
One of them was Kevin Hines, who told San Francisco Magazine of his thoughts as he tipped over the edge headfirst: "In that instant, I thought, what have I just done? I don't want to die. God, please save me." He shattered three vertebrae and lacerated his lower organs, but survived to become a motivational speaker against suicide.
I ran to the other side of the bridge. When I got there, I begged a ride home off an Estonian tour bus driver. As we drove back, he cranked up San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) and I Left My Heart in San Francisco over the loudspeaker. "If you don't sing, I'll kick you off!" he said.
It was cheesy, but I didn't care. I sang with Dean Martin back across the bridge, the wind so strong in the open-air bus that it whipped my voice into the fog. I pretended I did not feel like DJ Tanner in a red convertible. The sun came out, and the iron glowed orange. I wished I could have told my Grandad.
- © Fairfax NZ News