Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

That Unknown


by Hannah Buckland

When Ann McGuire jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge on September 12, 1979, she said aloud, “I must be about to hit,” three times before striking the water below. The fall was 211 feet. It took her body four seconds to travel this distance, and during this time, she reached a speed of roughly seventy-five miles per hour. Afterward, the Coast Guard found her bobbing in the moat near the bridge’s south tower. She was conscious but badly injured. As the boat sped back to shore, an officer asked her, “Why would a pretty girl like you jump off the bridge?” and she replied, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”

My father built a footbridge that arched over an old, dried up creek bed in our yard. Much like his father, he worked in his workshop late into the night with a pencil tucked behind his ear. In an early sketch of the footbridge, he drew railings along either side, because he didn’t know if my younger sister and I would need something to hold on to. Later, once he began laying planks of wood, he decided to leave out the railings. Instead, he built the bridge lower to the ground, so even if we fell, the distance was only eighteen inches.

Ann McGuire was the eleventh person to survive the fall from the Golden Gate Bridge. At that time, forty years after the bridge’s opening, an estimated 655 jumpers had died. Today, twenty-six jumpers have survived, and the total body count has risen to around 1,300, but it’s impossible to assign an exact figure to the loss. Each year, some jumpers leave the bridge unnoticed, some jumpers are pulled from the water unidentified, and some jumpers are pulled out to sea by the tide.

Among the known fallen: Louis Levin, Rafaello di Regolo, Frank Clevenger, John Prohoroff, Agnes Harrington, Harold Juda, Edwin Pierson, Paul Umland. Mathew Wuerstle, Arthur John Fisher, Ruth Tumelty, George Verhagen.

After the footbridge was complete, without railings to contain us, my sister and I created a game where we’d stand, hand in hand, at the bridge’s edge, count down, then jump off together. The creek bed was etched into the side of a long hill, so after jumping, we ran downward, as fast as we could, until we lost control and tumbled, pretending the creek bed was a river, sweeping us away. Farther down the hill than we ever ran was a barrier of trees. Our father, watching us fall toward their trunks, must have thought about the unbuilt railings, the leftover planks in his workshop, and realized he’d been worried about the wrong measurement. He’d been thinking only of the vertical distance—that carefully calculated eighteen-inch gap—not realizing his daughters would also travel horizontally.

Andrew Glover, Lloyd James, Mildred Gibbs, Kathleen Johnson, Joe Tricaso, Julia Hunter, Julian Haswell, Charles Brewer, John Mariana, Eugene Fagothey, Charles Baltzer.

Harold Wobber was the first documented Golden Gate jumper, just three months after the bridge opened in 1937. He walked halfway across the bridge, took off his jacket, handed it to a man standing nearby, and said, “This is as far as I go,” before heaving himself over the railing, into the water. In reports, this man—the man who heard those last words as he clutched Harold Wobber’s jacket—was an old friend met while fighting in World War I, or he was a new acquaintance, their friendship only spanning that half-length of the bridge, or the two were total strangers, and he knew nothing of Harold Wobber except those seven final syllables. Sometimes, the man is said to have grabbed Harold Wobber’s belt as he jumped but lost his grip, or the man is said to have tried to grab Harold Wobber’s belt but was too slow, or the man is said to have done nothing but grip Harold Wobber’s discarded jacket, knowing he could not stop what was coming.

Still, our father never added railings.

Marilyn Demont, August Demont, Justin French, Leola Myers.

Beneath other bridges, the best available statistics are also estimations: 230 at the Aurora Bridge in Seattle; 200 at the Coronado Bridge in San Diego; fifty-five at the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge in Santa Barbara County; and another 150 at the Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge in St. Petersburg, Florida has been the site of 130. Near Cañon City, Colorado, twenty have jumped from the Royal Gorge Bridge; twenty-four at the Duke Ellington Bridge in Washington, D.C.; and in New York City, an average of ten per year at the George Washington Bridge.

We moved away from that house when my sister was five and I was ten. Now, she says she doesn’t remember the footbridge, but after I remind her of our jumping game, she says she can sort of recall the way our legs felt before we tumbled down the hill. “But you know,” she adds, “I could say that about any hill.” This disappoints me. I want her to remember the hill and the footbridge the way I do. I want her to remember how tightly we held each other’s hands as we ran. I want her to remember the way our father looked those nights he assembled the bridge: crouched on the cement floor, pencil behind his ear, brushing sealant across the slats so the structure would last.

James McCowan, Charlotte Winton, Marie Percy, Ernest Kloeres, Lugo Winfield.

In 1948, Fortunato Ornelar Anguiano became the one hundredth Golden Gate jumper. After leaving work as a dishwasher at the end of a day, he walked out to the middle of the bridge where he passed a man who was smoking a cigarette. Fortunato Ornelar Anguiano asked if the man would please give him a cigarette, too, and the man nodded. After lighting it and taking one long drag, Fortunato Ornelar Anguiano climbed up on the railing, flicked the cigarette aside, and jumped. Behind, he left a note that read, “Just bury me in my own land, the one you people take away from us.”

I didn’t move again until I left for college: just a few hours from my Wisconsin hometown, down into Illinois. Somehow, it was faster to drive west out of Wisconsin, down through Iowa, then east into Illinois to get to my college’s town, rather than just heading straight south. Something about the paths the highways take, my father explained when I asked. Something about things never traveling as linearly as we expect.

Meyer Brazer, William Powell, Alfred Rhodes, Eulis Williams, Philip Sheridan III.

Others left notes, too. Six days after his father jumped in 1954, Charles Gallagher Jr. did the same, leaving behind a note on the railing that read, “I wanted to keep Dad company.” When the five hundredth jumper, Steven Hoag, was pulled from the water, rescuers found a note tucked in his pocket in a sealed plastic bag. It said, “Do not notify my mother. She has a heart condition.” John Thomas Doyle was found along with the words, “Absolutely no reason except I have a toothache.” Chris Christensen left his final words, along with his coat, tied to a painter’s work box near the bridge’s center: “Loved Ones: My nerves are shot. Please forgive me. Chris.”

I learned to love that drive. Wisconsin with its hills gradually rounding out to make Iowa, then all of it spreading flat across Illinois. The Mississippi River, separating each state from its neighbor. Crossing the river twice each drive: once in Dubuque and again in Davenport. Before I had my own car, when my father still drove me back and forth, he’d ask as we approached each bridge if I wanted to drive. I’d say no. I’d say, “I’m tired,” or, “I forgot my license,” or, “Where would we pull over to switch seats?” but usually, I meant to say that all I wanted to do when crossing those bridges was look out toward the horizon and imagine that someday, I might see the water up close, that I might float somewhere new.

Leona Strauss, Miner Waddington Smith, Caspar Pelietier, G. H. Derr, Albert Hartford.

Casey Brooks scrawled a note to her parents on an index card before leaving her house for a final time. The note read, “The Saab is parked at the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m sorry.” Jonathan Zablotny left a message up on his computer screen saying, “It should be honestly said what has happened.” Alexander Lyndon Quisenberry left behind a stack of papers, on which he’d written, again and again, the word “end.”

I don’t remember what my last words were when my father dropped me off at the start of my junior year, after my final summer spent living in Wisconsin. I was probably ungraceful. I probably just said, “Well, bye,” or, “See you later,” or, “Have a safe drive,” but I remember what he said. He pointed to the road, where we stood, and said, “Look at that. Original limestone curbs. Did you know they used to make curbs out of limestone?” Of course I didn’t know, and of course, as soon as he said it, I wanted to know more. I wanted to know where the limestone came from, where all the old limestone curbs have gone. I wanted to know how curbs are made, how liquid cement can be shaped to form that barrier. But it was time for my father to leave. He got in the car, pulled the door shut, and drove off as I turned my back and walked away.

J. B. Nathan, Glenn Burbank, Henry Feldman, Martin McDonough, Eugene Cronin.

And then there are those whose names are never known. The Marin county coroner is responsible for identifying bodies, for thumbing through wallets to find a driver’s license or a phone number or anything that will provide a name. Usually, the coroner can find some bit of evidence by which to name the jumper, but other times, licenses have been discarded and notes remain unsigned. One anonymous note, taped to the railing, said nothing more than, “Why do you make it so easy?”

In early drafts of the Golden Gate Bridge, its railings were higher. Five and a half feet at least, the team of engineers proposed, but one of the lead engineers, Joseph Strauss, cut the height to just four feet. Joseph Strauss was only five feet tall. He wanted to do away with the barriers that so often blocked his view. He wanted to create a bridge from which even he could see clear to the horizon.

Bruce McCollum, Albert Bender, Doris Marie Dickinson, George McConnell, Charles Waters.

Moments before Philip Manikow jumped from the bridge, a man noticed his nervousness, his shifting shoulders, his downward gaze, and asked if he was okay. Philip Manikow shrugged and said, “It’s a long way down.” The man assumed Philip Manikow meant he was afraid of heights or afraid of bridges and continued on his way. When the man looked back, he saw other people on the bridge who were leaning over the railing—hands over mouths or hands reaching downward—but Philip Manikow was already gone.

Before graduating from college, when picking a university for grad school, my choices included a city squeezed between two lakes, a city poured on the edge of the ocean, or a city wedged in the space between where two rivers converged to form a third, where yellow bridges stitched the land together. I chose this last city. Those bridges, I tried to explain to my father, who didn’t understand why I wanted to live in a city I’d never even visited before, a city so far away from everything I’d ever known. I couldn’t stop thinking about those bridges.

Murial Whelan, Morris Hirsch, Gene Lee White, Arthur Cohen Jr., Marie McCormick.

In 2007, Matthew Whitmer sent a final text message to his friends: “Peace out.” Soon after, his car was found near the bridge. Witnesses saw him plunge into the water, but his body was never found. “Many families such as ours,” write Matthew Whitmer’s parents, “have difficulty accepting their loved one may be dead, despite the circumstantial evidence that points that way.” Psychiatrists refer to this as ambiguous loss. “With ambiguous loss,” explains one expert, Dr. Pauline Boss, “there is no closure; the challenge is to learn to live with the ambiguity.” No body to bury, families are denied the symbolic rituals, such as funerals, that help to cope with loss.

Karen Silverstain, Perry Charlton, Michael Detata, Ferdinand Pechin Jr., Russell King.

As I prepared to leave Illinois for the city of yellow bridges, I realized that for all the times I’d driven across the Mississippi, I’d never set foot in it, so on a sticky summer weekend, I drove west until I reached the river, waded up to my knees, and stared downstream. That river: so wide. In the spring, it flooded worse than it had since 1927, drowning city after city. Water seeped into basements or poured through windows or pushed past sandbags as people drove away forever or drove away for a couple weeks or stayed to watch from their rooftops. I stood in the river, silent, and thought of everything gone, everything washing away. Then, wearing all my clothes, I did something I’d been meaning to do: I laid down on my back in the water—arms stretched out sideways—and let myself float a short distance downriver. Ears beneath the waves, I expected silence, but instead, I heard two sounds: one high, one low. The high one was whiny, like a giant mosquito, and I assumed it was from boat motors, but I couldn’t place the low sound. It crackled and popped, and it reminded me of the evenings my father spent trying to repair his father’s old turntable, how he sat with a screwdriver in his hand, night after night, trying to call back lost words, watching records spin as static filled his workshop.

“Everyone experiences ambiguous loss if only from breaking up with someone, or having aging parents or kids leaving home,” continues Dr. Boss. “As we learn from the people who must cope with the more catastrophic situations of ambiguous loss, we learn how to tolerate the ambiguity in our more common losses in everyday life.”

David Lee Prescott Jr., Edward Walsh, Shirley Ann Overmiller, Walter Weeks, Paul Mezei.

“It was the river itself,” a friend said to me when I told her about the low sound of the Mississippi. When she said this, I thought of the springtime floods. I thought of the pictures I’d seen in the newspaper: a home wrapped in plastic as the river crested; entire cities, vacated; stop signs submerged just up to the lettering; canoes traversing streets that were once residential. I thought of last words. Spelled out in front of a church: “Praise the lord.” Magnetic lettering on a restaurant’s sign: “Build your better breakfast.” On a piece of plywood, nailed to a tree: “We will return.” I thought of how to say goodbye to places we love but can’t live in. I thought of how it feels to lock a door one last time, how the house comes into view as we back out of the driveway, how we can’t help but linger while shifting from reverse to drive, how the image of it all looks in the rearview mirror before we turn the corner: small, reflected, disappearing.

“Perhaps the reason we talk so much about closure is that we can’t stand the pain,” explains Dr. Boss. “We assume pain is bad and must be eliminated. But when it comes to loss, especially ambiguous loss, pain often has a function. […] The pain of loss can immobilize—or it can give momentum for change.”

In 2008, Golden Gate Bridge officials voted to suspend a large net beneath the bridge to catch jumpers before they hit the water, but progress is halting at best. Funding is in short supply, and before construction can begin, a series of multi-million dollar studies must be carried out to ensure the addition of a net won’t compromise the bridge’s structural integrity. “Little changes in railing details can make a huge difference,” explains one engineer. “You can’t look at the elements of the bridge piece by piece. You have to look at the whole picture.”

Murry Baird, Stanley Klopstock, Blossom Marie Grim, Jill Thompson, Clyde Casey, Juanita Daneri, F. P. Johnson.

Recently, my father told me that he is afraid of bridges. Always has been, he says, but lately, it’s been getting worse. I should have figured this out sooner. I should have suspected something when he asked, again and again, if I wanted to drive as we approached the Mississippi. I should have guessed it that spring, the same spring of the floods, when we stood side by side at the edge of a deep ravine near our house in Wisconsin when I visited for a weekend. I’d said, “I wish there was a bridge here so we could walk to the other side,” and he’d fallen silent for a moment, looking down into the ravine, then across, judging the distances. I’d assumed he was thinking of carpentry, of the skills he’d learned from his father. I’d assumed he was thinking of any bridge he might build for him and his daughters to cross together. But he’d been thinking only of stumbling, of falling, of loosened grips, of failed railings.

Concludes Dr. Boss, “The only way to survive is to keep two opposing thoughts, to straddle between hope and hopelessness.”

Michael Lamm, David El Rae, James Decleur, Christiana Luma, William McClanahan, Darcy Jill Van de Riet.

In 1985, Ken Baldwin drove ninety minutes to the Golden Gate Bridge. He stood at the railing and began counting, with the intent of leaping when he reached ten, but he stuttered over the final syllable and stayed put. Then, he began counting again. This time, as he reached ten, he vaulted over the railing, pushing off it with both hands. Afterward, when asked why he chose the bridge, he said, “I heard the current in the bay was so strong the bodies were often swept out to sea and sometimes never found. I found that reassuring. […] I just wanted [my family] to forget me, to let me go.” Ken Baldwin also said that as he watched his hands leave the railing, as he watched the water speed toward him, he realized it was all a mistake.

Rhey Lee Bartlett, Bruce Austin, Richard Grimm, Kathleen Clancy, Douglas Martin, Peter Weldon.

The jump broke Ken Baldwin’s ribs. His lungs were so bruised that doctors weren’t sure if he’d live. When he finally rounded a corner, after his condition began to stabilize, he told his wife that the jump had changed him for the better. He said, “I know now that I’m lucky to be alive.”

As I entered the city and sped across that first yellow bridge, I didn’t think of the flood of names coming off the Golden Gate or the net below that might someday catch them. I didn’t think of the last words of jumpers or the last words in washed out towns. I didn’t think of my palm, once pressed against my sister’s as we jumped from the footbridge. I didn’t think of my father, his hands gripping the steering wheel while he drove me back and forth across the Mississippi. As I drove across that yellow bridge, alone in the car, I thought of how the sun must have looked back in Illinois at that moment, the way it was spreading out over cornfields or hitting the sides of buildings or reflecting off the river. I thought of the sun in Wisconsin, slipping between hills or going down just around a bend in the road. I thought of the places we linger even though we’re gone, the distances we span when we reach out to memory, and as the car hit the seam where bridge met land, I glanced up into the rearview mirror to see the bridge getting farther away while the city, that unknown, came rushing forward.

Hannah Buckland: From Wisconsin, graduated from Knox College in June, currently working a lot: on an MLIS at Pitt, at a music library, and at a bagel shop. Not afraid of bridges.