My Bridge Too Far

My children are now old enough that I can tell this story. I never wanted to tell about it while they were teenagers or younger because I would have felt guilty if they copied me. But I shouldn’t have worried. I raised them all to live their own lives their own way, and for the most part, they have all done that.

I had a curious, dangerous relationship when I was a teenager. This relationship was not with a person, but with a railway bridge. This bridge in question spanned the North Thompson River in Kamloops, British Columbia. The Canadian National Railway used this bridge to send its trains out of the Kamloops station west toward the Port of Vancouver, some 200 miles away. The bridge itself was approximately 700 yards long and about two dozen trains a day went each way across it.

I lived four blocks from the bridge itself. It was on my way to Junior High School and I passed under it every day. It sat beside the park where my friends and I played football. At one time, it had been a drawbridge, folding upwards to allow steamboats to forage up the river to settlements further north, at a time when there were no roads to the logging communities of Barriere, Blue River and Clearwater. By the time our sub-division was built beside the tracks, the bridge’s movable span had long since been retired. But even though they were never used, the cables and the towers of the movable part of the bridge were still there. There was even a wrought-iron ladder that ran the entire length of the towers up to platforms on the very top near the wheels that pulled the cabling. It was perhaps 80 feet to the top. More about that in a moment.

Here is a picture of that bridge, just for your mental scrapbook as you read the rest of the story:

CNR bridge

CN workers could walk across the bridge fairly easily. And because it took quite a while back then for people who lived in North Kamloops to go the long way around to get to the station, many people who worked for the railroad would park their cars on one side and walk across. Several engineers lived in our neighborhood just so they could walk to work.

As they walked across the bridge, they had to look ahead of them and behind them for approaching trains. When they built the bridge, they kept in mind that workers would be walking across it. So every 50 yards or so, they built little platforms, sticking out over the river where someone could stand while the train went by. I imagine most of the people who went across regularly had to use these.

Under the bridge, there were handrails that ran the entire length of the bridge on both sides of the inner panels. I have no idea why they were there except as handholds for anyone repairing things under the bridge. The handrails were half-inch rolled steel bars set out about five inches from the edge of the inner walls of the bridge. They hung about four feet above the bottom of the panel. Along the bottom of the panel was a one foot wide lip that someone could push themselves along. It was about a 40 foot drop down to the river…a river which claimed about 6-10 lives each year because of its unpredictable current.

I had three friends in those days , and we closely resembled the four boys in the movie “Stand By Me” (based on Stephen King’s short story, “The Body”). We talked trash about each other, smoked cigarettes together, sipped occasionally on whatever alcohol one of us could swipe from their parents, and devised numerous ways to flaunt the conventions of the Law and Parental units.  Dave, Phil, Ray and I cruised the neighborhood looking for action and adventure. We weren’t bad kids in any legal or moral sense, but we wanted to test our mettle in a strange and challenging world.

Invariably, when we got tired of the old standby stunts, we were drawn to the colossus that was the CNR bridge. It was a magnet for young boys, a place where you could stake your claim on courage, look your fear in the eye and master it, impress other boys (and occasionally a girl or two) with your felonious abilities.  The two goals for things you did on the bridge were simple to remember. We all knew them:

  1. Do something more dangerous than the last time you were there.
  2. Do something more dangerous than the last person.

 

Our stunts started benignly, hardly denting our courage. it began with all of us walking across the bridge to the other side. If you want to get a feel for how exciting it can be the first time you try it, this scene from Stand By Me is pretty accurate in depicting how you walk across when you can see river between the ties.

As opposed to this clip, we could pull into one of the platforms if a train came across. In the four years we went across that bridge, a train only came twice that I remember, and both times we made it to a platform with lots of room to spare.

After several months of simply walking across this bridge, we discovered the railing underneath. This, of course, took a lot more guts to try. We took this feat in stages. As you can see from the picture of the bridge, it had concrete supports set in the river every hundred yards or so. The goal was to shimmy out to the first support column and back. We would grab the rail with our hands, and our feet shuffled on the bottom lip. For the entire 100 yards, our back was exposed to empty space culminating in the river. No one ever dropped into the river from the railing, but every time we did it I was sure one of us would.

After several trips out, it was getting fairly easy to make it to the first piling. So, Dave and I decided to try for the second one, which would put us about halfway across the river. For some reason, the railing on that part of the bridge had warped in places, which simply added to the danger and excitement. It is no problem for me to remember the adrenaline rush, even 44 years later. Eventually Dave, Phil and I were able to get to the third pillar, while Ray contented himself with the first one. No one ever ventured to the fourth pillar in my memory. There they be monsters.

The next level of courage was attained by climbing the nearest of the towers. At the base of the first one there was a large platform where all of us could stand without crowding the others. From there, the ladder ran up the length of the tower. If you look at the bridge now, you won’t see the ladder. I suspect we, or other kids, had something to do with it being removed. This ladder was welded pieces of rolled steel and painted black. In the summer, it was so hot it would take the skin off your hands and feet. (We did the climb barefoot which gave us better traction).

As with the railing under the bridge, the test was to see how high you could climb each time. If you look again at the picture, you can see cross-members every 25 feet. They were large enough that we could climb onto them and wait for the guy following you. By the end of our 9th grade summer, all of us had climbed to the top at least once, except Ray. He refused to do it.

One particular time, we were bugging Ray about his lack of courage as we defined it. We needled him incessantly that week and let it be known he was on thin ice in terms of membership in our informal club. Being a young man of great pride, this insult to his manhood was hard for him to take. So, late one Saturday afternoon in September, he announced to all of us he was going to the top of the bridge. We told him that he had to lead the way this time and all of us would climb behind him. Phil had taken a bottle of gin from his dad’s liquor cabinet and we were going to toast the river from the top. I think about it now and the entirety of this idea seems moronic. But that defined us in those days, so we were being consistent.

For the first 50 feet, Ray didn’t flinch at all about continuing on up the ladder. He had already accomplished the first two sections several times that summer. But he had never pushed himself past that point. This time, with our stalwart encouragement, he made it past his own personal barrier and kept climbing. I was next in line behind him, and it was clear he was slowing down. I egged him on because the last thing I wanted was to be stuck on the ladder behind him. I had that queasy feeling that this had been a bad idea.

Ten feet from the top, Ray stopped. He kept looking down–always a poor idea on that ladder–and I could hear him whimpering. It wasn’t outright crying, but it was nearing panic levels. I tried to soothe him and encourage him, but as he gripped the rung he was on tighter, I realized it wasn’t working. Dave figured this out about the same time I did. Instead of soothing him, Dave took a different tack. He started to drop F-bombs and threatened Ray with everything from torture to public humilation. That worked. Ray scampered the final ten feet to the platform at the top. What normally took the rest of us ten minutes to accomplish had taken a full half hour. We were all drenched in sweat, even though it wasn’t that hot out.

None of us felt like drinking by that point, so we all took a perfunctory sip and started to talk about going down. Ray was all for that idea. In fact, before any of us could work up the courage to head back down, he started. This time, Phil followed him, then Dave and me. Because I was the last to go, I took one last look west. To this day, I wish I had looked east.

When we had climbed a third of the way down, the westbound CN train entered the bridge. We had not heard it or seen it at all, because we were coming down the ladder with the station at our backs. During that whole summer when we climbed the tower,  a train had only come over the bridge once. Dave had been at the top that time and he simply waited until the train went past. He told us at the time that at the very top you could hardly feel the vibrations.

As we hung onto the railing  a third of the way down the ladder we realized Dave had lied to us about the vibrations. The ladder shook us senseless. I wrapped both elbows through the rungs and one leg as well. Even so, It was like a jackhammer was trying to pry me loose with vibrations. To add insult, we realized it was a Saskatchewan grain train heading west to the port. These trains were always longer than normal trains, and they had engines in the middle of the train to carry the extra weight. This was going to be a long wait on the tower.

After an eternity, the train finally went by and we could climb the rest of the way down. At least that was the theory. But Ray would not move. He was immobilized by fear. And because he was the lowest of the climbers, none of us could get by him. The wind took that moment to start gusting at us, and this just added to our panic. We all threatened Ray with bodily harm if he didn’t move. After a long while as our voices got hoarse from yelling, he moved to the cross-member below him. Phil scrambled by him and made it to the bottom rapidly. Dave did the same right after. As I went by Ray, I could see he wasn’t going to make it the rest of the way down. I asked him what he wanted to do and he began to cry softly.

It broke my heart in a way nothing else ever had. He was so helpless in that moment. I didn’t know what to say to him or how to help. I told him that I would stay with him as long as he needed me to. I don’t know why or how I said this. I had become a Christian a few months before, and I think that maybe God helped me by filling me with his love and compassion for my friend.

After ten minutes, I asked Ray if he felt any better. He didn’t. At that moment an idea came to me. It was so silly and so outrageous, but I had to give it a shot.

“Buddy, are you afraid of the river?”

“No” was all he said. And I believed him. Both he and I had taken lifeguard training that summer and we had done long-distance swimming several times a week. He wasn’t afraid of the water.

“Then let’s jump in Ray. I’ll jump with you.” Before either of us could give it another thought, he grabbed my hands and we leaped. I think we missed the platform by inches, and we certainly didn’t miss the concrete pillar by much either. But we hit the water and began floating downstream rapidly. Swimming across the current was harder than I had imagined. I lost my way and actually started swimming for the wrong shore but soon corrected myself as I looked back at the bridge. Ray reached shore 30 seconds before I did and he helped pull me out.

Dave and Phil had scrambled down the embankment and helped to pull us out. There was a look of terror and then relief on both their faces. Neither of them was a particularly compassionate person, but that moment they seemed to feel what we were feeling. I was startled when I saw their concern. That underscored for me the critical nature of what had just happened.

Aristotle said that in order for any of us to feel compassion, we must see someone else’s suffering in three ways:

  1. We must believe their suffering is serious and not trivial
  2. We must perceive the person does not deserve their suffering
  3. We must perceive that it is possible some day that we could suffer the same way.

 

This is what Phil and Dave were feeling. They knew we could have drowned. To this day, the memory of that plunge off the bridge gives me the cold sweats. Dave and Phil also knew I had little choice but to propose jumping off. There wasn’t any chance Ray would be climbing down that ladder for any amount of coaxing. And I am sure that they at some time had imagined they might drop into the river below. They felt compassion.

There has been a doctrinal battle over the centuries regarding this issue of God’s compassion. Does God care when we suffer? How can God feel compassion if He doesn’t meet the above criteria? Aren’t all things trivial compared to what God knows? More than anyone, doesn’t God know what we deserve? And how could God possibly perceive that He would go through the suffering we go through?

I contend that the answer to these questions, as with many other doctrinal questions, ends with Jesus Christ the man-God. Jesus is God Incarnate. God became a human being. God could have become a superhero human being, with powers, authority, abilities and strength. But he gave up all of that to be born a human (See Philippians 2:5-11). He had no power or authority of his own. He borrowed his miracle-working power from God’s Spirit. He was completely a human. And when he suffered, he experienced all of our pain the same way we do.

I doubt he jumped off any bridges into the river. But he jumped into a deadly scene where he was tortured within an inch of his life, beaten, dragged and crucified. He gets it.

Does Jesus care? You know He does. And because God the Father laid all the sins of the world on him as he hung on the cross, Jesus also knows what sin, foolishness,, selfishness and cowardice feels like. He experienced all of that. And the Bible tells us he took his resurrected body into heaven with Him. He is a human in heaven as well as God almighty. He represents us to the Father. He explains our suffering to the Father.

In that moment, emerging from the river, I realized how foolish all of our grandstanding had been. None of us had much to do with the Bridge after that day. We moved on to other endeavors: Girls, school, sports and careers. Dave sells cars like his dad. Ray has been a concert pianist and court reporter. Phil entered the military and rose to a high rank. I have talked with two of them in the past few years and we all have different takeaways of our Bridge years.

For me, I came to three realizations.

First, I had to redefine courage for myself. Up to that point in my life, I saw courage as pushing myself past the limits I thought I had. But as I got older, I realized courage has more to do with sticking with convictions, staying with beliefs and choices, not being moved by the opinions of others.

Second, I saw that compassion is much better than coaxing and coercing. What convinced Ray to jump was not my wise and intelligent argument. It was the offer to go with him off the edge.

Third, I know that Jesus understands those moments where fear grips me so deeply I can’t move forward or head back. He really does care.

In the current part of my life, this means more than anyone reading this can ever know.

(Note: Ray is not his real name. I don’t have his permission to share this. The others have allowed me to tell their stories, so their names are real).