How a de­spon­dent vet­eran helped make bridge a sui­cide des­ti­na­tion

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Pe­tula Dvo­rak Alan Dep, Marin In­de­pen­dent Jour­nal

The dy­namic San Fran­cisco fog was be­gin­ning its creep across the Bay, as it does most sum­mer af­ter­noons, when the bus doors swung open and Harold B. Wob­ber stepped off on Aug. 7, 1937.

“It’s a great day,” Wob­ber, 47, said to a fel­low pas­sen­ger, “for what I’m going to do.”

“What’s that?” the pas­sen­ger, Lewis Nay­lor, asked him.

“You’ll see,” said Wob­ber, a World War I vet­eran.

They dis­em­barked at the turn­stile lead­ing to the brand new Golden Gate Bridge, a spec­tac­u­lar mar­vel of en­gi­neer­ing and de­sign. At the time, it was the long­est sus­pen­sion bridge in the world. More than 200,000 peo­ple had flocked to the bridge to cel­e­brate its open­ing May 27, 1937.

But what Wob­ber was about to do would change its fu­ture, mak­ing it not only a des­ti­na­tion for those seek­ing in­spi­ra­tion but also a place for those haunted by de­spair.

Wob­ber, a de­scen­dant of one of Cal­i­for­nia’s pi­o­neer fam­i­lies, and Lewis, a pro­fes­sor from Con­necti­cut, be­gan their walk across the bridge. The fog closed in on the bridge as they cov­ered just over a mile and half, reach­ing the Marin head­lands and turn­ing back, ac­cord­ing to the story that Nay­lor told an Oak­land Tri­bune re­porter that day.

Half­way across the bridge, Wob­ber handed the pro­fes­sor his coat.

“This is where I get off,” he told the pro­fes­sor. And he be­gan to climb over the rail­ing. Lewis tried to stop him grab­bing his belt.

But Wob­ber told him to “go along about your busi­ness, and leave me alone.” Then he broke free and plunged 260 feet to his death, ac­cord­ing to the story in the Oak­land Tri­bune the next day.

A crowd gath­ered as Coast Guard boats and har­bor pa­trols searched for Wob­ber in the churn­ing waters be­low, fight­ing the out­go­ing tide. His body was never found.

In the pocket of that coat the pro­fes­sor was left hold­ing, there was a sealed sui­cide note to Wob­ber’s 16-year-old daugh­ter, Bar­bara. There was also a di­ary, and his en­try that day said: “Worked in the gar­den this af­ter­noon, then went to San Fran­cisco.” And there was also a slip for his one-day leave from the Palo Alto Vet­eran’s Hos­pi­tal, which ex­pired at mid­night that day.

Wob­ber was the first known sui­cide on the bridge.

And soon af­ter he jumped, hun­dreds and hun­dreds more fol­lowed him. Not only San Fran­cis­cans, but peo­ple from all over came to end their lives at such a cel­e­brated place.

The Golden Gate Bridge be­came the sec­ond-most­pop­u­lar sui­cide spot in the world, out­ranked only by the Nan­jing Yangstze bridge in China.

Lo­cal me­dia kept a run­ning count, re­port­ing on the fa­mous cases. A 5year-old girl and her fa­ther; the son of Pierre Salinger, Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy’s press sec­re­tary; Roy Ray­mond, the founder of Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret. In 1995, a lo­cal shock jock of­fered a case of Snap­ple to the fam­ily of the 1,000th jumper.

When the count reached 1,600 in 2012, most me­dia stopped keep­ing count.

Wob­ber and all those who fol­lowed him con­founded bridge of­fi­cials. They hired pa­trol of­fi­cers trained to spot the signs of a likely jumper be­fore he or she even climbs the rail­ing, and put a team of ne­go­tia­tors on call who are ex­perts at talk­ing peo­ple back onto the bridge. There are sui­cide hot­lines and phones. This year, as the bridge marked its 80th an­niver­sary, bridge of­fi­cials fi­nally be­gan con­struc­tion of a steel mesh net 20 feet be­low the Cal­i­for­nia land­mark’s sidewalk. The sui­cide bar­rier will be built over four years, ac­cord­ing to the Golden Gate Bridge web­site, with an ex­pected com­ple­tion date in 2021.

There are a few sur­vivors. Ken Bald­win is one of them. He was 28 when he jumped from the bridge on Aug. 20, 1985. He had a 3-year-old daugh­ter and was suf­fer­ing from de­pres­sion.

“The moment I saw my hands leave the rail­ing, I knew I wanted to live,” he said.

He didn’t come to the bridge to ro­man­ti­cize his sui­cide. It was his sec­ond at­tempt — the pills he’d swal­lowed hadn’t worked — and he wanted to be done with it. No blood, no body. “I just wanted to dis­ap­pear,” he said.

But he sur­faced as soon as he hit the wa­ter. Bruised and bro­ken, but alive.

“The net will def­i­nitely make some peo­ple think twice about it,” Bald­win said. But he’s less con­cerned about the 30 or peo­ple who leap from the Golden Gate than “the thou­sands and thou­sands of peo­ple ev­ery year who com­mit sui­cide in other ways who need help.”

Like so many peo­ple who take their own lives, Wob­ber had strug­gled with de­spair for years. He’d been a barge­man be­fore serv­ing in France from 1917 to 1918. He re­turned to Cal­i­for­nia with PTSD, or what was then re­ferred to as shell shock.

He’d got­ten a job run­ning a lunch­room on the Oak­land, Calif., water­front. But he aban­doned that job in 1930 and checked into the vet­er­ans hos­pi­tal, where he re­mained for seven years. His wife had di­vorced him, he missed his daugh­ter, and he found his only so­lace in the hos­pi­tal gar­dens.

The med­i­cal com­mu­nity was still try­ing to un­der­stand shell shock. They’d seen the same symp­toms in Sig­mund Freud’s stud­ies of women who were “hys­ter­i­cal.” The com­mon link Freud and his con­tem­po­raries found among these women? All had been sex­u­ally as­saulted, said Mary Cather­ine McDon­ald, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy at Old Do­min­ion Univer­sity in Norfolk, Va., whose work con­cen­trates on the trauma suf­fered by com­bat vet­er­ans.

McDon­ald said that given the dates of his hos­pi­tal­iza­tion and his ser­vice his­tory, Wob­ber may have been sub­jected to the shock ther­apy treat­ment pi­o­neered by Lewis Yeal­land, who viewed war trauma as a per­sonal fail­ure and in­cluded elec­tric shocks to the neck, cig­a­rettes on the tongue and hot plates placed on the back.

“You will not leave this room un­til you are talk­ing as well as you ever did; no, not be­fore ... you must be­have as the hero I ex­pect you to be,” Yeal­land told his pa­tients.

Sui­cide rates were likely high but were rarely re­ported, McDon­ald said.

Wob­ber’s very pub­lic act marked the be­gin­ning of the Golden Gate’s trans­for­ma­tion into “a sui­cide mag­net.”

But, just as sig­nif­i­cantly, it showed the na­tion the last­ing, hid­den wounds of a war that the rest of the coun­try had left be­hind 20 years ear­lier.

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