What's Right - family ritual of jumping off bridge

A Great Leap Forward

Baysville is a crossroads village in the Ontario lake country, about three hours northeast of the city of Toronto. It's a pretty place, with a few shops, an ice-cream store, a rustic restaurant, a row of quaint old houses, and a bridge. The bridge is actually busier than any of the town's roads. It overhangs a waterway leading into the big lakes of central Muskoka, and in the course of a single summer's day a couple of hundred vacationers will pass underneath it.

But this is not an essay about Canadian riverine transportation, fascinating though that subject is. The Baysville bridge is important in our house not because of what drives over it or cruises under it but because of what goes off it: Every single member of my wife's family.

When my wife and her brothers were young, my in-laws regularly rented a shack (they called it a "cottage") near the little town. And it was my father-in-law's practice, every summer, to stop the car at the little park beside the bridge, order all the kids out, and then dare them to jump off the bridge. He always led the way: He would climb onto one of the posts of the guardrail, stretch, and then dive headlong into the canal below. The kids would follow more or less reluctantly, feet-first. To this day, my wife says that whenever she has to do anything frightening, she tells herself: "Well, it's easier than going off the Baysville bridge."

Over the years, I heard these stories many times and even watched the jumps on scratchy old family films. I never quite got the point of them. Jumping off bridges just for the hell of it seemed to me a pretty lunatic way to spend an afternoon. But those of you who have been married for a while know that one doesn't question the habits or amusements of one's spouse's family, however bizarre they may seem.

This summer I saw the bridge in person for the first time. My wife and I had booked our two elder children into a summer camp up the road from Baysville, and we spent the weekend before camp began at a nearby lodge. It turned into quite a family reunion: My wife's parents came and her two brothers and their wives and children and the next thing I knew, we'd all agreed to rendezvous at the Baysville bridge on Saturday morning.

I parked my van at the park and walked toward the bridge. I'd been preparing some little joke about how these things never seem as high in adult life as they did when you're a child-until I saw the thing. It was high: fifteen feet or more over the surface of the cold, black water. The ledge outside the guardrail was tiny, maybe six inches wide, just large enough for a child's feet, not quite big enough for an adult's.

My children looked at me expectantly, so off I went. It was sort of thrilling actually-a few seconds of plunging drop, a shock of pure cold, and then a stroke up and out of the opaque Muskoka water. After the newcomer had been hazed, the others followed, including my father-in-law, now 76 and wearing a pacemaker, who as usual dove off head-first.

Later, I asked him why on earth he had invented this strange ritual. He told me that as a child, he'd been terrified of heights-and somewhere along the way had decided that the only way to overcome his fear was to take up high-diving. The highest dive he'd ever done, he said, was during the Second World War. He was a lieutenant on a destroyer. One boring day, he decided to try to dive off the bridge of the vessel, some 50 feet up. That was against the rules of course, so he had to go up in his clothes, and then hastily strip when nobody was looking. He had just got undressed when he looked over the side. He remembers thinking, "On second thought, this is too high." He was about to slink down to the deck when he heard somebody shout, "Lieutenant Worthington is going to dive!" "Then," he said, "I had to do it."

When he hit the water, he thought he'd broken his neck. But he survived, as he survived the war itself, and Korea afterward, and a career as a foreign correspondent. "You just give a push, and then it's done. Maybe you'll be afraid for a second, but you'll always know you did it and that you don't have to be afraid ever again."

I'm still not sure I'd advocate bridge-jumping as an essential part of a well-rounded childhood. A superstitious part of my mind wonders whether unnecessary risks don't somehow tempt fate. And yet, as I watched those children get bolder and bolder with each successive jump, I thought: Courage is like immunity to disease-it's accumulated in small doses.

Over the past three years, by ill chance, my children have had to face four harrowing moments: once in a car accident, again on 9/11, a third time when the Washington sniper did his killing a few blocks from their school, then finally just a few weeks ago, when an airplane on which they were flying lost an engine at 25,000 feet.

Danger comes unbidden. And from now on, it will strengthen them to say, "I jumped off the Baysville bridge-I can handle this."