Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

The area I patrol at work is dominated by water. In addition to many tributaries, the main watercourse is the mighty Niagara River. One of the bridges over this river led to a chain of circumstances that was to be instrumental in one of my first (but not last) episodes of questioning the efficacy and justness of our legal system.

The bridge involved was the International Railway Bridge across the Niagara River between Fort Erie, Ontario and Buffalo, New York. Built in 1873, it is a steel and stone train bridge about a kilometer long. The tops of its trusses are about 10m (app. 35 feet) from river level. The river current is very fast and strong at this location.

It is the same bridge from which Baseball Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty fell and drowned during a fight with a night watchman in 1903 while trying to get back into the United States. (He had been kicked off the train for being drunk and “belligerent”.) Members of my department later recovered his body down-river below Niagara Falls.

Local teenagers are attracted to the bridge during the hot days of summer. They love to jump off it into the water below. More than just a way to cool off, jumping from the bridge, especially the uppermost trusses, is considered by many Fort Erie residents to be an informal, but none-the-less important, rite of passage into adulthood.

Naturally, the owners of the bridge (a major rail carrier) frown upon such dangerous sport. Besides the obvious danger of drowning, there is also the danger of being crushed by a train traveling over the bridge. Justly fearing lawsuits, the owners have posted the bridge with a lot of no trespassing and warning signs.

In the summer of 1989 I was driving around with a Sergeant of my department who had many, many years of experience. It was one of my first days on the job and he was driving me around to introduce me to the area and to “show me the ropes”. As we passed the bridge he solemnly told me how I should always do my best to discourage kids from jumping and swimming from the bridge. To drive the point home, he told me a few heartbreaking tales about recovering the dead bodies of a few youths ruined in their prime by such foolishness.

But as he spoke, my mind couldn’t help drifting back to 1983, to another river at a place on the other side of the province:

It was during day two of a three day mountain warfare familiarization camp near Petawawa being run by a regular army unit that was later foolishly disbanded by the government of the day over some minor hazing ritual abuses. As mere “reserve army pukes” the instructors had been pretty hard on us and we were driven to near complete physical and mental exhaustion. The final exercise of the day involved constructing a three-rope bridge across a small gorge with a river at its bottom. The walls of the gorge were near vertical slabs of beautifully sparkling granite.

After completion of the bridge, the first person to traverse it stumbled at midpoint, flipped over and became entangled by his boots hanging upside down over the river. After getting his feet loose, he was too exhausted to get back into the twisted ruin of the bridge. He hung for a minute and then dropped the thirty or so feet into the black water below with a huge splash and then disappeared in a hiss of bubbles. A few seconds later, he reappeared briefly with the unmistakable expression of a drowning man on his face: eyes as big as saucers and every other ounce of his being emitting sheer terror. He again disappeared below the water.

It took those of us gathered on the edge of the gorge, including our Airborne Regiment hosts, a few seconds to absorb what was going on. Those that were ever so slowly starting to realize the seriousness of the situation started to look around for a way to get down to water level. One man suddenly laid down his rifle, peeled off his web gear and dove off the cliff into the water. He emerged a few seconds later with the drowning man in a head lock and swam him downriver to a place where there was a small strip of shore. After about ten minutes of recovery (I can still hear his deep retching when I recall the incident) the previously drowning man was back to work but quite shaken. The man who had dove in and rescued him was Private Frank Montana FROM FORT ERIE, ONTARIO.

The point being made about all this is that had Frank not grown up in an environment in which things like jumping from a train bridge were commonplace, the soldier who fell into the river would have been dead. In my opinion, it would not have been the rope bridge, the river or bad luck that killed him – he would have been another invisible victim of the nanny state.

Laws that discourage activities not because they involve criminal activity (Malum In Se – where there is a victim and a culprit) but because they may lead to injury or “just because” (Malum prohibitum) are weakening our society. Kids today substitute the ability to look at a sign or watch a public safety message on television for what used to take common sense. Of course society will never be able to make enough laws and put up signs to cover every situation (the Liberals are working hard to correct this though) and as a result our kids will be left in an especially vulnerable position: unable to think when they need it most. They will grow to be perpetual toddlers: never doing anything without first asking their nanny if it is safe.

Some wise person once said that WW1 was not actually won in the trenches of France and Belgium, but rather years before on the sports fields of British schools. Similarly, when I drive by a bridge and see kids jumping from it today – I never see kids jumping from it, I see future heroes in training.

(Frank Montana received an Armed Forces citation for heroism for his quick action. The soldier who nearly drowned is now teaching native children in Nunavut.)