Chaplain Norris Burkes (copy) (copy)

Chaplain Norris Burkes. 

On a Sunday afternoon, my wife, Becky, and I visit the Crimson Tattoo Parlor in Auburn, Calif. We are not looking to get a painful heart-shape tattoo but rather to help alleviate the spiritual pain of suicide.

Shop owners Jon and Brittney Hendricks invite us inside where a dozen volunteers are emulating a suicide-prevention tactic recently started by a woman in the United Kingdom.

The idea seems beautifully simplistic: Write and attach anti-suicide notes to any local structure known for suicides.

Jon welcomes me at the front desk where we chat for more than a half hour as he laminates about 200 notes written on multi-colored construction paper. His local strategy calls for us to post these notes along the span of the Foresthill Bridge.

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Becky Burkes

Becky Burkes works on handwritten, laminated signs that were hung on the Foresthill Bridge in California to discourage suicide attempts.

I strain to read the writing of one person at an adjacent table. “Life is hard and impossible to go through alone. You are not alone. Call 800-273-8255.” (24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline).

Another writer composes, “Silence is overrated. Scream at the top of your lungs when you need help. Call 800-273-8255.”

Jon seems a gentle soul, a pastor’s son, so I ask what spurs his interest in the topic. He tells me he’s a combat veteran, an infantryman with tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Some of my friends didn’t survive our coming home,” he says, pointing toward Brittney. “She knows those stories, so she worries about me.”

Jon checks his watch. The evening shadows hint at dusk, so he dismisses us to our cars. Ten minutes later, we find the Foresthill Bridge straddling a massive canyon, 730 feet over the north fork of the American River.

I park near a special call box with a sign, “Crisis Counseling. There is hope. Make the call.” The call box is an unadorned reminder that since the bridge opened 45 years ago, 87 people have jumped from it, the fourth highest among all locations in the country.

Our group scatters along the half-mile span. Each of us carries a plastic bag holding a dozen notes written with a rainbow of permanent ink colors.

With the blessings of county officials, we walk both sides of the bridge, zip-tying our inspirational messages along the fence line. The railings have been raised to 6 feet, 6 inches in hopes of dissuading spontaneous jumpers. Sadly, I’m told, the retrofit does little to stop the single-minded who often bring small ladders.

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sign

One of several handmade signs along the Foresthill Bridge in Auburn, Calif., discouraging those planning to jump. 

Hikers stop to examine the messages. Some of them voice the hope that our notes might stop one person from “making a permanent choice to solve a temporary problem,” as one bright piece of paper states.

One young passerby asks Becky if he can hang one of our notes.

“A good friend committed suicide just last week,” he says, explaining his request. Becky gives him a note along with an understanding nod.

We start our walk back to our car with the aid of glaring headlights from passing vehicles. The darkening sky stages the obvious metaphor of overwhelming gloom descending on victims of suicide.

“Do you think this will do much good?” Becky wonders aloud.

“Maybe it’ll be like holes in the darkness,” I suggest.

“Pardon?”

“It’s an old sermon illustration from Robert Louis Stevenson,” I explain. “Stevenson spent his childhood in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the 19th century. As a boy, he was intrigued by the lamplighters who used a torch to ignite the streetlights of the town.

“One evening, Robert’s parents asked him what he was gawking at.” With great enthusiasm he exclaimed, “Look at that man! He’s punching holes in the darkness!”

We look back across the bridge. The notes seem to light the span with florescent colors and vibrant messages.

“May God bless our efforts,” I say, “to throw some punches through this darkness.”

Reach Norris Burkes at comment@thechaplain.net, @chaplain or (843) 608-9715.