The day I did my first bungee jumps, I was sitting with the crazy Kockelman brothers, trying to describe the fright that had ambushed me as I stood looking down, thinking about the swan dive I was supposed to make from the rail of a 110-foot bridge somewhere in the Sierras. You'd think by now I'd know better than to go taming the tiger Chuckles before I had my head all the way down its throat, but I just hadn't expected this particular foolishness to scare me as much as it finally did.
John, the older of the brothers, the founding demento behind the only commercial bungee-jumping operation in the country, sat there smiling and nodding as I told my story. "Fear of heights is a very primitive thing,' he said. "It's in our genetics back to prehistoric times. People who. didn't fear heights aren't in the gene pool anymore."
Perhaps not, I thought. But when you consider that more than 4000 people have paid Bungee Adventures for a chance to jump from a fatal height on the end of a big rubber band, you have to allow that somewhere along the genetic track, more than a few harebrained chromosomes have slipped through.
Including mine, I guess. I've always been curious about what it would feel like to take a death fall. Mildly courious, anyway. The actual impact doesn't interest me at all, which made bungee jumping seem almost perfect: a chance to drum up the rush that probably goes with a suicidal plunge except that you're attached to a piece of technology that says "Just kidding" at the last moment.
I headed for the mountains on a hot summer Sunday under instructions to keep the location of the bridge secret. "Because," read the flier I'd been sent, "bungee jumping is not an officially sanctioned sport." In fact, it has been something of an outlaw sport and has been since April Fools' Day of 979 when a posse of tuxedo-wearing champagne-drinking yo-yos who call themselves the Dangerous Sports Club of Oxford, England, jumped from the Clifton Bridge in Bristol. Because they didn't expect that anyone who owned a bridge would give them permission to bounce and dangle from it, they didn't ask and were arrested. Since then, most bungee jumping has been done by small groups using guerrilla tactics. Except in France, where it has become something of a craze in the past couple of seasons. According to the Club Elastique de France, 9000 people bungee-jumped in the first six months of 989, and they had expected another 5,000 to try it by the end of that summer: As it turned out, the French government temporarily banned the sport in July 989 after ' three people were killed, one off a bridge, two in jumps from the tops of cranes.
I drove the last seven miles to The Bridge at None of Your Business in calm spirits, over leprous and winding pavement, through a parched, oaky river gorge. I caught sight of the long concrete span from a distance and heard myself thinking, That's gotta be more than 100 feet, though you'd think by now I'd know that 100 feet as you sit in your chair imagining it becomes 100 meters when you actually look it in the face to climb or to jump it. I parked next to a bullet-peppered sign that read, NO JUMPING OR DIVING FROM THE BRIDGE!
The first thing I heard as I climbed out of my car was a scream. Eight or ten people at the far end of the bridge were leaning out over the railing, and as I looked, a body reached the top of a giant pendulum at my end, then made a huge, screeching arc back to the far end, then to me again, and back, until on a final swing over the riverbank, he undid the brake on his rope and rappelled onto dry land at the edge of the fast, shallow stream.
Just for a minute, I thought these were the bungee jumpers, though it didn't look right. They were using a climbing rope, not a bungee cord, and instead of jumping, they were stepping off the way Tarzan stepped off branches-into 60- and 70-foot sweeps. When I asked, the man who was tending their rigging told me the bungee jumpers had been there in the morning and would be back in about half an hour He said that his group was just a bunch of free-lance thrillheads, cavers and climbers who'd brought their wives and children out for an inexpensive adrenaline fix.
"You going to jump on the bungees?" he asked me. He was wearing a Marine Corps T-shirt over a beer belly, and when told him yes, he said, "Shit. You won't catch me on one of those things. I've rappelled down cliffs, I've jumped out of helicopters, but you couldn't make me jump a bungee. I don't trust those mother-fuckers."
It was a little like listening to a newt call a sea slug ugly, I thought, as we watched a man step from the end of the bridge with his three-year-old daughter harnessed to his chest. She had a playground smile on her face as the two of them reached the top of their first swing just below me. Her sunny blonde hair stood straight out behind her little head.
Other cars pulled onto the bridge and parked. The people who got out and began milling around were young, dressed in shorts, jeans, sweat clothes. When the Bungee Adventures van parked near the middle of the upstream railing, 11 of us, including two women, gathered around the rear doors as the jump masters unloaded the gear: bungees, harnesses, carabiners, an A frame made of heavy pipe with a pulley system attached to it. When they'd bolted the frame to the bridge railing, they handed out the release forms. I never read them anymore. I just skip to the bottom line and I sign my name, because I don't need the lecture from the lawyers that reads, "This is deeply stupid of you, and if something goes wrong, you might as well show your insurance card to the turkey vultures."
" My name's Roger," said a thin young man with a shy smile and a thousand freckles. "Bungee Adventures has been in business since May of 988 and we've done several thousand jumps. You'll be jumping on three military-spec bungee cords." He held them up for us to see. They were banded together like television cables. "Each of the cords is made of three hundred sixty-five strands of rubber, surrounded by a nylon sheath that is stronger than the strands themselves. They're forty-five feet long and they'll stretch to about ninety feet. Each cord has a breaking point of about fifteen hundred pounds, and since everybody is going to be jumping on at least three cords, that's forty-five hundred pounds of static breaking strength. Everything is redundant, including two harnesses, three carabiners and two anchors into the bridge, each rated at twenty thousand pounds."
He pulled on the anchor frame and gave us a reassuring smile. "Nothing's ever broken," he said, which is what all of us wanted to heal: Then he added, "The only time anything's ever broken is when John did a body dip off the Golden Gate Bridge with two old cords and they both snapped. They didn't break all the way through. The nylon sheath held. Saved his life."
I stood there, looking down the 100 feet between me and the water, thinking, The Golden Gate Bridge? A body dip from 267 feet into the San Francisco Bay? Who are these guys?
I met them at lunch the next day: John, dark hair, 30 years old, clean and studious in his horn-rimmed glasses, looking more like the lawyer who had written the liability release than the man who had thought up the edgy enterprise, and Peter, three years younger, with his Huck Finn face and short, weedy blond hair. The two of them had grown up in Palo Alto. Summers, they rock-climbed in Yosemite and on their way home from one of those trips, they spotted a high bridge and decided it would be fun to rappel down from it and then Jumar back up. It was while he hung below the bridge at the limit of his rope that John had what he calls a vision: He saw himself bungee-cording off the thing.
"I could picture it in my mind," he told me. "I have a funny brain"- brothel- Peter rolled his eyes and nodded his head-"and when I picture something that really turns me on, it becomes an obsession."
There were no books on bungee jumping, no magazine articles. All John knew about the sport was a segment he'd seen eight years before on the television show That's Incredible! which featured the Dangerous Sports Club. So he started from scratch. He ordered 100 feet of bungee from a West German military supplier, then used his rock-climbing equipment to design a harness system and his degree in computer engineering to calculate the physics of stretch and rebound. He worked the bugs out by jumping off a baseball backstop at a local junior high.
Peter was working for an aerospace company in Los Angeles. "I got this call from John, saying, 'Hey, man, we're going to jump off a bridge,' and I just started sweating bullets, because I know some of the stupid things he's done in his lifetime. Once, when he was ten years old, he jumped over eight garbage cans on his BMX bike and cleared them by another eight, so he could have jumped over sixteen."
They took their best friends along on the first jump. Seven of them arrived at the 50-foot columns, strapped themselves in and slept. In the morning, John rappelled to the end of the bungee and bounced in place. Then he climbed halfway to the top of the bridge and dropped. Then to the top. "It was a hormone cocktail of terror and exhilaration" he says. The others followed while Peter filmed.
"The last guy to go weighed two hundred pounds," said Peter, "and I was sure the bungee had been stretched and was going to break. It didn't, but it was intense, like being a spider and dropping into the Grand Canyon on a web."
From then on, they did it once a month, just for fun, and as they became comfortable with the equipment, John's visions became grander, loonier. They jumped from cranes, harnessed two people together for Siamese drops, dived from the Golden Gate on cords so long that their bodies went into the water up to the waist before the first rebound: "Like a toilet plunger getting slammed in and sucked out," said John.
"But our best jump," he said, "was the Bear Hug. We wanted to do something extreme." Peter was shaking his head again. "It was actually a combination of two other jumps," said John. "The first is called the Pendulum, where you anchor the bungees on one side of the bridge, run them underneath and jump off the other side so that you get a swing big enough to keep you from hitting the bridge on the rebound. That technique let us get into what we call the Acme Sandbag Jump. On that one, you hold a fifty-pound sandbag on the way down so that you load the cords with extra stretch. You drop the bag at the bottom like pulling a trigger-then rebound to a point that's actually higher than the bridge. The idea of the Bear Hug was to use Peter as a human sandbag.
"John, came up with the idea about two months before we actually did it," said Peter, "and I just laughed and said, 'Yeah, that would be a pretty wild move,' thinking it would never come to fruition. I should have known better, because everything John talks about actually happens. We decided to use a hundred-foot bridge in the mountains. There was about ten feet of water in the river, heavy volume, people rafting."
"The plan was that I would hook into the bungees," said John, "get behind Peter and put him in a bear hug. He would be hanging on to the rail, hooked into nothing. . . zero."
"So John jumped with one sandbag first, as a test, and I was really hoping that he'd come back up, hit the bridge and be hurt so that I wouldn't have to do it," Peter said, smiling. "When the one sandbag jump was successful, my heart dropped. Then two sandbags worked and I knew that I was going to have to do it. It was a strange feeling. I weigh one hundred and fifty-pounds that's like three sandbags. We had it calculated as best we could, but we didn't know how hard we were going to hit the water, if maybe I'm going to be plastered on the bottom and get knocked out. Or maybe we don't even reach the water, which means no energy would be dissipated and John goes straight back up and hits the bridge."
"So Pete's hanging on to the rail, and I'm behind him with my entire being focused on my hands and my grip...."
"And I'm trusting John's grip, completely. You talk about being high on life . . . to know that you could die, but you probably won't, but you don't know it. People were filming, so I just kind of got my Kodak courage together, told myself, You're going to do this, so why freak yourself out? Everything melted away, I let go and the bridge just disappeared."
"We dropped like a ton of bricks and when the cord kicked in, I could feel the g force trying to tear Pete out of my arms, because at that point, his weight was doubled. It was like trying to hold a baby in a car accident. We hit the river and I rolled and twisted and when I let go, I was ripped out of the water, completely out of control, and I could see the bridge just flying at me until I sailed like a rag doll eight feet above it. Saw all my buddies on the bridge. It was the most intense endorphin rush I'd had in my entire life. A dream move."
"I just remember slamming into the river on my back," said Peter, "and going deeper and deeper, till I was about a foot from the bottom. Then the water sucked me through the channel and I swam to shore. It was the most glorious moment in my life."
The brothers smiled at each other, proud of themselves all over again.
For the rest of the lunch, the Kockelmans talked about starting their business, about the risk that that had amounted to. When John had proposed the idea, Peter had told him he'd better not use the family name. As safe as he knew their system to be, he was sure that they would be sued. They haven't been. In fact, of the several thousand jumps, the worst mishap has been a dislocated shoulder of a man who suffered the injury several times before.
"We can't guarantee that you won't get a little abused, slapped around by the cord, that sort of thing," said Peter. "But we don't want to water it down. I mean, we could make people wear helmets, gloves, leathers, we could put them in a cage. But we want to let them out there on their own as far as we safely can. In a way, we re unique. We offer people something that the rest of the world in these times of torts and liability and litigation doesn't."
"We don't want to turn it into something you could get at Great America," said John. "As it is, it's you making a conscious effort to leap off that bridge or out of a hot-air balloon, which is the way we do it these days. Either way, though, It's you and how you deal with fear."
I stood with one hand on the bridge railing, dealing with my fear, listening to Roger's prejump briefing. "We're going to give you a countdown from five. You're going to go headfirst." I looked down at the river below where it squeezed between two boulders into a short slash of white water. I listened for mumbling of the rapids, and when I realized that it was too far below for the sound to make the reach, the whole picture took on the quality of something seen through binoculars.
"Jump as far away from the bridge as you can," said Roger. "That way, the harness will automatically rotate you in- to the seated position. And keep your hands away from everything. You're going to be pulling about three "g"s down at the bottom, and your first rebound is going to be about seventy-five percent of your original distance, so you don't want your hand stuck in your harness. We had one guy who got disoriented at the top of his first bounce, grabbed the bungee and slid all the way down, took the skin off his hands." He asked if there were any questions, then added a final admonition. "Oh . . . and for the guys . . . you gotta make sure the harness is out of the way of the old crotch."
There was some chuckling, but not from me. My old crotch had paid the harness tax some years before on a sky dive, an electric moment that wasn't that funny.
"Lance is going to show you how to do the swan dive," said Roger as a young blond kid with the muscles of a gymnast stepped up to be rigged. Roger clipped the long triple bungee to a carabiner that hung from the harness just over Lance's belly button. When he held it out for us to see, it looked like he was holding a baby by the umbilical cord. Lance stepped over the rail and the group chanted the countdown. At zero, he sprang into a pretty Acapulco swan, then dropped away. He was still belly down, arms out, when he reached the limit of the bungee's stretch, where he flipped violently and was heaved back toward us at terrific speed. We lost sight of him under the bridge, then saw him take the second drop and second rebound, which he embellished with a flip and a couple of twists. He bounced twice more, put a gung-ho yell into the air, then swung to a stop. Roger lowered the climbing rope, Lance clipped into it, and then the whole group grabbed the rope and pulled like a mule train till we had him back on the bridge.
Nothing to it, I thought. Except maybe for that quick flip at the bottom, where it looked as if he'd been slapped across the face with the bungee. But the next jumper, a woman named Cathy who was making her 7th jump, had a better time of it at the bottom. She let her swan dive rotate just enough so that she was on her back and clear of the cord as she began the return trip. I ran to the other side of the bridge and craned over just in time to see her at the top of her first rebound in the sort of weightless split second that Wile E. Coyote has just before he crashes to the desert floor in the Road Runner cartoons.
Five jumpers followed Cathy. Some of them screamed at the bottom, some of them screamed at the top, but they all climbed back onto the bridge wearing big, breathless smiles.
Roger read my eyes as he hooked me in. I stood there smiling, trying to look casual, wondering why you never get any better at fear, no matter how much you practice it. I climbed over the rail, looked out into the big empty and suffered the voice inside that always takes you aside at the last second and says something like, "You know you could die, but you probably won't, but you don't know if...."
When the countdown hit "go," I flew into a tense swan, then fell through a zone of pure animal fear so intense that I went blind. I don't know whether I actually closed my eyes or if maybe some deeper set of lids snapped shut on me, but the next thing I saw was the river moving away from me at high speed. There was no snap in the elastic turnaround; just a smooth, heavy slow-down, then-zang-I was on my way feet first, back up toward the bridge. I cartwheeled through the weightless zenith, then gravity got me back and I took the second drop out of shape and out of control, so that the bungee smacked me in the forehead at the bottom. I spent the next two bounces fending off the cord with my hands exactly as I'd been told not to. When the thrashing finally stopped, I hugged the bungee, then dangled in the feeling that I had just awakened from one of those violent dreams that take your poor sleeping mind through six kinds of hell but somehow leave your body alone.
Back on the bridge, I walked my adrenaline shakes into a warm, drowsy endorphin buzz that lasted till Roger took me aside and offered me an extra jump. The rest of the group were going to get two. He thought-since I was the man from Playboy who'd done all kinds of crazy damn things-that I might like a bonus, third jump, a chance to do something fancy.
No thanks, two jumps will be just fine, I thought. "Sure, why not?" said the man from Playboy, the man who's made a career writing checks with his mouth that I have to cash with my ass.
The others took their turns flinging themselves backward the railing. Watching them fall away belly-up, I could see the fear on their faces all the way down. When they were safe on the bridge, most of them said it had been harder to let go of the rail with their backs to the void.
For me, it was pretty much the same as the swan dive; the stupefying rush in the free-fall seconds, the fierce trigger moment at the turnaround, the eerie weightlessness at the top. The difference came at the bottom of the second drop, where the old crotch took a hit that felt as if it had been delivered by a huge snapping animal.
When everyone had taken a second jump, Roger said, "Maybe instead of a flip, we ought to have you do a bat drop."
I had no idea what a bat drop was, but it sounded better than spinning backward into the abyss and I said, "Fine." He explained it to me, and a minute later, I climbed out onto the frame. I made a monkey-bar move that got my feet above my head, then felt Roger grab my ankles and hook them over the pipe so that I could hang headfirst, arms straight down, an arrow pointing to the water. I felt the grip on my ankles loosen through the countdown, then release, and I took off like a stooping hawk. I saw the water coming and was sure I was going in. As it was, I stopped about five feet short, and this thee, because there was no pendulum effect, I exploded straight up, into the shadow of the superstructure, into the coils of floating slack that waited for me exactly at the top of the rebound. And there, in the still of the weightless moment, the cord threw a nice tight loop around my neck, and I took my second drop, 80 feet, in which there was plenty of time to think about death but not enough to do anything about it. Fortunately, the noose had chicken-winged my left arm in with my neck, so that when I hit bottom, the strangling I got was less than professional. The cord choked me off for a second, smacked me hard across the face, raked my trapped arm, then loosened on the second rebound, enough so that I was able to grab it with my right hand, throw the noose off my neck and fall again. I hit bottom hard on the next two bounces, but I was so happy to be hanging by my harness instead of by my neck that the whipping I took from the cord seemed merciful: a little tar, a few feathers compared to a lynching.