By Keith Estabrook
I know I was destined to try the stupidest stunt of my life when I saw the flyer on the wall at the Sidelines: "Bungee jumpers - the elevator to Hell leaves December 23!"
Ooh, count me in!
As a member of the bored suburban youth growing up in Southern California, I was always looking for the next stupid thrill that would prompt my more laid-back friends and acquaintances to question my sanity. It's not that I'm crazy. I just crave the adrenaline rush that accompanies walking the edge.
It was a mindset that would lead me to do things like climb and ride an operating oil pump, sit in the middle of the landing lights at Los Angeles International Airport and float naked down the Colorado River in an inner tube on the busiest holiday weekend of the year.
As a child, the point was made time and time again that just because other people did things didn't mean I had to do them. We've all heard mom's favorite rhetorical question: "If your friends jumped off a cliff, you wouldn't jump too, would you?"
No mom, I wouldn't. But I might follow them off a bridge.
I called the number on the flyer and spoke with Roger Eckart. He told me he had been jumping since last summer with no problems and that I should expect the most stark primal terror I would ever experience in my life. So it was with great anticipation and a little fear that I awaited the appointed date; anticipation of the scariest rush of my 28 years and fear that if something did happen I might ruin my family's Christmas.
The December jump was canceled for a lack of participants, with Eckart telling me it would be rescheduled at the earliest possible date after the students returned to school. The message I was waiting for was on the answering machine Feb. 20.
"We're meeting on the 24th at 10 a.m. at Salyer Store; don't go asking a bunch of people where the bungee jumps are," Eckart said.
Oh Keith, you really stepped in it this time.
Because previous thrill-seeking had led to the temporary loss of my driving privileges, my friend Garth Merrill drove me to the jump site. He echoed my CO-workers collective opinion that I was out of my mind, but said he would be happy to watch such an incredibly silly thing from the bridge.
"If I biff it off the bridge you can have all the furniture excepts the TV, which is for Katie," I said.
No less than 45 people assembled at the orientation site a couple miles east of Salyer Store. Across the highway sat two glorious, shiny new concrete bridges, not yet open to traffic and seemingly higher above the drought-shallow Trinity River than any bridge had a right to be.
Keith, you really, really stepped in it this time.
We met Casey Dale, our fearless leader and proprietor of Oregon Bungee Masters. Dale sported a tuxedo sans jacket and spoke in a theatrical voice that dripped of Shakespeare.
Eckart passed around consent forms that nobody read before signing. I didn't, at least. I was there to jump off a bridge, not think.
Dale, who has had a commercial jump organization for about a year-and-a-half, gave us a brief history of the sport. He told of the first bungee jumper, a woman fleeing an abusive husband who jumped off a cliff with a vine attached to her ankle and lived to see another day. He also told of the Freak Brothers, five guys who belonged to the original Dangerous Sports Club of Oxford, England in the 1970's.
"The Freak Brothers would dress in tuxedos, drink champagne and jump from the highest places they could find," Dale told us. "In fact, in the early '70's they set a world record jumping 1,100 feet off the bridge at Royal Gorge in Colorado with 500-foot bungees."
Ah hah, that explains the monkey suit.
After the orientation, Dale traded the jumpers' deposit checks for cash, $75 for one jump or $99 for two, though today was a bonus day - pay for two, get three.
"You're making more money than God," said Curtis Vernon, who came from McKinleyville with his girlfriend, a Corvette and a cooler full of Silver Bullets.
"CDVF - Casey Dale Vacation Fund," Dale joked.
The group crossed the highway to the bridge for a little jump school. Dale explained the different ways to leave the bridge and showed us how to attach the seat and chest harnesses that would hopefully keep us from meeting the river bed.
"OK guys you want to make sure these are tight," Dale warned. "If you don't, the Vienna Boys Choir will be looking for you."
Since I can't carry a tune to save my life, I made damn sure my harnesses were tight. So tight, in fact, that Dale couldn't get the cord hooked up and had to completely redo them. Great, the only geek in the group who has to get help has got to be me. Reaaaal cool!
Dale urged the group to cut each other slack when it was time to jump. "Let each jumper decide for themselves when to jump. The only coercion we will allow is a countdown. It usually works - we haven't had to use cattle prods yet."
Eckart and Dale fastened the gear to the side of the bridge and we were ready. Dale hooked himself up to the bungee, made up of four separate three-quarter-inch-thick military-spec bungee cords capable of holding 1,500 pounds each, and climbed to the top of the concrete side railing of the bridge. The students started to count:
"Five, four. . ." and Dale executed a perfect Greg Louganis swan dive on the count of one.
Glad I brought an extra pair of pants.
Dale bounced around, and up, and down for what seemed like forever, then clipped on the return line and yelled that he was ready to be pulled up. Time and again I watched those ahead of me go over the side while I waited my turn. There was no way for me to back out of it, even though Dale offered a 100 percent refund to anyone who wanted to clock out. I had shot my mouth off too many times at work about how I couldn't wait to do this bungee thing.
Then it was my turn. I had three jumps available, but as I stood looking at the four feet of water in the river 140 feet below I started to think that one might suffice. I had to jump, but there was no way in hell they could force me to watch. I did the only thing I could do and still retain the few shards of cool I had left after the harness fiasco.
I turned around, faced everyone, and just leaned backward.
A good writer is supposed to make the readers see and feel, in their minds, what the writer experienced miles away.
Yeah, right! Words can't do justice to the terror that raced through my mind. The sensation of falling was just like it is in a bad dream. Despite an extreme desire to scream like a woman in a bad B-movie, I found myself powerless to emit even a peep because my stomach was blocking my vocal cords.
I've been to court for speeds slower than that I was falling at. Then someone repealed the laws of gravity without telling me and I shot back up even faster than I had gone down. Toward the bridge I zipped, ever upward until I got to the apex of the rebound and a very curious thing happened.
At the top of the arch was a point where I was going neither up nor down. I actually had time to look around and think about just what it was that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid yelled as they jumped over the cliff into the river rather than face the posse behind them. Then I was gone, with my stomach trailing me by five feet.
After bouncing a few more times, I took stock of my situation: I still have my breakfast and I don't need the other pair of pants. I don't need to do this again.
"Once is enough!" I yelled up at the bridge. Then I went up, turned around and caught another ride on the elevator to hell.
Anyone know where I can go skydiving?
Oregon Bungee Masters jumps almost every weekend in the Eugene area and will be back in this area in April. You can arrange the scare of your life by contacting Roger Eckart at (503)255-7908 or Casey Dale at (503)520-0303.