Thursday, December 1, 2022

From The Archives: The Bungee Jumping Story (1990)

Thirty-two years ago this month I published this story I wrote for The Commuter, the weekly student paper at Linn-Benton Community College, just before I was to transfer to the University of Oregon. It was kind of my swan song at the paper that had been my home base for the first few years of my college career.

My plan had been to write a standard-issue "Look what crazy things people are doing now!" sort of feature on Oregon Bungee Masters, the business that organizes jumping excursions, and its customers. I ended up jumping and writing a first-person account of the experience instead.

The idea originated with Bill Mills. He and I were students together at the college and had started out working on the paper together the same year. And we had both served stints as its Editor. Now in our third year of college, we had both stuck around at LBCC for an additional round of fall term classes before heading off in different directions. Neither of us had formal positions at the paper and yet its office formed our social home base between classes. We'd hang out with friends on the staff and write the occasional story.

That fall, Bill had a case of Bungee fever. I'm not sure what brought it on exactly, but in 1990 Bungee Jumping was having a moment. It was the year that Reebok had staged a jump to launch its Pump brand of basketball shoes. Bill was eager to try it and arranged a trip intending to write a story. Sensing a good writing opportunity, I asked to join. 

Initially, I didn't intend to jump. Bill insisted rather strenuously in a dramatic way that only he could, that I could only join the trip if I agreed to jump. I agreed but kept that decision from my parents, who were understandably freaked out at the prospect of the whole thing. 

Six years after its publication, I submitted this clip with my application to Columbia's Graduation School of Journalism. A member of the admissions committee — one with a reputation for not being easily impressed by applicant submissions — gave it her highest rating, essentially cementing my admission. That means that had I not written this story, my career and life might have been very different.

Bill and I had drifted apart as young people do, and I can't remember seeing him again after the end of the fall term. Years later, he met a tragic end, so I never got to thank him for insisting. -Ed.

A Leap of Faith

By Arik Hesseldahl
Of The Commuter

Forget every definition of fear and sheer terror you’ve ever understood. Forget all the laws of common sense, that tell you not to stand in front of a car going 75 miles per hour, touch a hot burner, or jump off a 175-foot bridge.

When I first became acquainted with Bungee Jumping, I thought it was just another of those crazy California fads that people do for a little hype and 4-minute spots on “PM Magazine.” When the recent Reebok commercial made Bungee jumping more popular, I boasted that I would do it if given the chance, a chance I would never get, not in Oregon anyway. But then we heard about a jump scheduled outside Eugene on Nov. 18, and it was time to put up or shut up.

The site was the Blue River Dam catwalk in Eastern Lane County, 200 or more feet above the ground — no water, just a rocky floor where the water of the McKenzie River used to be.

Casey Dale is the guy in charge. He's the proprietor of Oregon Bungee Masters. I know little about him except what I learned during a phone conversation a few weeks before. The setup is simple. Two harnesses and four bungee cords, each about as thick as my thumb and capable of supporting objects that weigh up to 1,500 lbs. The military uses them to drop jeeps and tanks from planes.

“If you weigh more than a jeep or a tank you probably shouldn’t try this. In fact, if you weigh more than a jeep or a tank, I don’t even want to know you,” Casey says during our short class on how to "fall properly."

There are two methods: The swan dive and the backward fall, also known as the “Elevator to Hell.” The swan dive involves a forward leap out and away from the platform mounted on the catwalk railing. Then count to two and grab onto the shoulder straps to protect your face. It doesn’t seem too difficult, assuming you can count while in freefall. I opt for the backward fall. Start out with hands across your chest on the shoulder straps, and leap away from the platform backward. It’s the safest way to go, and emotionally easier if you don’t like looking down from great heights.

I’m still not completely convinced about the bungee cord. Casey hands me a short piece of the stuff. My companion Chuck Hicks and I play tug-o-war and can barely feel a stretch. The bungee cord will not break. And if one does, there are three more there just like it. I am convinced.

“It’s a real deep emotional reach for most people and they have to find the strength from within themselves,” he says. “When you are ready, start counting down from five and the rest of us will join in from four. That’s all the noise we’ll make.”

We are now ready to jump. A young Oregon State University woman whose friends call her Anderson — I later learn she's on the university's Diving team — is the first to go. She has made a three-jump reservation and doesn’t seem scared at all.

She leaps off from the platform and everyone watches in silence until she starts her count. Off she goes like there was nothing to it as if she was a regular. Everyone wants to know what it's like, she has almost nothing to say.

At the end of each fall, Anderson bounces at the end of the cord like a yo-yo, and we can see her as she swings all the way to the other side of the catwalk. A rope is thrown down. She gets ahold of it and hooks into her harness. About ten fellow jumpers pitch in to help pull her up.

Casey says it’s now my turn.

I leave my glasses with Chuck, and don the goggles attached to the shoulder harness. The four-foot climb to the top of the platform is more difficult than I realized — I’m only four feet higher than before and I’m terrified. My steps to turn around are only centimeters in length. I am not a person typically comfortable with heights, and my movements make that obvious. Every tiny movement of my feet seems likely to cause me to fall before I'm ready. Everyone can see that I am scared past my wits. I will later be told that I sounded like a tired-out dog before the jump and that my color matched that of Caspar the Friendly Ghost with a hangover. This is not my finest hour.

I close my eyes since I can’t see much anyway, and try to find the proper mental state to do this. There isn’t one. My mind is clear, except for the fact that I eventually have to get this over with. My eyes are open, but I don’t really notice, because they have glazed over. All I see is an internal emptiness. I suddenly realize that I might be taking a long time to get off the platform.

I mutter “okay”, presumably to myself, and Casey’s assistant Alex starts the count without me.

"Starting from five,” he says. The rest of the group starts in, and I realize that if these people get to one and I am still on the platform, I am in some kind of trouble, or at least embarrassed. They get to one and my legs make the leap without my permission. I am now out and away from the platform and falling at an ever-increasing rate, and I haven’t yet realized what I have done.

I see the platform, my last link to the real world fall away from me in a direction I had never imagined I would see something fall. This is not reality.

In dreams I’ve had of falling, (you know, the kind we all have when you wake up before you hit and wake to find you’ve fallen out of bed) have all returned here to haunt me. The feeling I had dreamed of was accurate, but only a millionth of the intensity I now feel. I am frightened to a point I had never imagined possible, but I am still in control of myself. I am powerless to stop this fall, so all I can do is wait for the ultimate “trust fall” to end, and I don’t know when I will be caught.

Then it's suddenly over. During the fall, it seemed an eternity. But in the end, it was not far enough. I could actually stand to fall a little further.

There is a misconception that the end of the fall produces a painful bounce effect. True, there is a bounce, but it is not painful, at least not until the next day, when I was a bit sore. I know that I was too occupied to worry about pain, and instead had to deal with the underside of the catwalk it seemed I was about to hit.

Instead, some law of physics prevents me from doing so, and I can now concentrate on getting ahold of the rope Alex will throw down momentarily. My only link with the world above me is the bungee cord, and I don’t want to let go of it. I want only to hold onto something stable.

The rope comes down, I reach for it and hook it into my harness. I still try to hold onto the cord, until it goes slack and the rope starts to pull me back to the real world. I am still scared, but never more alive. I don’t even like roller coasters, and I just fell roughly 200 feet, at a speed between 50 and 70 mph, and had lived to tell about it.

I stay for a few more hours and watch others do spectacular flips with their jumps, and I don’t feel at all envious. I had to find the strength to do this inside, and no one else was able to help me. On that platform was one solitary person who must ultimately make the final decision to go and place a lot of trust in the strands of four 3/4-inch cords.

On the way home down Highway 126, Chuck and I stop at a little place called Ike’s Pizza for lunch. If you’re ever in Leaburg, stop in at this place; the pizza is good and the service is homey.

Bill Bixby used to fish the McKenzie River and left an autographed picture at the place. I want to talk about the jump, but I’m content to just sit and watch football while we eat. I want to calm down and the pizza helps. I’m not yet sure how I feel about the day, but I know I’ll have to do this again.

(Photos by Chuck Hicks.)

Postscript: In fact, I did do it again. 

I went Bungee Jumping a few more times. At the University of Oregon I spent two years as a Resident Assistant in the dorms, and one of the things an RA is expected to do is the vaguely-described role known as "programming." Essentially it meant I was expected to dream up some activities for students. I had kept in touch with Casey Dale and organized two jumping excursions. The first was in the fall of 1991. It was an unauthorized trip back to Blue River Dam, this time at night. Casey said we'd have to "Bungee Bandits."

The second was in the fall of 1992. This time the venue was a private logging bridge in Southwest Washington. A friend who helped me organize it, Robb Williams, and another friend, Jim Mulder, shot some video which we then handed over to a friend of Jim's named David Bess who is now an editor for Walt Disney Animations. He set a fast cut of the jumping action to Johann Strauss's "Die Fledermaus Ouvertuere." An hour or so of raw footage follows after that. 

I ran across the tape with this video on it about 10 years ago and finally had it digitized last year.

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