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The Reluctant Novice

BUNGEE JUMPING : Snapping Back : Falling from a hot-air balloon on the end of a rubber band is one way to improve your attitude about life on the ground.

May 02, 1991

Statistically, you are too young to be having a midlife crisis. But as you pull on your clothes and prepare to head out into the desert for an early morning bungee-cord jump, you wonder what else it could be.

After all, you are a respectable member of society.

A mother of two children.

A member of the PTA.

So what could have possessed you to pay $89 to leap from a hot-air balloon, with only a glorified rubber band between you and the angels?

Part of it, you reflect, must have been the lingering effects of your most recent birthday.

There you were, crying about your crow's feet and pondering the passage of youth, when another mother in your son's day-care center told you about her upcoming bungee adventure.

Cowabungee, the company running it, is reputable, she told you.

They don't do illegal things like jump off bridges while scouts watch for police. They check their equipment regularly.

They've never had a serious injury or death.

The following weekend, she said, she and a group of her Simi Valley co-workers were heading up to Lancaster, where all the jumps take place.

Did you want to come along?

Your brain screamed no. But your mouth said yes.

And for the next few days, friends, family and co-workers listened as you vainly attempted to psychoanalyze why you felt compelled to do this.

You couldn't shake the feeling that a maniac was now driving behind your internal wheel, and you were only along for the ride.

The day arrives. In darkness, you are driving to the spot where a caravan of cars is meeting.

The mother you know from day care is there, along with 12 of her co-workers: a group of pumped-up, high-fiving boys, the oldest of whom you're certain couldn't buy beer without an ID.

You will car-pool in a Honda CRX, driven by a 20-year-old named Jeff.

His friend, who is young enough to be your son, sits beside him. Both say they are "jazzed" about the bungee jump and crank up the stereo.

It occurs to you that you, too, might have been jazzed a few decades before.

Instead, there is a lump in your stomach that feels like yesterday's oatmeal.

The feeling is intensified when a vaguely familiar but unpleasant song blasts out of the speakers behind your ear.

You finally recognize it as a reggae version of Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe," and casually ask Jeff the name of the group.

"UB40," he says, thumping his hand on the wheel.

"I be 35," you shoot back defensively.

After Jeff throws you an odd look, you ride the rest of the way in silence.

The bungee-jumping spot is hard to miss.

In the middle of the desert is a multicolored hot-air balloon, along with three Cowabungee instructors swathed in Ninja headbands.

One, who identifies himself only as "Lucky," gathers your group together and gives a quick speech on the weight capabilities of the bungee cord.

Although they can withstand at least 2,000 pounds and are checked regularly, he says, different cords are used for different jumpers.

A cord made of hundreds of sheathed rubber bands will stretch lower with a heavy man, he explains, than with a light woman.

"This is definitely not the time to lie about your weight," he says.

When Lucky begins separating jumpers into weight categories and points to you, you quickly remember the previous night's chocolate macadamia nuts.

You call out your adjusted weight and instantly have a sense of relief: It's no longer necessary to go up in the balloon.

Now you can just stay on the ground and die of embarrassment.

Then comes the instruction. When you climb out of the balloon onto a small ledge, Lucky says, the group on the ground will count down from five to zero.

You will then leap back, being careful not to throw your arms too far back. That could cause you to somersault, he says, and you don't want that.

You also don't want to grab the bungee cord as you are falling, he adds. That will be a natural instinct that could cost your fingers dearly.

Are there any questions?

"Will someone take me home, please?" you want to ask.

Instead, you fill out a consent form like everyone else, acknowledging that you are of sane mind and agreeing not to sue the company if you die.

The first jumper is already in the sky. When the balloon is several hundred feet in the air, you watch a small figure climb out and hang onto the edge of the basket.

At the sound of "Zero!" from the group, he leaps back and falls through the air. The group holds its collective breath.

Suddenly, the figure--which looks more like a rag doll than a human being--SPROINGS back toward the balloon before bouncing several times at the end of the cord. Finally, the balloon gently lowers the dangling figure to the ground.

"HOOOO!" he yells. "YEAH! WOW! WHAT A RUSH!"

Hands reach out to pat him on the back. The scene is repeated for the next 10 jumpers.

Lucky then points to you.

"Next jumper," he says. Your heart is in your throat. Your knees are shaking.

You climb into the basket and, as it rises, you are certain you can't go through with it.

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