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‘It was a total rush.’ How bungee jumping got started in SLO County

An old legend says land diving began on the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.

A woman was being mistreated by her husband. She would run away, and he would catch her and bring her back.

The last time she ran away, she had a plan, legend says. Climbing the island’s tallest banyan tree, she jumped with a vine around her ankle, breaking her fall. She taunted her husband and he jumped to his death.

This became the backstory for a right-of-passage ritual in which islanders built towers and jumped with carefully measured vines.

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Marilyn Higa dives from a San Luis Obispo County bridge as an intentionally obscured “Mr. Bungee” coaches her in 1991. Bill Schwartz

In 1979, the activity was transplanted to Oxford University in London when the Dangerous Sports Club jumped off the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

By 1991, bungee jumping was a clandestine activity carried out at midnight from an undisclosed San Luis Obispo County location.

By the next year, it was an officially sanctioned event as people jumped out of a cage suspended from a 150-foot crane at the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles.

Freelance writer Eric Schaefer wrote about his experience bungee jumping with his F. McClintocks Saloon & Dining House coworkers for the then Telegram-Tribune on Dec. 5, 1991.

Bungee: Going off the deep end

Leaping, but hopefully not to a conclusion

It’s a beautiful fall evening and eight adults are gathered at an area bridge to experience something most never will.

No, they’re not going to stargaze. Nor are they going to drink beer and joke about the good life.

They’re preparing to jump off a perfectly well-built bridge with nothing more than a couple of bungee cords to keep them alive. They’re completely sober and coherent.

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Russ Richardson of Coalinga takes a leap of faith from the World Bungee tower at the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles in August 1992. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

“I really wanted to do this,” said Sabina Quezada, a 19-year-old waitress and student, a week after she jumped and lived to tell her story. “The thrill of feeling total freedom and the anxiety rush is unbelievable.

“I didn’t tell my parents I was going to do this,” she said. “I told them I was going to the movies.”

These thrill-seekers don’t have an overabundance of hormones, nor are they doing this on a bet. They all work at F. McLintocks restaurant. They’re busboys, waiters, bartenders, office staff, management — even a co-owner.

Somehow this thrill-seeking fad has caught those of widely varying backgrounds.

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Take Tunny Ortali, co-owner of F. McLintocks saloon and dining house.

Why would a 45-year-old, health-oriented millionaire with a wife and kids want to risk everything? Was it that his wife may have said in the heat of a squabble: “Go jump off a bridge, Tunny!”?

“I wanted to go just for the excitement of it all,” he said after he’d jumped twice and was preparing to go again. “I’ve done a lot of wild and crazy things, such as sky diving and riding pro rodeo, but this beats it all as far as the adrenaline rush.

“Jumping off the bridge is totally mental.”

(Some would say it’s a total lack of anything mental that causes bungee jumping.)

And in answer to the question: “My wife knows I’m crazy. Even if she didn’t want me to jump, she knows I probably would anyway.”

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Heeding bungee instructor Gary Hinton’s advice to “Don’t think, just jump,” Skip Kale of Bakersfield takes a flying leap downward from the World Bungee tower at the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles in August 1992. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Marilyn Higa, 25-year-old Cal Poly student who waits tables at McLintocks, also took the leap.

“For me it was peer pressure,” she said the morning after. “I just went to watch, but got talked into it after 20 minutes of peer pressure.

“When I jumped off, I kept trying to grab something in the air to climb back up. I still haven’t told my parents yet. My brother couldn’t believe it and my boyfriend wasn’t happy about it.”

Not only can you jump off the bridge, you have choices of how you want to go:

• There’s the old-fashion swan dive where you go head-first and pretend you’re diving into a pool. Only this is a pool of emptiness, and at night almost complete darkness except for the light of the man on the moon who seems to be laughing at you.

• The Lipton Ice Tea plunge is where you fall off the beam backward and watch the bridge and your fellow bungee jumpers get smaller and smaller. You never see the ground coming, only the bridge leaving.

• And the dreaded toe-drop where you get yourself into a position where your hanging upside down off the bridge with someone standing on the bottoms of your feet. When the person steps off of your feet, you dive to the bottom like a missile out of control.

Bill Smalley, a 34-year-old McLintocks manager, was another who took the leap. Why, Bill, Why?

“I overheard a conversation about it, then someone asked me if I wanted to go,” said Smally. “I instinctively said yes. I didn’t want to be called a chicken.

“I was on that bridge, out of my mind, thinking of how I could get out of doing it when five people jumped. Someone said it was my turn.

“I don’t remember that much about it, but it was a total rush. I’ve been back three times now and have loved every moment of it.”

None of the McLintocks’ jumping contingent are professional thrill-seekers. For the most part, they’re ordinary people who are all hyper, ambitions, and well-educated. More than 20 have linked up with jump impresario “Mr. Bungee,” who earns a tidy income from offering trips into oblivion.

He agreed to cooperate for this story on the condition that his name and picture aren’t used and that the location of the bridge isn’t mentioned.

Another of the McLintocks jumpers is Craig Habernehl, a young, good-looking guy who isn’t old enough to buy beer. Why jump off a bridge when you cant even tell the story in a bar?

“I wanted to do it for the experience of it and the excitement,” said Havbernehl, 20. “The wildest thing I had ever done before is jump off the Avila Beach pier.”

Was he afraid? “Terrified,” he confesses. “My parents told me to call after I got back alive, and not let them know I was going.”

And how was it? The only thing I could think about on the way down was hoping the bungee bounced back, and it did.

“I would recommend this to people who have a lot of guts,” he added.

Bar manager Jim Lemon doesn’t remember many details from his first jump. “When I jumped, I froze and everything went blank,” said the 30-year-old. He has since been back again — evidence he thaws real fast.

Alan Pruitt, 21, is McLintocks’ new floor manager. “I wanted to do it for a long time,” he said. “Then when I was there at the bridge, I asked myself ‘Why?’”

Whatever the answer, it must have been the right one: Pruitt’s been back three times and performs all the hair-raising, if not graying, jumps with pure confidence.

All agree on the fine points of bungee jumping. Check out the person who organizes the jumps, and his or her references. Make sure the equipment is up-to-date and head the other way if it looks makeshift. Ask questions and see that the person really knows about the bridge, and the mechanics involved. Some math is necessary in choosing the proper bungee cords for the jumper’s weight and for the height of the bridge.

And don’t forget, bungee jumping is only legal when it’s done from bridges that aren’t posted with signs prohibiting such things.

The old adage really applies here: Look before you leap.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp
Visit www.sanluisobispo.com/photos-from-the-vault to see old photos and read selected archives.
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