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We still can’t get back to Australia because of Wuhan Flu quarantine rules, but that doesn’t mean we can’t visit via the Wayback Machine.
Let’s begin this amateur psychiatric session with an admission: I am terrified of heights. Far as I know, it’s my only irrational fear.
Many years ago, while on a driving trip through New Zealand, my girlfriend and I stopped along the side of the road because we saw lunatics jumping off the old Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge just east of Queenstown. The bridge stood about 150 feet above the river. After a few minutes of watching this spectacle from the side of the road, we circled back to the adjacent parking lot and walked out onto the bridge to get a closer view of the complete lunatics who were willing not just to jump off the bridge, but to pay a pretty penny for the privilege.
Insane, I thought. Why would anyone jump off a bridge? Yet we stood there completely transfixed. Every time someone took a leap, my stomach also took a leap. I didn’t even like standing on the bridge looking down and absolutely could not imagine tying flexible cords to my ankles and stepping off the edge of that rickety platform.
Flash forward to 1991. I had saved up several years of unused vacation time and took off for six weeks in Cairns, Queensland up on Australia’s tropical northeast coast, nuzzled up against the famous Great Barrier Reef.
A few miles north of Cairns, just off Highway 1, was a huge sign that said “BUNGY JUMPING” with an arrow that pointed into the rainforest. I pulled into the parking lot and walked a few hundred feet through the rainforest to the base of an immense arch built specifically for bungy jumping tourists. It looked like a steampunk version of the St Louis Arch, but was tall enough that its peak jutted up above the rainforest canopy.
From an observation deck at the floor of the rainforest, I again watched the spectacle of lunatics jumping off the platform at the top of the arch, plummeting down toward a large pond, reaching the end of the cord, and then gently bouncing back up and down until they finally came to a stop, at which point they were lowered downward by the workers at the top of the arch, and helped into a boat sitting in the pond.
I never considered jumping. The mere thought of standing at the top of that arch and looking down was enough to terrify me.
Over the course of the next five weeks, I stopped in to watch these lunatics several more times and then at the beginning of my final week of vacation I thought It’s time for me to conquer my irrational fear of heights. I need to do this.
The next morning I stopped to watch again. But I could not will myself to take any action.
The following morning I attempted to climb the tower to the upper observation deck, but only got about halfway up before fear took over and I had to cling to the railing to descend back to the floor of the rainforest.
The third morning I tried again and finally got all the way up to the observation deck.
The fourth morning I once again got to the observation deck and this time I stayed longer, watching daredevils take their leaps. I forced myself to spend some time speaking to the guys whose job was tying the bungy cords to the jumpers ankles and giving them instructions on how to jump. They were an outgoing bunch of guys and assured me that bungy jumping was fun and easy and that none of their customers had ever been injured.
“You should try it,” one of them insisted.
“Now,” said another.
“Tomorrow,” I responded. “I’ll come back tomorrow and do it.” I just wasn’t ready.
The next morning I told myself This is it. I’m flying home to America tomorrow and this is my last chance to overcome my fears. I drove to the bungy jumping arch, parked my car and walked up to the outdoor counter where the company’s clerks collected the jumpers’ money and helped them fill out the necessary paperwork.
All jumpers were required to fill out a detailed ID form, not so much for safety but so that the company could match the jumper with the action photos it included in the package price. The bored young woman at the counter was filling it out my form and the conversation went something like this:
“Color of shorts?”
“Color of shirt?”
“Too late,” she said dryly. “I already wrote gray.”
Bitch. My hair was obviously the same reddish brown it had been since the day I was born. Thanks to her I hadn’t even made it to the first step of the tower and my day had already been ruined.
Paperwork completed and ego completely crushed, I climbed the tower with confidence. I got to the top of the platform, looked around and thought, What the hell was I so worried about? Piece of cake. No problem. No sweat. I can do this.
Want proof? Just look at the photo below. You can see the confidence radiating from every pore of my being, can you not? My face is painted with a cocky smirk. I am invincible.
There were probably a dozen people in line in front of me. One at a time they jumped and I crept closer and closer to jumping platform. Finally it was my turn.
“This is easy,” the young instructor told me. “We have your ankles secured. I want you to step out on the edge of the platform. I’m going to count ‘One! Two! Three! Jump’ and you jump when I say the word. I want you to dive straight out toward the island out there on the horizon. Just one rule: Keep your eyes on that island and do not look down.”
Being the moron I am, I completely disregarded his simple instructions. I stepped out to the edge of the platform and immediately looked straight down into the depths of hell. My testicles did a perfect impression of the French army and went into an immediate, rapid retreat. I was terrified.
“One! Two! Three! Jump!” he hollered. My body swayed outward, but my feet stayed planted on the platform and my hands never left the railing. I didn’t jump.
The instructor laughed. “Let’s try that again,” he patiently instructed. “You jump when I say the word jump. One! Two! Three! Jump!”
Again my feet and hands declined to cooperate. I stood anchored to be tower.
The instructor sighed heavily. I could tell he was very disappointed in me.
“Do you speak any other languages,” he asked.
“A little Spanish,” I said shakily.
“Then let’s try it in Spanish this time. Ready? Uno! Dos! Tres! Hump!”
I laughed but I didn’t budge.
He looked me straight in the eye and attempted to reassure me. “You have nothing to worry about. We’ve never had anyone get hurt. You can do this.” He stepped away and bellowed, “One! Two! Three! Jump.”
I was frozen in place. Completely immobile.
The instructor had clearly had his fill of my cowardice. He came over to my side, put his arm around my shoulder, leaned in closely, and spoke quietly enough that no one else would hear his words. “Hey, buddy,” he said with a bit of disgust in his voice, “Look at all the people in line behind you. Do you see the old ladies? The little girls? They’re all going to step out here and jump off this platform with no problems. Do you really want to embarrass yourself in front of all these people?”
“Now I’m going to count to three and say jump,” he said in a near whisper. “And when I say jump you’re going to jump off that platform. Understand?”
The son of a bitch was a master psychologist. He’d tried all his tricks and finally figured out that I would have no choice if he merely challenged my masculinity.
“One! Two! Three! Jump!”
As I recall from my dismal experience in high school physics, acceleration is equal to 9.8 meters per second squared. Or something like that. In other words, you go much faster every second that you’re falling than you did in the previous second.
I have a similar, self-devised formula: Terror is also equal to meters per second squared — which means the farther you fall and the closer you get to the ground, the scarier it becomes. You are absolutely convinced the bungy cord attached to your ankles will fail and that you will crash into the ground and die a horrible, bloody, disfiguring death.
Except that didn’t happen. After a couple seconds of sheer terror, I reached the end of the cord, it held, and I began decelerating. And then almost magically, I was able to slap the surface of the water before I began rising back up toward the platform. Gravity is a miraculous thing. It slowed everything down and each bounce was less pronounced than the prior one. It was all over before I knew it and I found myself being lowered into a boat sitting in the pond below.
I felt like Superman. All the fears and doubts that left me frozen atop the platform were immediately replaced by an incredible exhilaration. I could have done it again immediately. I wanted to do it again immediately. I couldn’t wait for that little boat to get me back to shore so I could rush to the check-in desk and get my photos, the ones that would show the world how bravely I had conquered my fears.
I looked at the photo immediately above and beamed. What a freakin’ stud, I thought to myself. Look at that remarkable, perfect form. If this were Olympic gymnastics, the judges would surely cheer and whistle and give perfect 10 scores for my Iron Cross formation.
And then I noticed one horrifying detail — my butt. The photo clearly demonstrated that far from being unafraid, I was so damn scared that I had puckered up and sucked my shorts right up my anal cavity.
I am pathetic. Absolutely pathetic. And now you have photographic evidence.