This is a true story. Embellishing was not necessary. The names have been changed to protect the not so innocent.
It was the mid-1980s and somewhat modern BASE-specific containers were being developed by a very few riggers and jumpers, myself included, but no BASE-specific canopies existed. Some of the most popular skydiving canopies, such as the Cruiselite, the Pegasus, and the Unit, were modified with a tail pocket, mesh slider, and line-release mod. The mindset at the time was to find a $200 canopy so if it got confiscated the loss would be insignificant. Many of these old clunkers had hundreds of jumps on them. CReW canopies were good because they had a lot of the characteristics we wanted for BASE, but that also meant they spent quite a bit of time in the sun. That said, landings were hard, openings were splitting these sunbaked canopies in half, and bridle attachments were tearing out.
My mindset was somewhat different: I wanted a canopy that would work properly and save my life. Besides, it had to work first before it could be confiscated. My life was worth more than $200. I ended up doing some rigging work for Precision Aerodynamics at the time and for payment I received 16 Raven 2 reserve canopies. They were never jumped, and only packed for one year. I did all the BASE mods on them and then I built 13 (because I like that number) identical BASE rigs. Now I had some solid gear that I could do tests on, like deep brake settings, sliders, deployment systems, pilot chutes, deployment times, altitude used, and more.
I did most of my testing from a very remote 450-foot bridge. At the time this was a very low-key site. It was not a good beginner bridge. It spanned a narrow, steep, jagged canyon with a small creek running through. Winds could get tricky. At times a small sand bar appeared but it was surrounded by boulders and cactus. More people got injured here than any other site at the time, thinking a bridge was a safe jump. But the jump isn’t over until you land safely. I had been jumping for 22 years and was injury free ‘til I got bit here trying to run out a landing in a boulder field that resulted in a badly sprained wrist. But this remote bridge made a good measuring stick for me to do some testing. It would also test out the size of my balls. I would pack in all 13 rigs, empty ‘em out, drive home or to a motel, pack ‘em up and repeat.
After making a few hundred jumps with no interruptions from the enemy, I was feeling pretty comfy as far as not getting busted. Schtick, an actor (who has a brother that is also an actor with a much bigger name in Hollywood, who I will call “Rik”) was a student of mine and had made 50 or so jumps from this bridge. He joined me and Mack, one of my mentors, who had never been to this site. I thought it was cool that I was teaching my teacher. He liked the fact that this was a low bust-factor jump and was looking forward to some good fun.
Hiking up the boulder field to the catwalk got the blood flowing. Walking to the center was like treading on the spine of a brontosaurus. What an elegantly arched beaut. We all flicked off and landed on the sand bar with no issues. We started to pack in the warm desert sun when we were startled by a voice over a megaphone coming from the top of the bridge.
I looked up and saw a big man in a tan uniform and cowboy hat with his belly hanging over the guard rail and holding a megaphone. It was Bueford, a roving back-country sheriff. He piped over the megaphone, “C’mon up boys. Y’all are under arrest.” I yelled back, “OK as soon as we pack up our stuff.” I looked at Mack and Schtick and said, “We can pack up our shit and hike farther up the canyon, sleep in our canopies and sneak out in the morning. Bueford ain’t comin’ down here. He’s a lard ass.” Schtick said, “Fuck it, I’ll hike out tonight.” As I started to explain that you never hike in the desert at night without a light, Schtick bumped into a jumping cholla cactus and the bulb stuck into his shin. His immediate reaction was to pull it off. Now his hand was stuck too. Using some sticks we removed the bulk of the spines. I know how much it hurts as I had a cholla barb that was embedded into my shin bone for over six months before it festered out. We would hike out in the daylight tomorrow.
We hiked up the canyon for about 45 minutes in the desert heat and stopped for a breather. Hearing some rocks fall above us, we looked up and saw Bueford standing there. “C’mon up, ladies,” he barked. We found out later that there was a dirt road on top of both sides of the canyon. We continued up the canyon and saw no more of Bueford. The canyon ended at a “T” and we could go left or right. We chose right, since the last time we saw Bueford he was on the left. We hiked up the dry stream bed for about 90 minutes where the canyon walls diminished and there stood a large lone mesquite tree in the center of the sandy stream bed. Shade! With nowhere else to go in the high noon heat, we elected to stay here for the night. There would be no water so staying in the shade and not expending any energy was a smart move. Even if we did find water it would probably be tainted as we ran into wild donkeys here often. Donkey dew was aplenty. But one night and a day without a drink would be bearable.
We dug out some sand lounges and settled down in the shade of the big mesquite tree. Kicking back and chewing on some jerky, we committed to spending the night. The sandy seat was so comfy that I started to drift off. Daydreaming about how the night would go was interrupted by a faint whop whopping sound far down the canyon. “Hmmm. What is that?” I asked myself. It was getting closer. Schtick and Mack now heard it. “It’s a helicopter!” I said, but surely they aren’t coming after us in a helicopter. Certainly they wouldn’t go to all that expense. After all, all we did was jump off a bridge. It can’t be for us. The whop whopping was getting closer. They were following our tracks in the dry stream bed.
With nowhere to take cover, we started to bury ourselves with sand and tiny dry mesquite leaves. “Here they come,” said Mack. They flew right up our tracks and over the tree. I could see up through the glass bubble floor of the chopper as they passed over and the whop whopping faded. After about 10 minutes the silence was broken by the crunch crunching of boots on the desert floor. My heart was hammering as I peeped through the mesquite to see a fully swatted out figure approaching. SWAT? You gotta be kidding me. This guy had the black uniform and hat with gold SWAT letters, a radio in one hand and a gun in the other. Pointing it at the tree he said the typical, “Come out with your hands up now.”
We pulled ourselves from our sandbox coffins and stood up, hands raised. I asked, “Sir. What did we do that was so wrong that you are pointing a gun at me?” Just then Bueford popped over the horizon and blurted, “You jumped off my bridge.” I said, “OK OK, I jumped off your bridge. Please don’t point the gun at us.” Mr. SWAT lowered his gun. Bueford, now close up, was right out of the book. Dressed in a tan sheriff uniform, cowboy hat, belly hanging over a hip holster, aviator sunglasses and yes … a fucking toothpick in the corner of his pursed lips. No shit. Thus the name I gave him—Bueford!
He asked us our names, which we mistakenly gave him. He didn’t ask for any ID which we didn’t have anyway. As he wrote up our tickets he warned us that in two weeks we would have to see Judge Blair Gumbar, who presided in a big city 60 miles to the north. He told us that he was known as a mean judge and would cut us no slack. The SWAT guys loosened up a bit and were curious about BASE jumping. I asked if they would drop us off on that rock face across the way so we could jump it. Mr. SWAT made a remark about us not surviving in the desert and said part of our punishment was to hike out. That was OK with us. At least they weren’t taking our gear. We told them we were just sportsmen trying to do our thing and weren’t causing any harm.
The heat on the hike out was nearly unbearable. Schtick finally snapped and drank some water from the stagnant stream. He lucked out and never got sick.
Two weeks passed and it was time to drive the five hours to court and visit this mean ol’ judge Bueford warned us about. Should we take our rigs and hit the bridge on the way back? We decided not to push it. We were concerned about this nasty judge.
We arrived and were processed and taken into the courtroom by the bailiff. He told us Judge Gumbar was running a bit late. Half an hour passed and the bailiff returned to tell us we would be seeing another judge instead. That gave us some relief knowing we dodged the hard-nosed judge. A young hip judge entered the room and court was now in session. He read out the charges of trespassing and the fine could be from zero to four thousand dollars each, depending on how we pleaded.
He said, “It costs a lot of money to run that helicopter,” and asked, “How do you plead, Mr. Viletto?” I stood up and said, “I plead the Alfred E. Neuman clause, sir,” and continued,” I am being charged with trespassing sir, which I did not do. I did not walk on the roadway which is illegal. I jumped from the catwalk underneath the bridge. There are hundreds of names and graffiti under there. Many people go up there. Are they trespassing? I went over, under, or around no barriers or signs, so I feel I wasn’t trespassing as charged. I could lie and say that I jumped from the cliff next to the bridge but I am being honest, sir. I did not trespass but I will accept the charges, hoping you will go easy on me.” The judge smiled and said the fine would be $180. He asked Schtick and Mack how did they plea. They both chimed in with “Alfred E. Neuman clause, your honor.”
“Court adjourned. Go out front and pay your fines,” said the nice judge.
We went out to pay our fines when the bailiff approached and asked Schtick if Rik the big movie star was his brother. Schtick hated people referring to him as Rik’s brother but fessed up and said yes. The bailiff said that Judge Blair Gumbar (the nasty one) had arrived and wanted to see all of us in his quarters. Shit. Just when we thought we were getting off easy, now we had to speak to the Man.
The bailiff led us to Gumbar’s office. Once inside we noticed the unusual motif; he had swords hanging on the walls, there were skull and cross bone flags, emblems, and a skull coffee cup along with other morbid memorabilia all around the office. Gumbar was a biker. He said he thought Schtick’s brother was a Harley fan. “Yes he is. I am as well,” replied Schtick. Then the judge apologized for being late and he would have let us go scot free but there was nothing he could do now since we were already processed.
“I hate being a judge in a small town. Everyone asking, ‘Hey judge can you help me with this or that.’ I love to take this fucking robe off, hop on my bike, and I like to go fast. Just like you guys.” He and Schtick talked biker tech a bit and then he pulled out three business cards and wrote his wife’s name and their home phone number on them and gave us each one. He said, “Next time you go to jump the bridge, give me a call and my wife and I will hop on the bikes and come watch.” This guy was awesome. Nothing like what Bueford had us believing. We paid our fines and were bummed that we didn’t bring our gear. But at least we had a judge in our back pocket.
Almost one year later to the day, a Norgie friend named Harla and another friend Dave got together with me for a trip to the same bridge. Harla’s visa was expired making her illegal, so getting busted would not be healthy. Up the canyon, up the boulder field, and up the catwalk, we stood perched on a beam, spitting to check the winds. No sooner did we start to gear up than I heard a familiar sound. Fuck me in the heart! It was Bueford and his megaphone at the pull-off viewing site.
I told Harla and Dave that we were screwed. Bueford knew where our car was. All he had to do was wait there for us. I suggested that we not jump and maybe he wouldn’t be too tough on us. Down the catwalk, down the boulder field, down the canyon—and there was Bueford leaning on my car … toothpick and all.
He gave us the whole spiel on the nasty Judge Gumbar and told us how he chased the Hollywood Schtick and his group for four hours in the desert last year. He didn’t recognize me! When I was busted last year I sported a ponytail and full beard. I was now clean shaven with short hair. I used to change my look often and this time it paid off.
When I got home I gave biker Judge Blair Gumbar a call. “Hello Judge. I don’t know if you remember me. I am one of the guys who jumped off the local bridge last year with Rik’s brother Schtick.”
Excitedly he said, “Oh yeah, I remember. Are you going out to jump the bridge? Shall my wife and I bike down to watch?”
“Well … er … ah …” I stammered.
“You got caught again didn’t you?”
I replied with an embarrassing yes.
“Look, I can’t let you go. The locals have been on my case for being so lenient. You can mail in your fines of $220 each. Be sure the illegal alien pays up or they will track her down. And be a little more careful next time and make sure you call me first so I can watch.”
Sure is nice having a judge in your back pocket! Bueford? We need to get him a job in Hollywood where he fits his role. And leave us alone to play with gravity.
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