I don't consider
but I suppose that is debatable.
—JUMPING JOE GERLACH
Outside his motel
room the rain threatened to become sleet and the wind was strong enough to
rattle the window. Fog had filled the valleys of the Catskills, making the
drive to Monticello Raceway for the opening of the winter season all but
impossible. The most avid racegoer would be foolish to attempt it; it was
certainly not a night for a man to risk his life, even if he had a $3,500
guarantee. Although Jumping Joe Gerlach makes a living leaping from the tops of
billboards, neon signs and department stores, from the eighth floors of
apartment buildings and, most recently, from the gondolas of balloons 80 feet
above the ground, he will perform only if the weather is reasonable. "I do
not have a death wish," he says.
The afternoon had
passed slowly for Gerlach, who spent part of it visiting Grossinger's hotel
where, nearly a decade before, he had twice won what was billed as the World
Professional Diving Championship. Because of the season—a week before the
Christmas rush—the hotel was empty except for two elderly couples seated by the
indoor swimming pool. So Gerlach, depressed and beginning to feel a touch of
flu, returned to his motel. When the phone rang, he was half asleep, half
rerun. The call was from his balloonist, who announced
that his truck had skidded into a guardrail somewhere in Connecticut. The
balloon was undamaged, but it would be hours before he could resume the trip to
Monticello. "I should have known that this week would be a disaster when I
was ticketed for jaywalking," said Gerlach. "But I am an optimist. If I
wasn't, I would have been killed long ago. Tomorrow the weather will clear and
I'll do my act."
Jumping Joe calls
his balloon act the Daredevil Sponge Plunge ("We added the 'daredevil' so
people wouldn't think it was a janitorial service"), and he dramatically
unveiled it last September during the halftime of a Lion-Eagle exhibition
football game. After a band had concluded its show the 50,000 spectators at
Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia and a Sunday night national television
audience estimated at 30 million saw a giant red, white and blue balloon ascend
80 feet above the 50-yard line. A slight man dressed in a white leather jump
suit stood precariously on a wooden plank attached to the gondola and directed
the placement of a foam rubber mattress—his landing pad. After several minutes
of tension-building waving, the man appeared satisfied that the sponge was
properly aligned and, at last, he raised his arms and stood on his toes.
Helmetless, he left the plank in a swan dive and fell toward the field, landing
on his back directly on target. He lay motionless for a moment, "checking
myself out, making sure I'm alive."
watching on television were Joe's wife Cheryl and their 5-year-old son Bradley,
who asked, "Is Daddy dead?" Then Bradley saw his father bounce off the
sponge, waving at the crowd. Even the football players, returning from the
locker rooms, applauded. Less impressed by the performance was Cheryl, who
greeted her husband when he returned home the next day by saying, "You must
be out of your mind."
To appreciate the
difficulty and danger of the act it is necessary to realize that the sponge
measures 6 by 12 by 3� feet and from 80 feet up appears to be the size of a
cigarette pack. The balloon sways in the air even when anchored by guy lines.
"I must concentrate upon the alignment of the balloon with the sponge,"
Gerlach says. "Because I'm so high off the ground the slightest movement of
the balloon is telescoped into feet. Only when I'm certain that the balloon and
the sponge are correctly placed will I jump. It is an instinctive feeling that
comes from experience and total concentration. So far I have been sure on each
of my dives, but the day may come when the feeling isn't there. Then, because
I'm not a fool, I will ignore the television cameras and the crowd and I'll
Once Gerlach has
left the gondola, there is the added hazard of velocity. He weighs 160 pounds
and, at the end of the dive, he is traveling at 49 mph. "The dive lasts 2�
seconds," he says. "After the first second I know whether or not I'll
hit the sponge. Then I concentrate on the dive itself, making sure I land
properly. Maybe the time will come when I will enjoy the sensation of the
flight, when I have performed the act so many times it doesn't worry me
anymore. But now the act is new [he has jumped from a balloon just 12 times],
and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't scared."
Philadelphia Eagle officials who observed Gerlach before his half-time leap are
convinced he shored up his courage with, at the very least, a large quantity of
liquor. "He acted like a wild man on the sidelines," said one. "I'm
sure he was hopped up on something." But Gerlach's strange behavior before
his dive was the result of watching his balloonist, Bob (The Flying) Waligunda.
Preoccupied by the wind currents in the stadium, Waligunda spent the first half
of the game observing the movement of cigarette smoke and flags and tossing
handfuls of paper into the air. Says Gerlach, "He usually throws grass, but
the field was made of artificial turf. The more he worried about the wind, the
more nervous I became. Then the band stayed on the field so long I wasn't sure
there would be time for the act. I suppose I began to fidget."
But the Sponge
Plunge went off perfectly, and during the following weeks everywhere he went
Gerlach met people who had seen the telecast. "They couldn't tell me who
won the game, but everyone remembered the nut who dived from the balloon. Each
person said it was the best halftime show he had ever seen."
If ever a show
needs rescripting, it is a football halftime. "How often can we be expected
to listen to the theme music from Patton?" says Gerlach. "I think my
act can, for the first time, keep spectators in their seats during halftimes.
The balloon is a spectacle all by itself and my dive couldn't be more exciting.
If I blow it, I die."