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The red beacons on KTUL-TV's 1,909-foot antenna tower rise in the predawn distance—several horses and one barking dog away from where Phil Smith, Phil Mayfield, Rick Harrison and Randy Harrison are unloading parachuting equipment from a station wagon. It is 4:30 a.m. outside of Tulsa and no one has gotten more than two hours' sleep, but a couple of sips of coffee and a couple of gallons of adrenaline supercharge the morning.
The four are BASE jumpers, the acronym representing the fixed objects off which those so inclined can take a flying leap with a parachute. They run the risk of death or injury or, at the least, getting arrested for trespassing, whether the target is B (building), A (antenna tower), S (span, usually a bridge) or E (earth formation, usually a cliff). There are enclaves of BASE jumpers in Canada, England, Australia, France, Norway, Sweden and West Germany, as well as the U.S. According to statistics kept by the U.S. BASE Association, only 87 jumpers, four of them women, have completed the BASE cycle—jumping at least once off each type of fixed object—since it was established in 1981, and no more than 50 are jumping regularly these days from fixed objects.
Conventional parachuting groups generally scorn BASE jumpers, regarding them, as an official of the U.S. Parachuting Association once put it, as "sky-diving outlaws." Up close and personal, though, the KTUL jumpers come across as nothing more—and nothing less—than hearty, calculated-risk-taking individualists, of which the world has no surfeit these days.
With 132 leaps, Smith, 34, called Smitty, is the most experienced BASE jumper in the world. He's unmarried and drives a truck for Consolidated Freightways in Houston. He lives, he admits, for jumping. He's the leader.
His close friend, Mayfield, 33, is an account manager for a steel-door manufacturer in Arlington, Texas. He has a model's good looks and physique, a wife, Lyn, two children and a cautious nature that seems incompatible with his outdoor hobbies, which also include rock climbing.
Rick, a lawyer from Galveston, Texas, and Randy, a union electrician from Iowa City, Iowa, are 35-year-old twins. They have the same compact build and the same infectious enthusiasm. When the Harrison twins were young, they used to scramble up a 90-foot water tower to escape the wrath of an older brother, and in many ways they haven't changed. Their nude dives out of a plane into Dan Gable's post-NCAA wrestling championship party are still remembered around Iowa City.
Smitty and Rick flew in the night before from Texas. Mayfield made the six-hour drive with his family, while Randy's drive from Iowa took 11 hours. "I guess we've just got kind of an affectionate love for ol' KTUL," says Randy.
"Well, let's go," says Mayfield, snapping shut his rig bag. "Listen, if I bounce, my keys and checkbook are in this bag." A ground-crew member winces at his macabre comment. "Just being practical," says Mayfield. "Don't want my wife to be searching for them."
The jumpers have done KTUL before—this will be the ninth time for Smitty—and experience tells them the dog will start barking as soon as they approach the tower. Almost on cue, that's what happens. Randy throws half a Snickers bar in the dog's general direction to buy him off, and the yapping dies down. The horses and jumpers freeze for a moment as they spot each other, before the former gallop away, ghostlike, into the darkness. The jumpers reach the tower, and there's no sign of life from the nearby equipment shed. Randy wonders aloud if they'll hear KTUL's programming bouncing off the antenna during the ascent, as happened one time during a religious program. As he puts it, "I made this climb on a Sunday morning, and I couldn't get rid of Oral Roberts for a thousand feet."
The jumpers climb at their own pace, resting frequently on the platforms set 150 feet apart. It will take 3½ hours.