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Free Fall at 100 : Age Doesn't Slow S. L. Potter, Who Bungee Jumps From 210 Feet





October 14, 1993|MICHAEL GRANBERRY | LA TIMES STAFF WRITER




ALPINE, Calif. — Defying age, common sense and the fears of his children, 100-year-old S. L. Potter made his first bungee jump Wednesday from a 210-foot tower, earning what he hopes is a place in history.




Against the backdrop of the Viejas Mountains and cattle grazing nearby, Potter took flight at 2:59 p.m., as dozens of friends from a San Diego area board-and-care home, where he once lived, clapped and cheered.










Strapped into a specially made torso harness, Potter stepped off the platform and plummeted toward the ground. He bounced four times as if on the end of giant yo-yo, his house slippers curling almost to the lip of the pool below.




For several seconds, the stooped, 119-pound Potter dangled motionless and the crowd hushed. "Oh my God!" shrieked an elderly neighbor who wondered if Potter had died.




But when Potter kicked his feet, as if riding a bicycle, and waved with his bony right arm, the crowd broke into laughter and heaved sighs of relief.




After his release from the harness, he complained of feeling tired and asked if he could please have his teeth back. At the last second, his dentures had stayed behind.




As his family and friends crowded around, watched by television cameras, Potter joked: "I'm going home and going to bed."




Asked if he had been scared, he looked offended.




"Hell, no," he said. "I don't get scared."




In seeking to become the world's oldest bungee jumper, Potter ignored the advice of his daughter and three sons, who range in age from 68 and 74. They and his former physician were fearful that he would die in flight and, in fact, might be harboring a death wish.




"It's possible," Potter admitted before the leap. "If I die, I die. I told everybody to bring a shovel and a mop, just in case."




Potter's fearlessness was uppermost in the mind of Dr. Edward Sheldon, the Lemon Grove physician who urged Potter "under no circumstances" to undertake what he considered a foolish and possibly fatal misadventure. Sheldon said he was worried about the age of Potter's bones and skin--stretched taut during a bungee jump.




Potter not only rejected Sheldon's advice, he got himself a new doctor. Dr. Jim Ricketts of Alpine told Potter he not only considered it medically permissible, he admired the old man's grit and fortitude.




But Potter's sons, who watched nervously as he climbed 61 metal steps from an elevator to the top of the tower--the same height as a 21-story building--had also begged him not to do it, for their sake, if nothing else.




"We tried our best to talk him out of it," said Jim Potter, 72, who lives in nearby La Mesa. "It's wild, it's crazy, but he's so independent, you can't change his mind."




The elder Potter got the idea for the jump when son Wallace, 70, drove him to the Viejas Indian Reservation, where the bungee-jumping tower opened three months ago. From that point on, Wallace said, his father dreamed of nothing else.




"I think he's crazy to start with," Wallace said with a shrug. "When he makes up his mind, there's nothing you can do to stop him."




Born June 24, 1893, in Ashland, Ore., Potter has nine grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren and 11 great-great-grandchildren, many of whom were on hand Wednesday.




Potter is no stranger to adventure or danger, having courted both most of his life. He has parachuted from planes and soared through the sky in a hot-air balloon. He raced motorcycles and stock cars, and drove a golf cart until a truck hit him three years ago.




As a teen-ager, his sons said, he once stretched a high wire across the Pudding River and sauntered across to the amazement of the startled townsfolk, who told him he was better than anything in the circus.




"I'm not a daredevil," he said. "I just like thrills. I just like to do things that everybody else don't do."




Potter labored most of his life as the chief mechanic and owner of a wheel-balancing and brake shop and said he wished his risk-taking had extended to his business sense. He once had a chance to buy commercial property in San Diego--now worth millions--"for pennies," but turned the man down.




Potter has a picture in his scrapbook of himself, standing beside famed flier Charles A. Lindbergh and the legendary airplane Potter helped build, the Spirit of St. Louis. Potter said Lindbergh was a kindred spirit, "a big kid like me."




"I never liked to read about things," Potter said. "I wanted to do them."




At least one of Potter's neighbors in the La Mesa apartment building where he now lives regards him as a hero.




"I have a lot of feeling for him," said Ruth Skigan, 71. "His spunk, his bravery are something to behold. If we could all be like that, think of the world could we have . . . a world without fear. Yes, the world could use a few more like him."




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