Paul N. Stam


Zambezi River, Border of Zimbabwe and Zambia;
May 2005.

Marcus Vanderhoff gazed over the edge of the platform that sprouted from the middle of the bridge spanning the Zambezi River. His toes, crossed by the straps of his Teva sandals, stuck out slightly into the abyss. He had accessed the bridge from the Zambian side. A friendly American he had met in the hotel bar the night before told him more tourists used to enter from the Zimbabwean side, but given that country’s economic and political turmoil, most people came in from Zambia now. The man had even given Marcus his prepaid coupon for a bungee jump, as, the man had explained, he was quite squeamish about heights, and the jump came with his tour package. Someone braver might as well use it, he said. For $50 U.S., which was a relative bargain, those who had to pay could bungee jump from the bridge. Then again, all of Africa was a relative bargain to Americans, and most of the world was a relative bargain to a young man like Marcus.

Marcus Vanderhoff had been, back in the day, a nerd, a geek, a science guy, whatever you want to call him. He held a PhD in electrical engineering from MIT, which he received in 1995 at age twenty-six. Timing being everything, Marcus came out of MIT just before the dot-com boom. He and a colleague began a start-up with minimal capital, but that was no worry. Back then his name was Mark. That’s what his parents and friends all called him. But “Mark” didn’t sound sophisticated enough when trying to raise venture capital. So he changed it to Marcus. The service they provided—-better, faster, more stable credit card payments through Internet servers—-was a tool every online company needed at the time. By 1997 their company, which had begun with just themselves and two temporary employees, had burgeoned to 150 employees (all with stock options, of course) and gone through three venture capital funding rounds. In 1998, the company went public, and despite all the options and funding rounds and resultant dilution of their ownership, Marcus and his partner were rich. Three years out of graduate school.

This wasn’t just any rich. It was really rich. The kind of rich that even if you lost 90 percent of your wealth, you still wouldn’t have to work for the rest of your life. Marcus’s position was further reinforced when their now-public company was acquired by another public technology company that was diversified and stable. When the Internet bubble burst, Marcus was already retired (six years out of school), traveling around the world and leaving his money and investments spread among several money managers, including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, and American Standard Bank & Trust (ASBT). His portfolio went up and down, but he would never go broke. His private banker at ASBT prepared monthly consolidated reports for him, which the banker dutifully e-mailed to an account Marcus accessed from whatever hotel room or Internet cafée happened to be convenient. Most of the time, Marcus simply logged on to confirm he was still rich,then signed off. He was too busy to worry about the details of how his money was being managed. There was little else to do except start another company (if he one day developed the desire again), or travel about the world seeking various thrills.

Marcus noticed the moment he became wealthy, it was easy to find women. In fact, they seemed to find him. He thought at first that he was going to have to do quite a bit of work. Eye surgery allowed him to ditch his glasses. He cut his shaggy hair and started working out with a personal trainer. But even before he began doing so, he was finding it much easier to get dates, as the expensive gyms, hotels, restaurants, and bars he started to frequent hinted at his newfound wealth. He was careful not to get too entangled in relationships. He had married once and that didn’t go well. He discovered soon after he and his ex were married, she really wasn’t that interested in traveling the world with him and sharing his experiences. She seemed content to stay at their mansion in Atherton and spend his money in various imaginative ways. Two years later that was over, and he promised himself it would never happen again. Thank God he had listened to his private banker and gotten a prenup.

Daily life wasn’t difficult. It never was on his budget. New countries, new thrills. Sailing on the French Riviera. Parasailing in the Caribbean. Rock climbing in India. Trekking in Nepal. Snowmobiling. Skydiving. Scuba diving. Eating exotic foods everywhere he went (yesterday’s appetizer was Mopawni worms). If he liked a place, he’d stay a while until he got bored, learning in the process a bit of the culture and a bit of the language.

Which is why, fourteen years out of graduate school, six years into his world travels, numerous ex-girlfriends and one ex-wife later, Marcus found himself gazing into the abyss below his feet. He could see the white water below him, but from this distance it appeared only as a dark blue and white ribbon meandering between the cleft of rocks that marched away from the bridge. He could hear the roar of Victoria Falls behind him to his right, and even from this distance felt a bit of the overspray carried on the wind. His ankles were firmly secured in a harness connected to the bungee cord-—really just a very thick rope made of several cords intertwined together and wrapped in a stretchy sleeve. The cord was attached to the platform’s superstructure via a large steel eye at the end of the bungee, which in turn hooked into an industrial-sized carabiner on the platform. He had used less professional, more wariness-inducing bungee setups in the States and had survived.

So, when he dove off the platform, Marcus had no reason for concern. In fact, he had bungee jumped so many times that he practiced different dive techniques. No screaming, no having to be pushed. Today, he did a simple swan dive, intending to throw in a couple of forward flips when the cord’s inevitable resistance yanked his body back up.

As he dove out, Marcus could see the canyon of the Zambezi stretching out before him. Then his gaze dropped down and the river rushed up at him, getting bigger and bigger like the view from a telephoto lens. It was a long fall, but then he felt the familiar tug on his ankles and then …nothing. His forward motion slowed slightly but didn’t stop, and he began falling again as if untethered. His first instinct was to look up, but that was physically impossible to do. Statistically, when someone is in the position of knowing they are about to die, “damn” is the most common word uttered. The second most common is “shit.” Marcus had no time for any of that. There was a moment of pure terror in which his brain could process no thought other than “oh no.” His arms instinctively, but uselessly, crossed in front of his face as he smashed into the river and rocks below.

Back on the platform, the attendants couldn’t believe what had happened. The carabiner had simply broken away from the platform. There was nothing to be done. All above had heard a loud clunk, followed by nothing. The bungee disappeared from view. Everyone, tourists and attendants alike, continued to gaze over the edge of the bridge, even though there was nothing to see at that distance. One man, however, had watched the bungee break away and glanced over now to ensure Marcus had not sprouted wings or that some other miracle had not saved him. Assured, he walked off the bridge to the Zambian side and back to the hotel where he had met Marcus the night before.

There would be an investigation (by Zambian authorities, since the tourist had come from the Zambian side of the bridge). It would be concluded that a stress fracture had developed in the overused carabiner, and the device should have been replaced months earlier. The tour operator, a Mr. Morgan, insisted that he replaced it monthly, and he pursued the Chinese manufacturer of the device to no end. Morgan paid a fine to the Zambian authorizes, which was nothing compared to the bribes he had to pay to the tourism commissioner and his lieutenants. Two weeks after the incident, he was back in business. It had been the only death in the history of the attraction.

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