BREAKING AWAY TO S. PADRE

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Put your hand on your chest," the instructor says as he straps me into my skydiving harness. "Feel your heart beat? That could be your last." He's joking, isn't he?

The platform we had been standing on is wheeled away, leaving me and two colleagues suspended from a cable like Superman (except we looked more like sausages than superheroes) about 15 feet above the ground. The crane begins to lift us slowly into the warm, breezy March air.

Once we reach the 110-foot peak, I close my eyes tight, grit my teeth and pray my first spring break won't be my last.

One of my partners pulls the rip cord, sending us hurtling at 60 mph in a pendulum motion, swinging over the 8,000 carefree partiers at Charlies indoor-outdoor bar below. It is like a free-flying roller coaster, without the car and track. And as we swing back, I manage to get up enough breath to let out an ear-piercing scream.

When we get back to the ground, my legs are quite wobbly, but my head and lungs feel clear and light. I feel free and rejuvenated, like most of the students enjoying spring break that night at Charlies.

"Was it better than sex?" an anxious student asks as I depart the Skycoaster. "You'll have to find out," I reply.

By now, I know I have caught spring break fever-the overwhelming urge to have fun, act stupid and drink until you puke. Actually, the vomiting isn't part of my repertoire, since it contradicts my personal definition of fun.

The fever comes over me like contagious laughter. Before I arrived at Charlies bar that night, I was determined not to have any fun, just detachedly observe this orgy of enjoyment. But instead, a force ends up pulling me toward the magnet of irresponsible amusement. From the moment I decide to brave the Skycoaster, I am infected with the virus that made a mild-mannered reporter crave countless impulsive stimuli.

I do it all-pseudo sumo wrestling, Velcro wall jumping, rock wall climbing, gladiator dueling, and bungee cord racing. Sign me up for "American Gladiators." I had a blast.

South Padre Island, Texas, is a popular spring break spot that attracts about 240,000 students. Marketers arrive as well, hoping to entice this group of teen-agers and twentysomethings who spend an average of about $435 apiece over and above travel expenses.

South Padre Island turns into Never Never Land, where parents, books, responsibility and self-doubt disappear.

The ultimate form of freedom.

The Lost Boys and Girls, having only one week at the most, make the most of their trip by partying hard, staying up until 5 a.m. and getting to the beach by noon the next day. They can drink as much as they want (bars like Charlies check ID's, but underage students can always find a party); have as much fun as they can; and maybe even find the person of their dreams (if the person of their dreams is someone who can put away a six-pack and burp the alphabet).

Young men and women flirt freely. To them, everyone is approachable and amiable, and even a reporter carrying a note pad and a camera manages to fit in. Fear of rejection is the last thing on the minds of these students.

Despite the casual atmosphere, spring break isn't as wild as I expected. Contrary to media stereotypes, I didn't witness anyone jumping off balconies, freely urinating in public view or much unruliness. All I saw were many students having way too much fun.

But according to Mike Templer, the DJ on the beach, spring break has not always been this tame. For the last 10 years, Mike, a native of Miami, has been playing tunes at infamous spring break sites like Daytona Beach, Fla.

He says before marketers really got involved in sponsoring spring break activities, kids would have nothing better to do than drink, act stupid and cause trouble.

Mike believes marketers have played a part in making spring break a safer place to be. Companies like General Motors Corp.'s GM Card and Chevrolet/Geo; Tanning Research Labs' Hawaiian Tropic; Sprint; Coca-Cola Co.; Thomas J. Lipton Co.; and Ocean Spray Cranberries all provide activities on South Padre like 3-on-3 basketball, volleyball and Velcro wall jumping.

In return, marketers get to develop relationships with a group of consumers who will soon have real discretionary income. For instance, Ocean Spray set up a taste-test booth to give out samples of four new product flavors. Geo allowed students (sober ones only) to test drive its Metro small car and Tracker sport-utility vehicle.

I agree with Mike that activities keep most people from drinking as much during the day, but also I meet many stu- dents who seem to be responsible and still know how to have fun. No matter what the atmosphere, people with a good head and morals stay responsible.

There are a variety of people at spring break, some in the "wild" category, others in the "responsible" category.

As I coast around Charlies bar, I meet a young man reclining on a picnic table casually drinking a Red Dog.

"What brings you down here for spring break?" I ask.

"To have some fun," replies John, a 22-year-old military man from San Antonio, as he goes into his own rendition of Sheryl Crow's Grammy-winning song.

Like me, this is John's first spring break. He took a leave of duty to come down to South Padre. During his four years in college, he never took time out for a self-indulgent trip like this. "I was a serious student and never had the opportunity to do something fun," he says.

He warns me he isn't the "typical" spring breaker that likes to party a lot, but like everyone else there he is finally free to have a good time. He points me in the direction of Gina, a 20-year-old from Gainesville, Texas, a short blonde with an adorable Southern accent and a uncontrollable urge to party. John says, "She's your typical spring break student."

Gina, a wild one, attends a junior college in north Texas. She drove about 13 hours with five friends down to the island to have a good time and meet some new friends.

It is her first day and earlier that afternoon was her first encounter with a beer bong (a funnel attached to clear rubber tubing. The drinker puts his/her thumb on the bottom of the tubing while someone pours a beer into the funnel. The drinker then puts the tubing in his/her mouth and sucks down the entire beer.)

"I can handle them," Gina replies. When asked if she would come back next year, she screams, "Hell yeah, I'm coming back!"

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