When I was a child and on a trampoline, I bounced my knee right into Billy Owens' nose; the nose broke. Around puberty, my cousin, his friends and myself would box on the same trampoline, wearing sparring gloves — the idea being to jump way high, thus adding gravity's pull to the power of a chocked-back and velocity-loaded haymaker. I know a couple of parents who hid their trampolines in the woods when they remortgaged, expecting an inspector — insurance against insurance rates.
There are 249 trampolines at Little Rock's supreme trampoline attraction, Altitude Trampoline Park.
My colleague, Jeramie, and I walk into the warehouse-like space, jam-packed with bobbing, hopping, bouncing broods propelled by the springs of "Olympic quality" trampolines. We sign waivers. We take off our shoes. We ascend an entrance ramp. We jounce about.
Altitude opened in December 2013, and has become a popular destination for families with children. Betsy Browning, Altitude's general manager, estimates that on an average weekday, 400 to 500 people visit the park.
The park, on Chenal Parkway, has many small trampolines. Thin strips of purple padding encircle individual trampolines serving as walkways and barriers. Walls are elasticized. The park features a main "court" as a general bounce area, a foam pit for aerobatic diving, two basketball goals for dunking and dodgeball arenas. There are sections that cater to toddlers: the "Kids Court" and a kids dodgeball zone.
Jeramie, who has studied dance for 22 years, is graceful on the park's court, her strawberry-blonde hair whirling, her green eyes happy. I grow jealous of the ease with which she can leap over foam walkways and between trampolines and rebound off walls. I try to double-bounce her. At Altitude, however, only one person is allowed on a single trampoline at a time. (A double-bounce can happen only when two people are on the same trampoline, both parties landing at the same time, and one person is rocketed skyward with double the usual inertia.)
I land in her trampoline and a piercing whistle blows. Altitude's rules are enforced by a gaggle of teenaged employees. They stand sentinel over the play areas, gym-teacher whistles looped around their necks on lanyards.
"Hey, you! Get out of there!" an enforcer yells at me.
Browning says that the employee training process is intensive, including instruction about rules, lessons on safety and required participation in a "team lead-around," where a potential worker is mentored by and observes a knowledgeable staff member as they work. A written quiz follows.
Jeramie and I move on to dodgeball. A new game is about to start and we are faced with the critical decision of which team to join. The team on the right-hand side of the arena has a gang of 13-to-14-year-old boys in Under Armor, so we head right. A whistle is blown.
"The teams are now uneven," an enforcer yells. "You!"
"Me?" I say.
"Yeah, you," he says. "Move to the other team." My new team looks wimpy.
An Altitude employee, Daniel, 18, explains the rules: "If you get hit, you're out. If somebody catches your ball, you're out. Headshots don't count. If somebody throws a ball and you try to block it but drop your ball, you're out. That's about it."
Jeramie mingles with her sole female teammate and asks for dodgeball advice.
"Keep moving," the 7-year-old girl tells her. "Stand behind the boys and they will block balls. Watch out for the boys on the other team because they will go for you. Keep moving."
A whistle is blown and the game begins. A lanky guy on my team instantly strikes, green foam to enemy flesh. "First blood!" he yells and grabs his crotch. Not so wimpy after all, I think. Struck by the moment, I am struck on the shoulder by a ball. I meet Jeramie, already on the sideline.
Altitude markets safety as its No. 1 priority. But an enforcer confesses to me that there are quite a few injuries. "Honestly, one time playing dodgeball, one guy's teeth went into the another guy's head." The testimony continues, "The worst part about the job is the crying. There're a lot of little kids, and they just cry all the time."
Another enforcer, James Gunn Rowland, tells me he carries three ice packs in his fanny pack while he works, "just in case."
Despite the risk, the park seems to be a hit with parents. Dennis James stands in a suit and tie watching two of his grown daughters and six of his grandchildren play. He says he knows his girls would have loved this place when they were young.
Clay and Heather Mercer are hosting a birthday party for their son, Henry. "As a parent, I like it," Clay says. "It feels secure for kids when you know that every kid has an armband, and there is a security form that you are filling out, and the staff is really paying attention."
A child tells me, "I can be like Jesus. In the foam pit I can walk on water."
In front of the pit, Jeramie bends down beside a 5-year-old to inquire about his favorite part of Altitude Trampoline Park.
"The jumping," he says.