This week in "Bloom County," the cartoon strip that appears in nearly 700 newspapers, Opus the penguin has been telling his friend Milo about a tumble out of the sky in a hot-air balloon.
"We splashed down somewhere in the Atlantic," the penguin recounted in yesterday's installment. "But we didn't panic. We had professional emergency equipment."
Berke Breathed, the strip's 28-year-old creator, did not enjoy so soft a landing in his ultralight plane. He was in satisfactory condition at St. Joseph Hospital in Albuquerque yesterday after six hours of successful surgery on a fractured vertebra. He suffered a compression fracture in his lower back when the 300-pound aircraft he was piloting lost power and crashed into an earthen dam just north of the city Wednesday night.
"There was an air bubble in the fuel line and the engine went out as we were 30 or 40 feet in the air," said Breathed's friend Thomas Zanotti, who was Breathed's passenger in the Quicksilver MX ultralight. "I think we hit at about 35 miles an hour. In the 10 or 15 seconds I had to think about it, I didn't think we were going to die from it. I thought we might get fairly injured. All Berke said was what most people allegedly say just before a crash."
Zanotti, 37, who has often taken the cartoonist aloft in his hot-air balloon -- most recently last Saturday, when they climbed to 24,000 feet -- said he was bruised but not badly hurt in the accident.
"Berke got up right away and started to run," he said. "I think he was in tremendous pain, feeling a tingling in his legs, and thinking that if he could walk around or run he was okay. He collapsed on the ground and I finally made him stop moving around and propped him up a little bit until help arrived."
Breathed, a longtime ultralight enthusiast, was not taking calls yesterday. He's expected to be confined to the hospital for at least a week before being released to his Albuquerque home. Hospital officials said he was in pain but suffering no paralysis. During surgery Thursday night, doctors implanted a set of metal Harrington rods into one of his lower vertebrae.
"He's in really good shape," said the cartoonist's sister Alyson Breathed Collins, who rushed to his bedside from Los Angeles. "The surgery was extremely successful."
Breathed is not expected to resume drawing his popular strip for four to eight weeks, said William Dickinson, editorial director of the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates "Bloom County." He added that current plans call for old strips to be recycled during the hiatus.
Dickinson said ruefully that he was not surprised by the mishap. Noting that Breathed enjoys riding his motorcycles and revving up his speedboat, and has also climbed mountains in bandit-infested areas of the Peruvian Andes and scuba-dived to great depths in the Caribbean, Dickinson said, "He's a daredevil by any standard."
"Actually, Berke has been different all his life," said his sister, when asked if she would encourage him not to fly ultralights in the future. "Berke is going to always do things differently from other people."
In the last panel of the last strip Breathed completed before his crash, scheduled to run Feb. 8, Milo shakes Opus the penguin's wing. "Congratulations on the most ridiculous plot twists to date," he says. To which the penguin replies: "I just does 'em. I don't writes 'em."