A little something I wrote about #1 on my "Live before I die" list.
|I wrote this in May, so it's been more than a few weeks ago. I have yet to go back a third time, but it's the money, not the nerve, that I'm lacking.
Three weeks ago I went skydiving for the first time. It was something I had always wanted to do, but had given up on ever trying. But then I turned single. My wife left, yada-yada, and I decided I was going to live life a little more fully. Take risks and not dwell on the consequences. Enjoy myself, in other words.
The main reason I wanted to sky-dive above anything else has to do with my attitude towards heights. When I was young, I was a typical boy: I loved to climb. I was always scaling something: trees, walls, utility poles. Whatever. Then something happened: I developed a phobia about heights. I don't know when exactly, but it was gradual, to be sure. I discovered the full extent last year when I went up to the roof of my house - my single story ranch house - and couldn't get down. There was a ladder, but I couldn't bring myself to climb onto it. I had to call someone to help me down (not the fire dept., thankfully). Anyway, I decided that being afraid of heights was unacceptable, and I had to do something about it.
I knew nothing about skydiving, but had heard of a place only an hour or two away and knew it was a reputable place (there motto: "Hardly Anyone Dies!"). The problem was, my single life began in late October, and they close down for the winter, for obvious reasons (for anyone reading this in a non-deciduous climate: it gets really, really cold). Anyway, so I knew I would have to wait until at least Mid-March, and being the patient guy I am, I decided to go in late March. That's the date I reserved, way back in January.
I had trouble getting started, mostly because of the weather. I had shown up or called only to be turned away so many times that when I finally scheduled the one that "took”, the receptionist actually recognized me by voice. I called on a Monday and set it up for the next day. The sky was beautiful, there was not a cloud to been seen, and the sometimes-reliable weather.com assured me it would carry over into Tuesday. My only concern was the wind; forecasts called for around 20 mph. Any higher than that, and we might not be able to jump.
Now, my days off had come and gone with nothing but crappy skies, and I was currently on a long string of midnights. I could have taken a chance on the weekend, but it didn't look promising, so I decided to sacrifice a day's sleep for the thrill. I got home from work about quarter to nine, and my jump was at 12:30. They told me to come an hour early just in case, so I had to leave by ten or so; no time for a nap. I showered, cashed my check, got gas, and hit the open road.
The traffic wasn't bad, mainly because I had given myself plenty of time to get there. I passed the time by holding a contest with my radio presets to see which of them would last the longest before fading away. Last two times I drove up there, I kept having to jump around the dial, or the classic rock station would suddenly become a Christian music revival. But I never paid attention to which ones had the strongest signal, so I decided to make a game of it; my money was on either the Loop, or Q101 or...What? Give me a break, I had no sleep, I was driving 100 miles, and I probably had about five times more caffeine in my blood stream than actual hemoglobin. Besides, it's not like I really had money on it.
So, anyway, I walked through the hanger and into the manifest for the third time in two weeks. That was when I first started to feel it: the other two times, I was worried about the weather clearing up, and never made it onto other concerns. Today, though, with not a cloud in the sky, my anxiety was free to roam at will, and I started seriously thinking about what it was I was about to do. It didn't help matters to see another first-time jumper sitting at the counter, filling out the paperwork I filled out last week. It consisted of about eighteen pages of legal jargon saying basically, if you die, you can't sue us, even if it's our fault. That kind of thing brings you back to reality really, really fast.
I talked to some of the people I had met before, and they seemed genuinely glad that I'd finally get to jump. Dave, the instructor, told me he had a class to give and to "hang tight", we'd suit up right after he was down. I sat down at a table in the common area to wait for my jump. Flushed with anticipation, and sitting underneath hundreds of dramatic skydiving photos and various adrenaline-pumping slogans, you guessed it: I fell asleep.
I woke up as the rest of the group was coming back from the class and joined them in the hanger. Dave introduced me to Donovan, the guy I would be jumping tandem with. Again, here was a friendly, easy-going staff member. I continued to be impressed by the people here. I guess this is what people who love their jobs look like. Donovan bypassed the several masculine dark-gray and navy-blue flight suits, handing me one bright, cherry red. With it came a helmet that vaguely resembled a hollowed out watermelon. I put both on as well as the harness that would keep me from becoming a pile of Dan parts on the ground and met Sarah, the videographer who would be shooting me. She told me she had about 1100 jumps, but you'd think she was jumping for the first time by how excited she seemed.
There were eight jumpers in total: two first-timers & our tandem partners, a videographer for both of us, and two experienced jumpers. I'm sure we struck a dramatic image walking from the hanger to the plane decked out in our gear, like rejects from The Right Stuff. At the time, though, I felt truly lacking in "stuff", right or otherwise. And there we were, strutting our stuff on the proverbial catwalk: the other newbie excitedly waving to his proud parents, the two solo jumpers eager to get in their first jump of the new year, Donovan and Dave so mellow they made Cheech & Chong look like neurotic basket cases, and Sarah, energetic and giddy, bouncing around so much she looked like she could become airborne without the plane. And then there was me, smiling away.
The Wikipedia has this to say about smiles: "Among humans, it...can also be an involuntary expression of anxiety" and "Among animals, the exposure of teeth, which may bear a resemblance to a smile, [is] often used...as a sign of submission." My friend Tracy watched the video with me and told me during this part that I looked absolutely terrified. Not far from the truth. But at least I was smiling.
We boarded the plane and all sat on the floor pressed into one another, our legs straddling the one in front of us. I was tucked neatly between Donovan and Sarah. And as we lifted off they ran through the drill one more time: the “HAT” check, which is to say, check the horizon, the altimeter, and touch the cord twice to make sure I can find it when the time comes to pull it. If I forget all that, he said, no problem, he’ll take of everything. I had to remember just two things: arch my back and smile.
There was a nice little party atmosphere as the plane lifted off with all of us cramped together. I was distracted by the sounds of our little twin otter screaming in pain as it tore itself from the ground like a Band-Aid off of a hairy arm. When asked if he wanted to skydive, a friend of mine had told me he couldn’t see himself jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. I don’t think that applied in this case. No one else seemed bothered by the constant shaking of the walls or the rattle of bolts that maybe could have been a little tighter. I half expected to see a gremlin climbing on the wing. People tell me it must take a lot of guts to skydive; I think it would have taken more courage not to jump out of this plane.
* * * * *
5000 feet...when people start looking like ants, and if you know better, you stop looking out the window…7000 feet…we go over everything again; just arch your back and smile…9000 feet…we hook up; Donovan connects his harness to mine, Are the straps too tight? Yeah, I want you to make the only thing connecting me to the parachute as loose as possible, thanks…11000 feet…Donovan keeps saying he’s nervous, and everyone laughs, mostly; funny, funny guy…13000 feet…
The door slides open, a gaping wound in the side of the plane, and Donovan tells me to get up on my knees. As we struggle to coordinate our movements, I watch one of the jumpers launch himself out of the plane; I fight an impulse to try and catch him. The other one goes, but I don’t notice; I’ve got my own problems. Sarah bounces over to the opening, and Donovan and I slowly kneel after her. I pass by the other newbie, and he hi-fives me and wishes me luck with a smile that says, If you die, I don’t have to do this. Sarah grabs the side of the opening and swings out so she’s actually on the outside of the plane waiting for us. And normally, a hot chick with a camera on her head dangling outside an airplane would be a real attention grabber, but it barely registers as Donovan and I approach the opening. I’m in front, of course, and my knees actually hang over the edge. The wind whips around me, eager to get me in its grasp. I look down. Oh, yeah, not supposed to that…oh, boy…can we talk this over? I grab hold of the door frame; Donovan pushes it back down. Not supposed to do that, either. ‘Okay,’ I say; my arm says, ‘Fuck you’, and grabs the frame on its own. Donovan pushes it down again. "Ready?" Well, if your asking…"One!"...Maybe we should talk about this…"Two!"...Seriously, couldn’t we just take the stairs?..."Three!"
OH…MY…GOD! No more airplane. No nothing as my mind tries to process this alien sensation. No space for rational thought as we topple through the air like the plastic bag in American Beauty. No orientation; no bearings. ‘Up’ and ‘down’ are quaint notions of the past. Beyond the mammoth sea of blue, a large curved mass spins around me like clothes in a dryer. Hello, ground. We straighten up, the ground now beneath us, and I get my bearings. Holy crap. The anxiety is gone as the adrenaline courses through me. This is absolutely incredible. It doesn’t feel like falling, but it’s not quite floating. The best word I can come up with is flying, though the birds might disagree. I try to take it all in; impossible to do. I remember the tasks that Donovan set out for me: I check the horizon, easy, check the altimeter, about 10,000 feet and falling, I try to check the cord, but can’t reach it, oh well. Donovan’s got my back; I’m going to enjoy the moment. I look out in front of me and see Sarah looking back at me. She’s traveling faster than the cars on I-80, but to me it just looks like she hovering. Definitely one of the more surreal images I’ve seen. We spin around once, and I realize I haven’t been smiling; I rectify that. I remember the altimeter. 6000 feet, and the needle’s flying around the dial now. I give the signal and reach for the cord; can’t find it. Oops. Donovan grabs my arms and puts it on the handle and we pull it together. We slow down a little, and suddenly I feel like I’m being yanked straight up.
* * * * *
After the chute opened, I had time to catch my breath as it was a leisurely six-minute descent. After the noise of the plane and the howl of the wind during freefall, it was near total silence as we dangled there. It was surprisingly peaceful. I looked down; no problem. The fear was gone. I knew exactly where I was, and I didn’t care. The guy that, less than a year ago, got stuck on his single-story roof because he was afraid to climb down, was now floating one mile above the earth, and loving every minute of it. Donovan asked me what I thought of it, and poet that I am, responded with such phrases as “freakin' amazing” and “woooo!’. With Donovan’s help, I steered the canopy a little on the way down. We landed as gracefully as sliding across the grass on your ass can be. When I stood up, my knees were like Jell-O, and my heart was racing. I felt like I had just run 10 miles. "The adrenaline, man, gotta love it," someone said.
In the hanger, I stripped myself of my gear as Donovan gave me a quick review of the jump. He asked if I’d ever do it again. Duh. In fact, I paid for my next jump before I left. On the TV in the common area, they played the video of my jump while they finished up the editing. Now I know why they tell you to smile: by the time we pulled the cord, we were falling about 150 miles per hour, and because of the wind, my face looked like it was trying to escape from my skull. Once I smiled, I didn’t look quite as stupid. Oh, well. It was fun; who cares if I looked like a dork?
That was about three weeks ago, and I’ve gone again. This time is was just me and the tandem guy, and we were in a dinky, single-engine Cessna that made the previous plane look like the Concorde. It was even better the second time around, and I intend keep going back as much as possible. Part of the reason I wanted to do it was to overcome my hang-up about heights, and since the jump, being up high has not bothered me at all. In fact I’ve been itching to climb whenever I can.
Just like when I was young.