Lodi, 27 March 1999.
The weekend's a blur.
There must have been a time when I... knew stuff. About something. Proficiency, acumen, experience.
Let's see what I can tell ya.
Not much sleep. Too geeked...
A few seconds, in the parking lot, to let the heart catch up. C'mon, it's just classroom stuff to start. Drills, videotapes... maybe a jump out of the Otter later in the day. Or two.
Landing. That's what I learned first. Didn't know enough to know if that was optimistic or not.
But all such thoughts were forced aside by the demeanor of Rick, the instructor.
I've been hooked up with an amalgam of every football coach, highway patrolman, physical therapist and demolitions expert I'd usually slink past. On tiptoe.
If I had to pick "the skydiver" out of a lineup, I've would been wrong on both these Lodi guys. (No bugs on their teeth.)
He's got that weird Dino-thing going - anticipating what's baffling me before I can get the question out. Either he's been through this training gig with a whole lot of stone newbies, or an Oscar is overdue. Or the sky-kick friends network has struck again...
Maybe it reveals too much about my workplace and social circles... but I can't remember when I met someone less susceptible to bullshit.
Here and now, his decisions are above appeal. Since he was trained by the DZO, I'm only going to get through this, at Lodi, through him. Structure is not my favorite tool in the pouch.
"Prepare to land."
Feet and knees together - harder than it sounds with rig straps doing intimate things to your thighs. Legs slightly bent, muscles rigid. Check the windsock, scan forty-five degrees in front for obstacles... risers to shoulder-level at the lofty altitude of five, waist-level at three.
(Even recalling it, days later, there's this speck of dread that something was left out of that last paragraph. You don't want to leave anything out if there's a good chance you'll soon be on the same load with Rick, who has 'net access. But that's material for that Weenie Anxiety webpage I haven't gotten around to writing yet. The goal here is to remember the path, not... uh, teach it.)
Jumping off a stack of pallets, and then back to hitting the books. This is the airport layout, wind's out of the northwest right now, so here's the reference point you want to be above at one thousand feet, here's the five-hundred-foot mark.
There'll be no radios, nobody on the ground flagging me in...
And this is how you approach and leave the plane. Cessna 182.
Waitaminute - put my right foot on the... tire? Slide my hands along the... strut and hang there, arching, waiting for permission to let go...
Oh, well, if that's all. Ulp.
Going out to the place and walking through it makes it more imminent, even if it's still sorta unreal.
My kidneys make a glorious attempt to corral all the free-floating anxiety in my body. They tell me this by insisting upon the release of about four times my fluid intake. They mean it. No kidding around. I don't intend to ask if the directive to "stay hydrated" was also a more polite warning of this impressive symptom. All in all, I'd rather bite my nails.
The toggles, which look just like loop-handles, are for steering and braking.
Here's how you "cutaway" the main 'chute if it's bad. This silver handle opens the reserve...
Twisted lines, undescended slider, collapsed end cells, snivelling. Head back, legs out, arch. Show me. Do it again. Again.
A nod of approval has become a thing of value. Overly prized, worth the effort to earn. Regressing. I feel like oh, a sixth-grader learning how to use the band saw in shop class. By graduation I could be a fetus... but I'll have great form.
The rig is heavier than it... looks?
And eventually it's off to the plane, like thousands of others before me. Old plane - nice plane, uh-huh, be nice, that's a good plane...
It had been a whopping six days since the tandem with Lodi Mike.
Different plane. Different rig this time too, and no expertise strapped to my back...
And the static line - what's this strap business? I want steel, baby. A good solid cable, maybe on a winch, securely bolted or at least clipped to a reassuring loop of more steel. The way I imagined it.
Up we went.
Rattle and buzz. The venerable Cessna performed just as intended. They don't give hyperventilating students much room to convulse in these things...
Distraction came from Rick, who reviewed what I was up there to do. When the d-
Ohno. Three thousand feet. My height, times 521.
Right foot, right hand, left hand, left foot.
Hanging. From under. The. Wing.
Waiting for the signal from him. There it is.
"Head back - legs out - arch..."
Down I go.
Something glances off my back. Arch arch arch opening shock. Oof. And I get my "time-before-the-second-time" look at real live single toggles.
(Wha? Oh. It's that "first" thing again. One of the native customs is a case of beer for each seminal experience. You're really stuck if you thoughtlessly admit the new experience out loud. To the DZO's credit, there's a sign on the door of the student room to warn new initiates that the only firm obligation to buy beer is at graduation. There's got to be a good story behind that sign.)
Good chute, nice chute... Time to head for the thousand-foot mark. Where'd those wind socks go again?
There. Okay. It's on to the the last mark. The height is reminiscent of a really tall building. Turning into the wind, you don't make nearly the same impressive progress...
Something got lost in translation, down there, standing on the pallets. Mainly, the, uh, insistence of the thigh-straps.
The ground gets closer. Not too fast. The one tree in the practice field is under me, and I'm not supposed to make any turns this low. Hmmmm. But little bitty course corrections are okay. Preferable to landing in the tree.
The wonderful world of estimating - is this ten feet above the ground, or eight? - flows seamlessly into the new experience of the flare. Toggles to shoulder-height, then waist...
Butt to earth. Success.
I learned, later, that they were idly wondering if I was going to miss the tree. Or not.
And no, that thump I felt just after liberating the wing strut wasn't me glancing off the tire. The static line generally takes it toll, as it takes its leave.
That's the sound you get from Rick when you freeze up during a ripcord-pull drill. Not a nice sound. But it's preferable to the alternative, out there, away from the coolness of the student room.
Dehydration turns out to be an understatement...
The next skill to add is pulling a fake ripcord handle while (or in spite of) the static line doing its thing.
Let go, and arch -
Pow. Right in the face.
Surprise - I'm in pain. Momentarily stunned, then clawing for the ripcord. It took a while. The static line shifts the rig around, so the handle is not right where it used to be.
The jerk of the chute opening - yep, there it is - and at last my fingers find the handle. Dang. Not fast enough.
Angry at freezing up, even for a couple seconds, because of some unexpected curveball.
One: no matter how long it takes, pull the freakin' ripcord.
Two: you will get hurt in this sport. Static line revenge, freefall collisions, fickle wind as you land. A fat lip is pretty minor on the overall scale...
The requirement is two consecutive successes - find the ripcord, pull it off the Velcro, wave it around to show you got it.
Find your butt, and work your way up to the ripcord handle. Even with that familiar of a landmark, it's reassuring to, uh, practice the technique...
The static line whacks me on the forearm, real hard. Nice big bruise. But - success, I found the ripcord-ring.
The next time too. A new bruise. Right shin. A little fumbling, and then my fingers come up with the prize.
Success blots out the fatigue, and the inward animal flinch from the prospect of another static-line-to-face encounter. Intense triumph, goofy and absurd, waving that little plastic ring around under a gently
Turning right into the wind is so much slower it seems like I'm not moving, say, north or west at all. The notion to get rid of is that I'm going to stay at this same spot and lose altitude, slowly, unless I do something. The image of gradually dropping two thousand feet, straight down, doesn't jibe with the graceful swooping landings I see the vets doing. What not to do is turn and ride very far with the wind at your back, 'cause what if you can't get back to your mark? Stay away from the freeway. Stay away from the vineyards. And the highway. The idea of being, oh, fifty feet above all those metal rods that hold up the grapevines is not a pleasant one. Even worse, picturing southbound 99 below, estimated touchdown in the number two lane. And I'm told the asphalt taxiway does weird convection things...
And, and, and.
The remaining time to be spent in the student room is an irrational number. I mean, in between jumps, the rest of my thirties will be spent plodding back to the old (airplane?) bench seats and rereading how to drop the slider, world without end. Personal purgatory. And it ain't no seventy degrees in here...
Old hangars and garages. At least I'll be well-preserved. Less sweating at sixty degrees F. Not that I noticed, guzzling still more water.
I don't think Rick (or anybody else) has ever asked me if I'm ready to do something. Kinda rude, in some other setting... but after a few seconds of reflection it's obvious enough - I don't know if I'm ready. Not yet. The stakes are too high for my infantile perspective to matter - and, for proof, the silent hope that I won't be asked such a question, before I'm able to give a coherent answer.
"No matter what -"
"Pull. Yeah," I reply.
Fifth jump of the day. 3,500 feet. Mild wind from the west. A nice little jump, find your marks and land toward the setting sun.
I'm tired, but less than I was before the last couple jumps. More scared... but not quite as much as the first jump. Just me, this time, without the reassuring punishment of the static line... or the cool vigilance of a tandem master just behind. It was never said out loud, but the message is all too clear: Do not assume anyone else can suddenly be there, charging in at the last moment to save the day. Duh. No matter how good they are. It's all on me. I'm the one who has to pull the ripcord, or cutaway and pull the reserve. 'Cause if I don't -
Arch, reach, pull -
Ripcord in hand, tightly held. Proof that I found it, and pulled it. And nothing happens. Uh -
Whoomp. Jerk - "Ow -"
You wonderful, beautiful chute!
The walk back to the hangar, in the early dusk... it's golden.
My brain is more exhausted than my body. Goofy chuckling? Mild delirium, that's all.
" Hey. Lookit that grin," somebody razzes. "How'd you'd like freefall?"
"Wow. It was great -"
"Where's the beer?"
"In my car."
"My kind of student," Rick adds. Then I get his critique...
And once again it appears I'm my own worst critic.
Jump number one (tandem at Sebastian) -
Jump number two (tandem at Lodi) -
3 - 7 (starting static line) -
8 - 11 (finishing static line) -
12 - 14 - 15 - 17 - 18 - 22 - 23 - 29 - 30 - 34 - 35 - 40 - 41 - 48 - 49 - 58
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