This account is long because it's mainly to help me in my "remembering".
If you want to, uh, jump right to freefall - I won't hold it against you.
Prelude: Orlando, 7 Feburary 1999. After a day of not altogether satisfying consumerism at That Mouse Kingdom, we ate a soupy pizza at Old Town. It's not really the old part of Orlando, but a mall built about ten years ago with faux-antiquated architecture. They have a huge swing (which is probably named something more exciting. Perhaps a local stringer could set me straight ?), must be 200 feet tall. Up to three humans are hoisted up, belly-down - and released, swooshing forward at up to 60 mph, and back, and forth. Only 32 bucks per...?
My eyes widened, couldn't help themselves, as we watched - all that buzz, right? My little brother Allan was egging me on. His girlfriend told me he secretly wanted to do it himself. We ease into that implied double-dog-dare-ya riff at which American males excel, especially brothers. I-laugh-in-the-face-of-danger, well-I'll-do-it-if-you-do.
32 simoleons for maybe a twenty-second rush. Didn't quite compute. Stalling for time, I muttered I'd rather put that cash toward a skydive. And Allan immediately mentioned Skydive Sebastian...
Ah yes. One of those life-goals, gotta get around to doin' that someday. So far, all I'd done was copy the phone number off a bumper sticker. A year or two ago. But there, whether Allan was just seeing my raise and calling it - well, we were committed.
Besides, there was our generational shame spurring us. See, our Dad was the first of us to jump. At age 58. We were all amazed. Double-damn, I remember thinking, he had that same whim and acted on it before I did. Even had the photos to prove it...
So the next day I pointed the rental car five miles south of the parents' "southern estate." Sebastian Airport. Turn left at the sign. Quite a few Deadheadesque vans in the parking lot, a bunch of tents and RVs alongside. Methinks these people have made a lifestyle choice... as to why, I couldn't hazard a guess. Little did I know.
Skydive Sebastian's public counter is cleverly hidden, in the most logical place for overseeing the runways. Lacking a nice big sign (maybe something like Abandon hope...), I took it to be a Darwinian test to weed out the most clueless of the newbies, of which I was almost one. But I did almost find the correct door without, uh, help. Snagged a glossy brochure and crept away.
10 February. J-Day.
My dad, 61, had decided to take the plunge again. Allan's girlfriend Lisa made it a foursome, pulling into the parking lot a wee bit late. Lisa's son Sean, and my mom and aunt were coming later to watch and videotape.
After pages and pages of forms and boxes and initial-here blanks, we paid up and were waved toward the VCR. Training video - basics about the equipment, posture and signals that are used Up There. Esoteric, yet simple. The tang of truth.
There were enough things to remember that I was one or two short at any given time, so I started shuffling 'em through my head. We met Dino, my "tandem master", who had each of us demonstrate how to arch. My spine made these weird, disturbing clicks on the first go, and I sorta forgot to put my feet back. After we were given a verbal summary of the essentials, I did some stretching of my balky vertebrae. Much better.
Wearing the tandem harness was a distinctive experience. I was to be virtually sitting on him, strapped in, like... kamikaze spoons. Waiting for the plane - these Seb-utantes keep their planes busy - there was time for a smoke, which should not be confused with a last smoke, and about seventy more mental reviews of hand signals and ripcord-pulling etiquette. Look, grab, pull, hold on...
Emptying my pockets, here ya go Mom. Allan and I were wondering when we'd start to be afraid. All that day and the one before, I kept waiting for the apprehenision to set in. What-was-I-thinking. We figured it just hadn't hit us yet. But I did start to laugh intermittently as we walked to one of the "Turbine Twin Otters", which can bear 23 [!?] speed worshippers to the balmy heavens, as I readeth in the brochure. Chuckling with disbelief, goofy lower-case delight rather than nervousness. Alright.
This plane had two longitudinal benches. Four tandem newbies and their masters, eight or ten solo jumpers who'd bail out before we did, and a guy up front on the floor. Dino and I were first in. Last out. The plane was not as noisy as I'd expected. I sat there listening to the masters' let's-spook-'em riffs, which I'll leave unwritten. Mystery is good... Ditto the penalty for dropping the ripcord early, setting it free to confound an unsuspecting motorist on Roseland Road or US 1.
And what exactly had my adrenal gland done with itself, as the plane climbed? Was it hiding out under the seat of the car, pragmatically smug? We flew over the inlet, and back in. Straps were cinched up, goggles put on... and the plane quieted down a bit...
13,500 feet, they said. Since I had failed to bring an altimeter of my own, I took it on faith they weren't actually taking us to, say, eight or nine thousand feet and sniggering behind our backs.
This whole first-dive business was riddled with "taking their word for it". It's a given. This was their world, and I had bought a bare glimpse of it, nothing more. Sure, the master who's got the clueless newbie strapped to his front side has a very personal incentive for a safe landing... Where I went, Dino went (unless, I told myself, I really pissed him off - and that, kiddies, is purely ficticious sarcasm).
Skydive Sebastian is in their sixth year of operation. About 300 jumps a week, I was told, though that number may be out of date by now. They're hosting the U.S. National Championships this year. Haven't lost anybody yet - and they didn't have to tell us this salient fact. They showed us it was true without uttering any such words. Every matter of substance was handled with such a reflexive thoroughness. Done-this-a-few-thousand-times, with no carelessless, no apathy. Casual, in a good way, such as you don't even really notice you're entrusting your one and only life into their longsuffering care.
And still no panic. Huh.
The door was opened. Handshakes were exchanged - awkward, for me, since I had apparently forgotten how to operate my right hand. Apparently my brain was, uh, temporarily unavailable. I was still looking for screaming-meemies terror, found none, so I erroneously figured I was unfazed. The solo jumpers started to scooch forward and fidget and... disappear.
We crept forward, Dino reiterating the sequence of events. Suddenly, the simple act of snagging a deep breath was a mystery. I'd like to think it was just the snugness of the harness... rather than my brainstem, wising up to the situation. Heeyyyy, waitaminute -
Right about that time, he answered three or four questions. Smooth as anything. Then it dawned on me I hadn't actually asked the questions yet - actually, they hadn't even been thought out into anything like English language sentences. This freed up me up for the daunting task of shuffling toward the door. Cross-arms-pelvis-out-head-right-heels-together-and-back. And still I thought I was unaffected. It was cold out there, and some clouds could be seen, and I was not feeling any roller-coaster-oh-no-plunge or skidding-on-an-icy-road dread -
And my brother was in the doorway. Eyes wide open, but he'll be glad to know he didn't look terror-stricken or anything. It struck me that there was something... fundamentally not right about my brother being that close to the open door of a plane - and then he was gone.
My turn. And here came the strongest - anxiety? concern? - of the whole day. If this was fear, it was some new variety. No pounding heart or tight throat or clamped-down intestines or nausea or tightly clenched fists or lightheadedness. Not anything close to the flash-flood of adrenaline kicked off while getting a tattoo... This was oddly cerebral. No-wrong-stop-mistake-whoa. It suddenly became clear why I'd been told to cross my chest with my arms... that others had clamped onto the door frame for dear life. How comical it had sounded, twenty minutes before. On the ground. But it was almost a primal temptation at the Big Moment -
You don't actually jump, much less dive. Never mind what the t-shirt says. The master does the jumping/pushing... falling over, bump-and-grind, I couldn't tell you what he actually did. Right then, moving into the cold air, my eyes were (gasp) closed. Go ahead and laugh, it's true. Without consulting me, they just decided it was time to reduce sensory input for a second.
My head went back, onto his right shoulder. I pushed my gut way forward, and -
Cold "wind". Dull roar, clearly making conversation impossible. I looked then, and saw white mist rushing by interlaced with pale blue. From 120 mph to (potentially) two-hundred-miles-a-freakin'-hour. Wearing shorts and a t-shirt, the chill was shocking. Won't last long, I thought vaguely if incompletely...
Taps on both shoulders. "Lazy W" time... arms up in relaxed ninety-degree angles, feet up and together, head up.
No sense of plummeting, of being pulled down. With no visual referent except clouds, we might just as well have been shot out of a cannon. Awesome movement ruled, briefly, inexorably. Motion over mass. Then, more sky to be seen, miniscule plots of land and water, and clouds way too close. Eyes watering, more from the cold than the air (great goggles, even for those of us who wear contact lenses).
I inhaled - unsuccessfully. Tried it again. Well, when did I breathe last...? My lips were flapping. At this point I did feel another twinge of... concern. O-kay, can't breathe, must be the velocity, odd they didn't tell us about that but it'll pass when we pull the chute. Maybe if I tilted my head back, where it was supposed to be anyway, tsk tsk... Nada. Hmmmm.
So I closed my mouth, and found I could breathe through my nose just fine. (Later, my dad reported the same experience. Allan didn't tell, so we may never know if it's some hereditary brain-vaporlock disorder.)
Now I can concentrate again on the freefall. Racing through the noise and cold, still so high above real life that it lacked all relevance. You "old hands" and the stray physicist might be able to tell me how long this lasted. Fifteen seconds? Twenty? But it stretched out to me, as pivotal events have a way of doing...
Suddenly - though anticipated, and still riveting even so - there was Dino's fist in front of my face. Time to pull. Oh. As I was taught, I looked down. There it was, still, on my right hip. Yay. Curled the fingers of my right hand around it, and pulled. It came easily, just as the training video had assured us. And I held that sucker in a death grip. Figuratively speaking.
An expectation from the movies was dashed - there was no hard jerk, upwards. We slowed smoothly, and rapidly. To avoid my dad's regret from his first dive, I looked up and watched the parachute grow and spread. Ooooh. Red and white...? I definitely watched it, though I can't tell you now what colors I saw there.
If memory serves (hint) and our timing was right, we were somewhere around 4,000 feet up. Sailing over a field of green, with a big curve of sea-blue to our left. Hanging there, gently -
You guys... what have you done to me?
Dino had me take hold of one set of handles, by which we'd steer (which surely have a name...) (how 'bout "toggles".) I stood on his bare feet for a couple seconds while he loosened some straps a little for comfort. And if he bails? No prob, I'm holding the chute, he's got the secondary. Deals. (Well, of course he wouldn't.)
He told me to pull down hard on the left toggle, and we immediately started to circle that way, whipping round and round. Same thing with the right handle pulled, but in the opposite direction. Centrifugal force pushing our feet out behind us, and up. Bueno.
And we drifted. Stuff on the ground was still too tiny to be register as "real" trees and buildings. Warm again from the sun, able to talk... lazily sauntering over the airfield. Nothing, nothing, nothing like I'd imagined it would be.
And I was hooked. Feeling secure, up there. A profound sort of well-being, at 2,500 or 3,000 feet (lower, by this time) - it felt completely peaceful, not risky. What's another antonym of "dangerous"...? Compared to driving on the interstate, this was a cake walk. So much for preconcieved notions. I thought about God and angels, and heaven. Unavoidable, for me anyway. So that's what I did.
I could afford to bliss out - I wasn't driving. But Dino had this locked... We talked, and no doubt I babbled. (About what? Naaah, why spoil it for ya?) Some little neuroreceptors in my brain, somehow previously overlooked, had just found their reason for living.
I'm one of those compulsive types... obsess over stuff real easy. These guys shoulda warned me. Aw, man. Maybe one of those little authorization blanks I'd initialled...?
Maybe three, four minutes total, under the chute. I don't know. Our path through that near-atmosphere-place didn't intersect with any stress.
But our last circle had to come sometime, and after waving vigorously to Lisa's kid and Mom's camcorder, the last subadventure was looming. Dino reran the drill, and I listened and wondered just how jarring this landing business would be. Tuck-and-roll, maybe? Not my smoothest move - but he said I only had to lift my feet on his cue, and stand up when told to...
And here it almost pains me to tell Dino's most grievous oversight. In the interest of full disclosure (and in a thoroughly useless attempt to counterract all the wide-eyed fawning) the truth must be told. Even the eerily competent have their flaws... So, in ascending order, here's Gripe Number One: he's one of those unfairly studly foreigners who invade our shores and enthrall our women. Skydive Sebastian is fairly crawling with such types (as well as an appreciable number of women/womyn). Aussies, Germans, Italians, Afrikaaners - it was the most cosmpolitian place I'd seen since leaving California.
Gripe Two: This guy cut to the chase. Not a big blabbermouth. He seems unlikely to wrest the Mr. Congeniality crown from Irish Mark anytime soon (then again, realistically, who could). Unnerving, since so much of my career has required blathering on and on, slinging BS... So naturally the polar opposite just-do-it type offends my gasbag sensibilities.
But make no mistake - if I had to choose between chat and competence, the talkin' will lose out every time. Here's a case where I needed someone else's expertise way more than I even knew. And it was there.
Enough stalling. Gripe Number Three, the big one. Ready? Return with me, if you will, to a few yards above the landing zone. I lifted my feet on command - check - stood up when that cue was given - double-check...
And gently fell down. Knees, to chest, sorta in slo-mo.
"Jelly legs! Jelly legs!," another master crowed. Okay, maybe it wasn't a compliment. You don't stand up and just stay there, ya dork. You're supposed to stand up and keep moving.
Well, of course. Obviously. A three-year-old would know that. Land, stand, keep moving. Sure. Did he tell me to stand up and then keep walking, and had I already forgotten in my altered state - or did he wish not to embarrass me with such a blindingly obvious instruction? Consider the state of my endorphin-soaked brain, accustomed to simple and literal directives... Good thing he didn't tell me to cluck like a chicken.
Now I could be way off base, here, but I think my slavish obedience might also be known as trust. It's an odd little sensation, that.
As it turned out, my mom had thankfully stopped taping just before I made my majestic ventral touchdown. "Jelly legs," huh? Well, I could take that.
For I'd just had a... recreational epiphany. Went out there for a fun-scary daredevil kinda thang to brag about, and instead I was slammed upside the head by an exuberant change in scale. My obligations and job duties, the other roles I take on, all became very-teeny-tiny from Waaaay Up There. This skydiving wouldn't solve any big metaphysical dilemmas, but wow what a cosmically different perspective...
Gotta do this again.
All kinds of brand new complications - AFF jumps, and then student jumps. All that gear. Well of course they're pitchin' tents next to the parking lot... They can't very well bunk in the hangars, and where else would they stay? I got the first peek through their fratneral keyhole. It sorta resembled the day I first straddled a Harley of my own - so evident, it defied any attempt to explain it.
Or maybe it's just infatuation. New-found passion. Us obsessive types run like that.
Before the tandem harness was off, I was shuffling bills and budgets in my head. Huh. Not normal. This is not like me...
I snuck back the next day. Hangdog, away from the hangars. Just to watch.
And the day after that. If my flight out of Orlando hadn't been on the 12th, I suspect I would've been there on the 13th too...
Skydive Sebastian's home page says it's the "World's Most Scenic Drop Zone!!!" - and while I have no basis of comparison (yet), the midair view of the area did something to my, uh, heart.
So I'm digging for nickels... Level 1 ground school and jump. And meanwhile I'll be thinking of those maniacs in Florida, hard at it, prepping for the nationals. You, down there - do you know what you've done? Well, you will. This summer, if a ticket to Orlando can be had on the cheap. Certainly by November at the outside...
Caveat: If I seem to describe some horrible error in procedure or sequence here, the fault lies in my addled recollection. I'd bet on their proficiency - obviously enough - over my overtaxed memory, and if anyone would like to set me straight on any mistakes I'd welcome it... 'nuff said.)
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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