22 November 2006

Why jump out of a perfectly good airplane?

My soon-to-be-ex-husband, when I asked him once why he lost interest in me, told me that I’d “lost my fire”. I’m not quite sure what that means, except perhaps it was his way of saying that he was bored with our marriage. But in response to this (among other influences), I found that at age 33, I have begun to do things that would convince myself that I had not, in fact, lost my fire… whatever that meant. In the process of re-igniting my fire, I found myself doing things that should only be excused if you are between the ages of 15 and 23 – easily the most stupid developmental years of any human being’s life.

I’m going to refrain from writing about some of my juvenile-like exploits of the last 7 months, which have included: Getting a tattoo, traveling to a third world country alone (okay, I’m kind of proud of that one), and other embarassingly weird and dumb things that I will forever - under oath - refuse to admit to doing as a legally competent person. (Fortunately, very few of them have left any visible scarring... but I digress)...

First of all, let me say that the jumping out of an airplane idea wasn’t totally impulsive. I’ve been thinking about it for a few years. And for the record, I’ve never considered myself hyperactively acrophobic, either. I can psych myself into being rather brave when it comes to edges of things like buildings and canyons. But I’ve never been amazingly fond of heights (especially heights without barriers between me and it), and can also psych myself into being quite a wuss. So skydiving to me ultimately represented something that I needed to do in order to sort of face my fears. Kind of like SCUBA diving certification was for my mild phobia of being underwater. At least that’s how I reconcile it in my head. But what propelled me most recently to actually ‘take the plunge’ and actually, well, take the plunge? Having lately been accused of playing life “too safe” by a husband who was looking for someone with ‘more fire’ (and ultimately found someone, thank God), I think I needed to prove that I could actually follow through with … well … something stupid. And brave. And fire-like. Or whatever.

But I didn’t want to jump alone. So I took my sister with me.

I will admit that this was probably the dumbest part of the whole thing. After all, if I managed to plummet to my death from a-way up there, there would be mourning, and some logistics to clean up (as well as a Beth-sized mess), but not much more than that. My sister, on the other hand, is the drop-dead-fabulous mother of four boys. (Pun not intended, I swear). So asking her to jump out of a plane was probably not the smartest thing for me to do. That being said, she’s my best friend on top of being my only sibling. So I couldn’t *not* ask… and I kept reminding myself that she could always say no, and simply meet me when I was down on the ground. And anyway, I needed a ride.

The actual decision to drive 2 ½ hours to the Skydive Ranch was made rather impulsively the week before. I chalk that up to my theory that once a decision is made to do something really, really stupid, it should be done with very little opportunity to change one’s mind. That’s the working theory today, anyway. It’s also kind of a theme of my life… while I don’t consider myself a crazily impulsive person, I am prone to intermittent bouts of “well, I’m not getting any younger” and go off on some tangent of life, like getting a tattoo, and justifying it by saying things like “once a decision is made to do something really, really stupid, it should be done with very little opportunity to change one’s mind.”

Since I don’t own a car (or rather, since my husband has our car, and it’s 4-door sportiness wouldn’t handle the 7 people anyway, especially since four of them require car seats to be legally installed), my sister’s family - including the dog - and I all piled into their Honda minivan and headed up to Skydive the Ranch, which is located about 30 minutes south of Woodstock (peace, dude.) My nephews were glued to the minivan’s video monitor the entire ride, enthralled by some never ending video featuring the Peanuts gang reenacting various historical events, like the Mayflower voyage, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and other – to use my sister’s phraseology: “Obscenely educational” things.

My brother in law – sandwiched between the two eldest boys in the back – slept, stirring only when his 7-year-old son started absent-mindedly fingering his face.

My sister drove and I narrated directions and tried to keep our minds off of the incredibly moronic afternoon activity we’d planned. It didn’t work very well, and every once in a while during a lull in our conversation, we’d glance at each other and say supportive and nurturing things like “This was a dumb idea.”

The website for the Ranch outlines what to expect when you arrive, and gives you a chance to do some preparation at home in order to shorten your “training” time when you arrive. Since my sister and I are geeks, we watched all the videos (made circa 1982) that told us that no parachute is perfect, no plane is perfect, no jump is perfect, no person is perfect, that accidents happen, and to enjoy the ride. One narrator from the National Parachute Safety Guild (or something) looked like a ZZ Top wanna-be and I could only imagine what his crotch-length beard looked like as he plummeted towards the planet at 200mph. We also printed out the waivers that we would need to sign, and read them thoroughly in order to understand that Yes, we waive our right to live; Yes, we won’t sue if we die; No, we aren’t drunk; Yes, we have life insurance; No, it doesn’t apply here; Yes, we understand what DIE means; Yes, we’re absolutely, 100% positively sure we waive our right to live. We also watched an amazingly helpful video that told us what to do as we were plummeting out of the plane – hand signals, where to put your feet, hands, how to read the altimeter, how your tandem jumper will help you, and what training you’ll receive when you arrive at the jump site. Of course, none of this actually happened, but I’ll get to that later. All told, this preparation material would have been amazingly terrifying, except that the people who made the videos seem to have a pretty good sense of humor: A 12-inch action-figure Grim Reaper made several cameo appearances throughout. Oh, and they also told us to wear warm gloves.

But we weren’t worried too much, figuring that we’d get more actual training when we arrived. We were – how shall I put this? – completely wrong.

Arriving at the ranch, most of our crew being under 7 years old, the first stop was the bathroom. I should have known then what kind of afternoon we were in for. The outhouses were barely past port-o-potties, and the only reason they weren’t portable any longer was because they’d sunk into the ground over the years and been rooted to the earth with weeds and grass.

The “Ranch” consisted of: A large tent, two or three trailers perched on cinderblocks, and one hull of a wheel-less, hollowed out school bus, on which was painted “Skydive the Ranch”. Oh, and a wooden fence that separated this professional establishment with the “runway” and “landing field”, which was basically a strip of grass. One group of jumpers were landing as we arrived, so we watched them come down. There were several “pros” who were wearing matching parachute / jumpsuit combinations, or had fancy arm-wings which I can only assume helped them steer or look more like Batman, I’m not sure which. There were a few first-timers (you could tell because they were tandem) who came down mostly screaming or laughing or both.

My sister and I set up Matt and the boys on a picnic table, and headed over with our waivers in a nice manila folder to check in. We handed our prepared paperwork to a 15-year-old suicide blonde who had a shock of pink hair dyed bangs and more piercings than would be permitted through a metal detector at an airport. It would have been comical, except for the fact that we were about to die. After taking our credit cards, they assigned us to our tandem jumpers, and my videographer. Dave, my tandem guy, reminded me of the guys that never left high school – at least, mentally. When I asked where he was from, he almost immediately told me that he’d just driven in from Indiana where his girlfriend had dumped him and all of his stuff was in his car in the parking lot. I half expected him to ask to move in with me, and I wondered if he would still want to if I threw up on him during the jump. I also hoped that he wasn’t despondent over the breakup to the point of doing something dumb, like forgetting to pull the parachute out or something. My sister’s tandem guy was from Holland and didn’t speak a word. Ever. I still don’t know his name. I don’t know which was worse, honestly.

About this time, Dave told us to put on jump suits (the only time that the term literally applies.) They were amazingly fashionable (not)… approximately the color of a yellow Hi-Lighter and slimming… much like wearing an industrial shower curtain liner. After donning these ridiculously ungraceful suits (which were surprisingly hard to get into, since we’d worn multiple layers), and dutifully putting on our mandatory gloves, Dave said “Do you have everything out of your pockets?” Since there was no way to actually GET my pockets at this point, I said “Yes.” I have no idea to this day if there was anything in my pockets. Then, Dave put on our harnesses. At this point, my sister’s guy led her off to the field. Expecting to follow, I turned to Dave, at which point he said “Oh Shit!” and ran off to his parachute pack. I can tell you, first hand, that one of the last things you want to hear when you’re contemplating jumping out of a plane with an “expert” on your back is your “expert” exclaiming “Oh Shit!” and running away. It’s almost as bad as waking up during surgery and hearing the surgeon say “Oops.” The only redeeming part was that we were still on the ground.

So I stood, alone, waiting for my video guy and Dave to train me. My sister was off – one of the bright yellow spots waiting on the field. I waited about 10 minutes, which made me nervous, because if I was going to jump out of a plane with my sister, I would prefer that my sister actually be on the same plane as me. It also gave me plenty of time to become even more nervous about the fact that – oh yea – I was going to be jumping out of a plane. I double-checked to be sure that I had my gloves on.

Eventually, Dave and the video guy came back. Dave asked if I wanted to wear a helmet. I tried to make some joke about how a leather helmet probably doesn’t help much when you splat. Dave chuckled, and explained that the helmet was mainly to keep your head warm. The video guy made the crucial decision for me, however, when he explained that for video purposes, I’d look better without the helmet. It was purely vanity, but I chose not to wear it. In hindsight, as I look at the photos, I’m not sure how much worse I could look with it, but in order to look as cool as possible, I decided to skip the helmet. (My sister, for the record, wore the helmet. I’m not sure who looked dumber: Her with the hat, or me with my hair straight up like some bad 80’s punk music video.)

Dave then took me to “train”… which was basically standing inside a wooden box (“This is the plane”) with a hole in the side (“This is the plane door”) and being told to keep my head up (“It’ll look better in the video.”) Then, we pulled on some straps that were attached to a few pulleys (“When I say ‘flare’, pull these down”) and that was it. It took less than a minute. We then walked over to where my sister had been standing for 20 minutes (with her mute tandem guy) and waited for our plane. That was all the training I got which was, apparently, 100% more than the training that my sister got. I kept waiting for the video we had to watch, or the official legalese that they had to read, or the official training information session that we were going to get. There was none. The next step was climbing on the plane.

When the dual-prop plane came rumbling down the field, I was reminded of the school bus. Empty, minimal, and in desperate need of a new coat of paint. It stopped in front of us, and we went around the rear of the plane. The props were spinning, of course, setting up a nice little backwash of wind that I was totally unprepared for. It knocked me a few steps sideways, and I thought “Well, that’s annoying” and then realized that the wind coming from the props was nothing compared to the wind that would be coming at my whole body when I jumped out of the plane. Gack. So we climbed on the plane. There were two benches on the plane, which we straddled and sat – basically – in each other’s laps, lined up like sardines. There were a few ‘pros’ on board, but there were a few tandem first-timers too. The plane started rolling – and I realized that we were facing backwards. I remarked that it was disconcerting taking off in a plane facing the wrong way, and the tandem-guy in front of me went off on a safety lecture about how facing the rear of any traveling vehicle was the safest way to travel, whether it was by plane, train or automobile. My sister made some quip about how hard it would be to drive facing backwards. I couldn’t help think that I wanted him to be my tandem guy, instead of my recently dumped “Oh, Shit!” friend, Dave.

At this point, we were told that we were going to climb to about 14,000 feet, which was when we were going to jump. It’s amazing how little difference there is between 100 feet and 14,000 feet… after all, if something goes wrong at either height, it’s only a matter of a few seconds before the inevitable happens. As someone once gracefully explained it to me, the falling isn’t the challenge… it’s the landing that poses the problem. I remember reading a book once that said that in order to fly, all you have to do is hurl yourself at the ground, and miss it. So that was my backup plan – if the chute malfunctioned, I would just miss the Earth and I just fly to safety. Nice.

Just about the time that we reached 6,000 feet, they opened the door. I had a sudden moment of panic, and then watched a guy slip out the opening, and then they closed it. It was very sudden, and rather jarring, and a little bit of bile rose into my throat. “Oh shit,” I said to my sister, “That guy just jumped out of the plane! Did you see that?!?” “Um, yea,” she replied. About this time, I had a sudden wave of guilt over having my sister – the mother of four – join me on this trip. I turned to her very seriously and said, “If you don’t want to do this, you don’t have to.” At the time, it felt like the responsible thing to say – to remove any pressure she may be feeling from me. However, as she told me later, the only purpose it really served was to freak the crap out of her, which wasn’t exactly what she needed, having been already freaked out by the fact that we were now climbing to over 9,000 feet and getting ready to – oh yea – jump out of a plane.

The plane was loud – a dual-prop plane usually is – and was made louder by the fact that the “door” was actually a heavy plastic shield and not an actual, technical door. As we reached about 10,000 feet, Dave told me it was time to strap up. So he scooted up closer behind me (I hadn’t realized that getting closer without actual penetration was even possible until that point) and started attaching his harness to mine. The straps were pulled amazingly tight, probably not helping the “I can’t breathe” feeling that was creeping up since we took off. Once securely attached, I re-checked my gloves (yep, still there), and looked up – they were rolling up the plastic door, and I looked down and saw clouds. We were above the clouds. Significantly above the clouds. And significantly above the Earth.

The next steps happened very quickly, which I think is on purpose, because if we first-timers actually had a chance to THINK about what we were seeing, we’d back out and come back down in the plane, at which point they would have to pry our trembling bodies out of the corner of the plane. As people jumped, we scooted forward on our benches, with our tandem guys firmly attached to our asses. I double-checked my gloves. Still there. As I looked ahead, I could see people jumping out of the plane door.

Actually, jumping isn’t really the right word. Falling really doesn’t describe it either. It seemed to me that they were being SUCKED by some gigantic vacuum out the door and down towards the planet. They fell so fast that it seemed that they were being propelled by more than just gravity. I’ve been on roller coasters, and felt that stomach lurch that comes at the top of a long drop, and I couldn’t help but wonder if my stomach would feel that way the entire trip down. It didn’t seem possible to keep from puking if that was the case, and I was surprised that no one mentioned this earlier. I asked Dave, “Which falls faster, puke or people?” and without pause, he replied, “People.” Apparently, he knows this from experience.

Next, the tandem couple in front of my sister was sucked out of the plane, and it dawned on me that we were the last two out of the plane. It also dawned on me how stupid it is to be last off the plane, after having watched everyone else get sucked out of the plane. And then it dawned on me again that overall, it was stupid to jump out of a plane no matter what order you happen to be in the line. But it was too late to say anything to her, because she was being scooted towards the door. I have my sister’s jump on my video, and on it I can hear her saying “Aaack!!” and can hear myself saying “You’re good! You’re good!” I’m not sure if she heard this, if she needed to hear this, or if I was just saying it to make myself feel better about talking her into this. But that was the last thing my sister heard me say before she was sucked out of the door and plummeted towards the planet.

As I watched her fall, I remember quite distinctly thinking: If I live through this, she’s going to kill me.

Then it was my turn.

We shuffled towards the door, and I held onto my harness straps for dear life, just like Dave told me. The wind from the props and the plane moving was intense, but I was too freaked out to feel anything like a temperature. We rocked in the doorway, and then we tipped over the edge and my feet slipped of the edge into… nothing. My stomach lurched, almost painfully, and then stopped lurching. I recall a moment of relief when this happened, thinking that at least my stomach wouldn’t come out of my mouth completely. The noise was deafening, as the air rushed past us and we started falling faster. I remembered to keep my head up, and my feet back… and suddenly the camera guy was in my face, reaching for my hand. I reached out to give him a “high five” as he told me he might do… and then opened my mouth to smile for the camera.

That was a mistake.

For future reference, when you’re traveling 200 mph, opening your mouth is not a good idea. Why? Because air has an amazing ability to inflate your mouth and lungs with a terrific force, and suddenly I couldn’t exhale, and my face skin was flapping in all sorts of funky, flappy ways. Remember those guys in the old space-training movies? They put them in a wind tunnel and then film their faces flapping? It’s all very funny… until it’s your face. The whole Superman flying gracefully through the air looks great in the movies, but 200mph does a little more than just ruffle your hair-gelled curly-cue. No matter how much gel you have in your hair, the air feels practically solid, and it flattens you. And your hair.

I managed to close my mouth, and start breathing again, and then I had just a moment to actually look around. About this time, we went through a cloud. It wasn’t much of one – just enough for me to see white… feel wet… and then it was gone. And all the video training about what to do when you're falling? Never occurred to me. Sooner than I realized, Dave was pulling my hand to the rip cord. I gave it a yank and the parachute came out. After a few bumps and swings, we were floating, and I realized I wasn’t deaf any more. Dave asked “How was it?” and I replied “Holy shit, that was CRAZY! My sister is going to KILL ME.” He laughed.

We had a nice float down. We did some turns – which basically meant spiraling weirdly and wildly one way and then the other – and I was laughing most of the way down. I felt like a little kid. When we got closer to the ground, Dave told me to put my legs straight out, and when he said “Flare,” I pulled on the straps, just like during training.

My sister said that my landing looked hard. But I don’t recall it being all that bumpy. Then again, I was so high on adrenaline, that I don’t know if I would have noticed broken bones for a few hours until the high ran down. The photos of us afterwards show both of us rather wide-eyed and freaked out by the whole thing. When I ate our picnic lunch about 20 minutes later, my stomach was still twitching from nerves.

In the end, we free-fell for under a minute – about 50 seconds, Dave said. I’m not sure if it felt like more or less – it was all kind of a blur. My sister said that she took a look around at the world while she was falling. I kind of missed that part, except for the clouds. I was too busy trying to breathe, keep my mouth closed, and try to keep my flapping face under control (I failed on that last one.) I think that I’ll have to go one more time, if only to have the opportunity to enjoy the freefall a little more, now that I know to keep my big mouth closed.

And for the record, my sister didn't kill me. And in case you ever go skydiving… keep your mouth closed, and don’t worry about gloves. Contrary to what the videos tell you, gloves don’t really matter all that much.



Pynchon said...

Well, I think you are incredibly brave. You would never get me jumping out of a plane.

Stephanie Moffet a.k.a "SMoffett" said...

Hello Beth,

I hail you from way down in Dixie. This is the land where Fried Turkey is way more common than the baked version. So imagine my surprise when I hear that you all up there in the Northeast also partake of the delights of fried turkey. Your thanksgiving was much more enjoyable than mine, as I had to work that day and the day after. (Imagine that happening in a tv newsroom). I can also go on at length as how it's not "stuffing", the correct term of that other famous thanksgiving day dish is "dressing", but I won't. Seeing as how you all wouldn't agree!