"I wanna be an Airborne Ranger,
I wanna live a life of danger!"
-Judd Nelson (The Breakfast Club)
I'd always been afraid of heights. It was something I just knew about myself. I never tried to change it or avoid it; it was always part of who I was. Not that I was afraid of just any height. It had to be really, really high to make me think twice about it. Stability was also an issue. Climbing a tree wasn't too bad no matter how high I went, but put me on a ladder and I won't go past the third rung. There's something about an item that is firmly planted deep in the ground that I'm secure with. While some rickety ladder made in Taiwan is something I avoid like the plague.
So when Mike (my current roommate), and Bob (my other best friend) asked me to come skydiving with them, I declined. On my height vs. stability scale, a flimsy nylon parachute doesn't rate too high. I decided I would be willing to go with them to watch, but there was no way to get me into the plane.
We spent the next week looking for a place nearby that would take us up for cheap. We found one about two hours away in Jersey, and booked two jumps for the next Saturday.
All week long, Mike and Bob bragged to everyone that they were going skydiving. No one in our circle of friends had ever done it, so it seemed an outrageous thing to do at the time. I mean, we were barely eighteen.
Bob asked his girlfriend if she wanted to come watch. She wasn't too happy with the whole idea, and asked him not to do it. For once he stood up to her. There was no way that she, or anyone else was going to keep him from jumping out of that plane, he told us later.
She went and told Bob's mom what we were planning to do.
Bob's mom broke into tears crying about how she didn't want her son to die like that. This went on for about twenty minutes. After which Bob called us and said that he had changed his mind and would not be going.
So now Mike is getting nervous because he doesn't want to do this alone. He starts twisting my arm (it didn't take that much twisting), and I agree to jump in Bob's place just to show him up.
The night before the jump we went to a neighborhood bar that doesn't proof and had a few beers in anticipation of our great feat tomorrow.
The next morning I manage to wake myself up, drive to Mike's house and wake him up (no easy task) and get to the airstrip in Jersey by 10:00.
They have us fill out a questionnaire and sign a liability form.
One of the questions on the form is "How much do you weigh?"
Easy enough question, except that right next to it is a note that says, "Maximum weight allowance 250 pounds."
At the time, Mike was easily 270. He's lost A LOT since then, but back in '89 he was chubby. So Mike did what any honest, law abiding American would do, and what 90% of all women do anyway; he lied about his weight.
We almost fell asleep during the basic instructions on parachuting and the history of the sport. It was our summer vacation, and we weren't used to getting up early. By the time they got to the instructions on how to land, we were semi-catatonic.
After lunch they set us up in groups and explained that if you jump well on your first try, they'll let you jump a second time today for only $40. Mike and I decided to go with that plan. We just assumed we would jump well. I mean, how hard can it be? Jump out of the plane, and land on the ground. It's not like you can miss.
We got into the plane, and I swear I was glad I was wearing a chute. This was the most rickety propeller plane I had ever seen. There was a gaping hole in the floor that they asked us to please step over, and the engine sounded worse than the one in Mike's VW Beetle.
They took us up to three thousand feet. It's so high, that you can't even tell that you're in a plane. This is not quite the same as looking out the window from a jumbo jet. From forty thousand feet you can barely even tell what's below you. From here, I can distinctly see cars driving beneath us. It's not quite high enough to give the illusion of being separated from the world. This is scary stuff.
They told Mike that he was jumping first. Probably because of the weight issue.
He climbed out of the door, put his left foot on the step rail and held the wing strut with both hands just as we were told to. I noticed that the whole time he was on the strut, he was looking at his left foot and trying to adjust his placement.
The instructor yelled, "Ready...Set....Jump!!"
Mike continued to adjust his foot on the step.
"Jump!" Still adjusting.
Then the instructor gave Mike a nice hard shove and sent him plummeting to earth.
About six seconds later his chute opened and I watched him level out.
The next jumper got onto the strut. The instructor yelled, "Ready...," and the guy jumped out. Guess he didn't want to get pushed.
Then it was my turn. Butterflies are coursing through my stomach. I'm even a little nauseous, but trying hard to keep my cool.
I get on the step and grab the strut.
Ready, set, jump, and out I go.
Now, we were supposed to push off hard to the right, look up, and give the instructor the thumbs up when we've leveled off. That constitutes a "good" jump.
All I remember thinking as I left the plane was, "Ya know...next time I skydive, I'm going to push off a little harder. I don't think that was as hard a push as I should have done. Next time I'll do it much better..."
I was told later by the instructor that as I left the wing I curled up into a ball and went tumbling end over end away from the plane. Not a good jump, and especially, not a good start to a three thousand foot rapid descent. There's also no possible way for me to open my chute.
As beginners, they couldn't leave the responsibility of opening our chutes completely in our hands (thank God). We're on what's called a "Static Line." This means that our chute is attached to a wire that leads to the plane. When we've fallen a certain distance, the wire pulls the cord on the chute and opens it for you. Infallible. Unless of course you're me.
If you're facing down when the chute opens, there's no problem; it will open fine. If you're facing up when the chute gets opened, it will spin you around so fast that it will snap your spine.
My luck held once again; I was facing down the moment it pulled.
The shock of being yanked like that (and it was a big yank) woke me up from my little fear coma, and I realized I was flying.
The first minute or two falling via parachute is spectacular if you've never done it before. Nothing around you but sky. You're suspended like a puppet from strings out of nowhere.
The next minute or two get a little repetitive and boring. There's just so many times you can kick your feet and yell, "Woo Hoo!"
I'm wearing a little one way radio on the front of my jumpsuit so the instructors on the ground can yell out directions. It squawks to life, and the guy tells me to turn left and aim for the target. So I look around. Below me I can see a huge green field. No problem there. I'm kind of near the corner of it, right above a blacktop road. The road is lined with power lines that basically run around all four sides of this field that I'm above. To make matters worse, there's a huge barn in the middle of the field, and about two inches from the barn (hey, I'm over a thousand feet off the ground; you try to judge distances; it looked like two inches to me) is a large white X. All around the X are cars and vans belonging to the instructors, and to the friends and families that came to watch.
They've got me trying to land in a T.J. Hooker obstacle course!
I adjust myself the way they showed me (this was one of the few things they showed me that I paid attention to), and now I'm directly above the X as far as I can tell.
The radio comes on again, and the guy tells me to bring my knees together. I try, but can't. The harness is too tight. So I start yelling back at the radio until I realize that they can't hear me.
The only other thing I remember them telling me about how to land was never look down. If you look down, they said, you'll never be ready when you hit the ground. Then there was something about looking at the horizon line to judge your height, but I never really got that part. Oh yeah, and something about needing to keep your knees together or you'll break your legs. Fat lot of good that does me.
So I'm looking at the horizon, for what I don't know, when the guy on the radio tells me I'm doing good. That's news to me. Then he says something. For what he told me at that moment, I still to this day want to find this guy and kill him. He should know better. He said the one thing that would cause anyone to screw up a landing.
He said, "Don't look down."
So what did I do? I looked down.
All I could see was this big greenish, brownish thing rushing at me at what I later found out was thirty miles per hour. It hit me. Or more accurately, I hit it. And hard.
There was pain shooting up and down both my legs. I thought they were broken. They were shaking so hard I thought my teeth were going to fall out. For a brief moment I though I went blind but quickly realized it was the parachute that had landed on top of me.
The guy on the radio informs me that there's a guy about to land on my head, so I should probably get up.
I stand up shakily, grab my chute, and head over to Mike, who's standing by the van, with his hand on his back, smoking.
I limp over to him.
"Mike, I need a cigarette."
Everyone starts laughing.
Mike turns to them, "You don't get it. He doesn't smoke."
My leg swelled up so big I couldn't get my sneaker back on. Mike took me to the hospital the next day. After the x-rays, it was discovered that I had broken two toes, sprained my ankle, and hyper-extended my knee, all on my left leg. They have a technical name for it, but what it boils down to is permanent tendon damage. I spent the rest of the summer in a "leg immobilization unit," which is basically a foam sleeve worn on the leg which has a metal bar running down each side. After two years with a chiropractor, I've been able to use it much better. For awhile it was almost good as new. Every so often it just stiffens up on me, and bending down quickly, or standing too quickly results in a really loud "POP" and some pain.
Aside from that souvenir, Mike and I both bought T-shirts of a guy getting pushed out of a plane (they actually sold them in the little gift shop) with a caption that read, "No shit, there I was, thought I was going to die."
I think that summed things up pretty well. Amazingly, this whole adventure did cure my fear of heights. I'm still really careful on ladders. I mean, I'm no longer afraid of being that high up on a ladder; I'm just afraid to FALL from that high up. The only downside of the whole experience (aside from the knee damage), is the fact that from that day on, I've been deathly afraid to get back in a plane.
If you have any questions, E-Mail me. Spat@spat-nospam-cave.com