I started this account of my one sky-diving experience some years (!) ago…. and finally finished it last night.
Any story where a man takes risks beyond the ordinary usually involves a woman. On those occasions, “fool” and “man” are as interchangeable as two tire lugs…and with equivalent IQs. In this case, it caused me to suspend a deep‑seated fear of heights and to jump – technically without a parachute — from an airplane flying at ten thousand feet over a desert sunset. Other places to visit were higher on my list than Tucson, Arizona: Macchu Picchu, Easter Island, the ruins of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, Troy VIIa, but none had a woman I could have loved. So it was that I found myself there one August some dozen years ago.
Pamela and I had met in that curious relationship of client and consultant: her company had paid me handsomely for the privilege of not listening to the advice they bought. I was married at the time and we became good friends, good enough to remain connected even after she had moved across the country years later. I was no longer married by then, but any fantasy I might have harbored was exactly that, a fantasy since the reality was so much better: a solid friendship.
I had gone to Tucson to help Pam celebrate a milestone. She was turning forty and feeling unsettled about the past and uneasy about the future. Anyone could see the stunning pre‑Raphaelite looks and hear the deceptively soft‑spoken voice, but it took spadework to uncover one sharp negotiator, two difficult degrees (engineering and a Wharton MBA), three unhappy jobs, and one man after another selected in her father’s image. Having shed both the jobs and the men, she was in the first year of studying medicine, that Faustian pact to do harm to oneself for six years in order to do good for a lifetime. I was not worried about her: swimming with corporate sharks had sharpened her natural feistiness for the inevitable run‑ins with the bureaucracy of a medical school. Pamela had the grit to thrive in that environment without losing her innate gentleness of spirit or purpose. She would make a doctor that could be trusted.
It was during the ride from the airport to her house after my flight from Philadelphia that she turned toward me and asked: “Do you love me enough to jump out of an airplane?”
No. That’s what I wish she had done: posed a question whereby she could be gained with a simple answer. “But noooooooo!!“, as John Belushi used to say. Her actual words were a matter‑of‑fact: “Let’s go sky‑diving tomorrow!“, delivered with her usual smile and musical lilt.
Being seated and belted into the car reduced the shock: I did not stumble as I would have, had we been walking. Feigning interest in the Tucson skyline bought a few moments, moments filled with the image of a falling body accompanied by a prolonged death‑shriek ending with a thud. “Sure“, I replied instead, with a silent gulp.
What else could I have said? “No“? It was out of the question. Consider the forces at play: her personal milestone, my lack (still) of a suitably significant birthday present, my Machismo-by‑osmosis from a Latino childhood… and the only acceptable answer was my even‑toned: “Sure.” All the doubts were invisible, the screams inside my head muffled by a thick male skull. I don’t know why I slept soundly that night, perhaps because a part of me was convinced that it would be my last.
The next afternoon, I wrote a “just‑in‑case” note attesting to the free will exercised in my decision and my love for life and for my daughter. I placed it on top of my suitcase in the guest-room and felt both better and foolish. It brought me some satisfaction that, at the very least, the insurance company wouldn’t be able to claim madness as a reason for avoiding payment. And then we left for Sky-Dive Marana, the jump center at the edge of Tucson.
The instructors and jump‑masters were two young men who carried themselves with the self‑confidence of the insane. Swaggering I would have understood: it was their nonchalance when speaking about the number of times they had jumped that was unsettling. Yet, as thorough as they were in explaining what we could expect, they were also liars: that first step out of the plane (“Put your right foot onto the wing strut, hold onto the door frame with your left-hand and then push out.”) was not the most difficult part of the jump. By that point, the decision had gone through umpteen “…a hundred visions and revisions which a minute will reverse…” (to quote T.S. Eliot) during the hardest part: the slow, spiral‑climb of the Cessna to jump altitude. Why had I thought that it would be like stepping into an elevator, pressing the button for “10,000 feet” and being whisked up, almost instantaneously, in relative comfort? I hadn’t wanted time to relive my decision, especially as I was positioned.
Picture kneeling (prayer, optional) in a space the size of an old-fashioned claw-foot bath-tub. Now picture a large man attached to your behind, er…..behind you and attached, via four points on his chute harness, to your NO-chute harness. (Yes, no-chute harness.) Linked like Siamese twins, you have the combined bulk of a champion Sumo wrestler, a Sumo wrestler with four arms, four legs, and — for this intent and purpose — one brain. (Yours was surrendered when you viewed the safety video, read the release form…and still signed it.) Above the vibrations of the small plane you feel his in-out breathing pressing the front-strapped emergency chute — his emergency chute: you have none! — against your upper back. This stranger is now your BFF, at least until you are back on the ground, alive and in one piece. At this point, you would give him anything he asked – money, secrets, your first-born – because your life is in his hands. Anything. All this went through my mind. And more.
Everything heard in the hangar‑classroom during the previous hour replayed in my mind as I stared at the duct tape on the floor of the Cessna. I could see where a rivet was missing and, glancing upwards at the pilot, wondered whether someone who appeared to have just started shaving ‑‑ judging by the nicks on his face ‑‑ really knew what he was doing. Dwelling on that unpleasant thought, I was grateful that the 120‑mile‑an‑hour wind coming through a crack on the door hinge evaporated the sweat on my face as fast as it formed. My thoughts went back to the pre-jump speech.
“The reserve chute is not effective if deployed below 900 feet”, the jump‑master had said. I had noted the euphemisms: “not effective” for “won’t save your ass”, “deployed”, so full of military precision, for “opening”. Those last 900 feet (three foot‑ball fields laid end to end), would be covered in five seconds, maybe ten, if there was a partial opening. In a problem jump, that would come after 9000 feet of free‑fall, the first six thousand in ecstasy, the last 3000 in increasing panic and terror. If the altimeters on the plane were right, there would be approximately fifty seconds before certain death. (I once read a story in Reader’s Digest about a Russian military pilot who fell over forty‑thousand feet with a defective parachute and survived…..but I had stopped believing in the Reader’s Digest when it’s editorials kept insisting that Nixon was not a crook.)
The free‑fall in a sky-dive is unique. First, it’s not a surprise. Second, this kind of falling takes time. It has nothing in common with ordinary falling like, for example, from leaning over the railing of an apartment balcony. That would be unexpected, an accident. Sky-diving is about as premeditated an act as one can make! Secondly, there is the duration of the fall. Look at the nearest time‑piece. Now hold your breath for thirty seconds. Yes, stop reading, hold your breath, and count to thirty. Slowly. Don’t cheat! Your life doesn’t “flash before your eyes”. Instead, you are a captive audience to a slow-motion video of all those life-events you couldn’t remember at $150.00 an hour on the therapist’s couch.
In a typical jump, thirty seconds, on the average, is how long it takes to cover the 6000 feet of free‑fall (about 1.1 miles). Like losing one’s virginity — with which, arguably, a first-jump shares many emotions: anticipation, anxiety, terror, euphoria, relief, gratitude, and elation — it can be both the longest and shortest half‑a‑minute in one’s life. (For the record, losing my virginity lasted….never mind!)
My thirty seconds — no, not the virginity-losing ones — began with the creaky metal door swinging open and the sudden vastness of the unconfined world being laid, quite literally, at my feet. From that perch, my sense of awe and insignificance co-existed in the same moment… and was abruptly pushed aside by the jump-master’s shouts competing with the roar of the engine and the wind: “Swing out!! Get your foot planted!!” I found myself half-outside the plane, right foot on the wing-strut, the wind whipping my over-sized jumpsuit into a sail, and straddling…..nothing.
Whether I actually jumped or waddled into thin air by the weight and pull of my BBFF (Best, Best Friend Forever) in the world, I will never know. I’d like to think that I stepped out of my own volition.
What I do remember about the free-fall is a series of sensations. The flap-flapping noise of the extra material of the jump-suit and the deafening roar – and whipping of my ears – by the wind, my cheeks concaving from its force. The pressure of the goggles on my face and the will-power it took to keep my eyes open. A sense of the mass (the jump-master) attached to my back but without the weight, as we were falling at the same speed. The cartoonish view of the earth rushing towards me at a terminal velocity of over 120 miles per hour. And, most clearly, a memory of the fear that I would lose bladder-control.
Then, just as my mind was beginning to disassociate from my body, the expected-but-still-miraculous opening of the chute on the jump-master’s back!
Instantly, I became a human marionette suddenly yanked straight up by invisible hands and strings as the harness straps, not cinched tightly enough, snapped, then dug into my chest and inner thighs. A hundred miles per hour of air‑speed had disappeared in under two seconds. I had gone from demonstrating gravity to blessing the existence of an atmosphere as the opened para-sail caught and held the air. (Although perception of the pain was quickly suppressed by the adrenalin and endorphins, the bruises from the harness would fully develop by the time we had returned home, the outlines so distinct they looked like dark blue tattoos for the first week.)
After the shock of the 3 to 4 G deceleration, I was just glad that I had checked (and re‑checked) that my “family jewels” were tucked out of harm’s way before stepping out of the plane. During the pre‑jump course, Frank, the jump-master, had shouted out the class‑room door: “Bill, remember that guy last year in Colorado that Fred told us about? You know, that first‑timer whose dick ‑‑ sorry, ladies – I mean, whose ‘private parts’ got caught between the harness and his thigh? Fred said the ground crew could hear his scream when the chute opened, and they were a couple of miles away and not even downwind. Said they’d never heard a scream that held the initial pitch for that long… Do you remember whether he said they saved it or not?” Then turning towards us again, “The point of the story is: you might walk funny on the way to plane with the straps on tight, but I guarantee you’ll walk funnier later if you don’t!” The story might have been apocryphal, but it certainly made everyone with external private-parts wince. (The women had exchanged glances but kept their chuckling silent, out of respect? Smug superiority?)
As I now floated through a never-before-experienced silence – made even more striking by the contrast to the wind’s roar just before – I started to relax a little. I dared not look down at my feet, since seeing NOTHING under them could have had the effect of releasing previously-mentioned bladder, and focused instead on being at eye-level with clouds, the jagged skyline in the distance, and the smoothness of the descent.
Suddenly, the disembodied voice of my BBFF came from above and behind me: “See those lines with the handles in front of and above you? Grab them with your hands and pull the left one or the right one to go in that direction.” I did as he commanded and made us go in wide back-and-forth turns designed to bring us to the landing-zone near the hangars. At some point, for better accuracy, he took over and I was free to enjoy the scenery. My BBFF – I have no recollection of his name or what he looked like – pointed out some of the terrain features, none of which made an impression as I was on sensory overload. (Pamela and her BBFF were not-too-distant, but just far enough to make communication impossible.)
As we got closer to the ground, the reference point of the buildings growing bigger made it seem as if our speed was increasing. His last instructions were for me to lift my legs up so that his would act as the “landing gear” running to a stop when we touched-down, the para-sail flared back to release the last of the trapped air that is the principle behind how parachutes and para-sails work. If I failed to lift my legs, then our four legs, close together and without the room to move, would likely trip and tangle as we touched ground. A 15-18 mph, it would make for a very ungraceful and dangerous landing.
Fortunately, I paid close attention and we landed without stumbling. Safely on terra firma, I looked up at the sky, the storm clouds in the distant mountains lit like giant Japanese paper‑lanterns by the lightning within, and marveled at having been a speck against that infinite expanse.
Somewhere, there is a photo of Pamela and I – still in our jump-suits and wearing the skull-tight jump head-gear – grinning ear-to-ear against a background of sagebrush and a deep-blue sky.