| Guess what!
Well, I was pushed, kinda. Two miles up! 10,500 feet high over Rhode Island! I
guess I could see the whole state, right? It was clear (a tad hazy, but it didn't
matter), warm, sunny, and fantastic. What a day to skydive!
I was in Boston to speak at the ISC Symposium there on Saturday. It turned out
that a group of students were going skydiving the next day. They asked if I wanted
to join them the day after the conference and I figured I had been talking about
it long enough, time to do it. So I said ok, they made reservations and we all
hoped the news was wrong about the thunderstorms coming in that week.
As you can guess, the thunderstorms didn't materialize and, after staying up until
4:30 am the phone rang at 9:00. It was Jacquelyn, my good friend at Harvard, the
organizer (the perpetual organizer!). She and Matt and Travis, two very cool friends
of hers from Harvard, were on their way. Aaghh. Thank heavens, for whatever reason,
the wine and Scorpion bowls of the night before had only grazed me a little. I
didn't have a hangover, but I was definitely sleep deprived. It was probably a
good thing. Long story short, we got to the Boston-Providence Skydiving Center
and they showed us a video, shot in the 1980's, with a man wearing a nearly impossibly
long beard. It looked fake, but it wasn't. It was so funny we almost couldn't
pay attention to the video, until we heard: experimental, not FAA approved, exceptional
test jump. Youch. It made things sound kinda scary, but we just initialled everything.
The video ended, the pages and pages of release forms were initialled, and we
got a quick lesson (when we go out tandem grab your chest straps, lean your head
back on my shoulder and arch your back. Then, once we're falling, I'll tap you
on the shoulder. At that point hold your hands out like this (stick 'em up position)
and we'll steer ourselves for a little free-fall fun. Then I'll pull the ripcord
and we'll float down to earth.) Yeah, and we'll try to land on our butts so we
don't break our legs. What?
I am sitting right by the door. The plexiglass very flimsy looking, sliding door
on the side of the airplane. It is definitely the place to sit. Shall we say,
it heightens the experience! I look out and watch the ground slowly fall away
as we rise higher and higher. I think about how it is a lot like your typical
airplane ride, except the engines are louder and the wind blows into the plane,
given the flimsy door. I am sitting on the floor right next to the flimsy door
and I am contemplating that the only way down allowed by any concept of honor
is right out that flimsy door! The plane bumps around and yaws in the winds as
we ride higher and higher. People in the plane get noticeably more and more excited.
"Have a good jump!" "Have a good jump!" People are exchanging earnest looks and
the realization shows in everyones' eyes that, no matter how safe this is supposed
to be, what we're all about to do is totally crazy. It makes me feel almost nauseous.
Or is it looking out the flimsy door? Or the bouncing of the tiny craft? Who knows,
maybe it is the Scorpion bowls. I am retreating internally. I feel that tough
guy instinct keeping my mouth closed as I want to just blabber and blabber. I
set my jaw and try to look nonchalant, knowing that I must look fairly stressed.
But, now we're above 10,000 feet and the spotter signals me to lift the flimsy
door. I help him fling it open and now the wind is howling and he's looking out
and signaling Matt, the South African guy who's strapped to my back (and in charge
of the little unit that signals the pilot where to go) with these left, right,
more, more, left, right signals. Then... OK. And I ask the guy behind me one more
time if I am definitely, absolutely attached to him since he's got the parachute.
He assures me that I am. The cameraman, Crazy Billy, who's going to take pictures
and video of me is crouching. He is getting me even more adrenalined out with
his looks and mad grins and little high fives. Tension in my body is definitely
mounting. I can tell my eyes are a little bugged and the spotter guy all of a
sudden jams on his helmet and boom! he's gone. Things go into high gear. Wow,
Holy shit. Oh man, oh man, ohmanohmanohman... I am breathing pretty deep and fast
and trying not to look like I feel inside. Billy is out on the side of the plane.
Clinging and looking at me with this utterly lunatic grin, he bugs his eyes. He's
wearing his helmet with a Nikon 35 MM on the top and a video camera mounted on
the side. Matt is urging me to pivot on my butt and get my feet to the right and
out the side door. I am sitting with my mid thighs on the edge of the door and
the rest of my legs are hanging out in the wind two miles up and I am hyper-ventilating
and swearing I will pay attention to the WHOLE thing. Matt says, "Are ya ready?"
and I am grabbing my chest straps so I won't bury my fingernails into the thin
metal skin of the plane in a primal attempt to save my life as this lunatic on
my back is pushing me closer and closer to the edge and oblivion and I realize
I can't look down and keep it together so I put my head back like I'm supposed
to and he says ready, set, go.
And we fall off the edge of existence as I know it and start to go faster and
faster and my physical body knows that something is definitely wrong with this
feeling and I am forcing my eyes farther open than they have ever been while I
breathe in longer and deeper than I ever thought possible in an attempt not to
scream both of my entire lungs out as my heart hits the back of my teeth. I do
not blink. I do not want to miss a second of this and the lakes glisten and flash
like mirrors below me and I am somehow falling from two miles up and it feels
like I am howling a scream, but I am so terrified I am still breathing in like
a horrified gasp. And I feel the tap. And my hands shoot up to the classic "stick
'em up" position and I look in front of me and there is Billy not two feet away
with his crazy look and he's encouraging me to make faces and scream and DAMN
DO I! I scream and holler and can't do it any justice and we move our hands a
little and spin around and I am looking all around and watching Billy fall right
there with me and all of a sudden I feel a little something and then I realize
now is the time the chute has to open and for an agonizing moment I hang there
while I wait to feel if this time the chute is going to work. It is an agonizing
moment made a little more bearable by the fact that I felt the resistance of something
going out of the pack, at least. Will it work though? And all of a sudden the
leg straps start to tighten and then my full weight is hanging from a billowing
parachute and I take the deepest most relieved breath of my whole life, maybe,
and I think to myself, "oh. GOOD. The chute opened... Oh, good!"
And now the conscious fun starts! Matt asks me how I am and I barely manage not
to scream FINE! I hear the quiver in my voice and he says, "Wanna have some fun?"
and I scream yeah! So he hands me the controls and then helps me get the feel
of turning left, and turning right, and stalling out and then he says, "Alright
now, let's spin, give the left one a real good tug!" So I do, and he helps and
all of a sudden we're spinning around and horizontal to the ground! Then we stop
that direction and do it the other direction. Then we do it a couple more times
and start to angle in on the landing zone. The wind has picked up, though. We're
coming in over some trees and it looks good as we head for the grass landing spot.
Then a big gust lifts us from 200 feet to 300 feet and all of a sudden it looks
like we're going to land in the trees. Matt is giving me instructions and we're
trying to go forward again and avoid the trees, but beyond the trees is a big
section of 2 foot deep swamp and beyond that is some very wet grass. We're drifting
in and finally we're past the trees and trying to avoid the swamp and all of a
sudden we're very close to the wet grass and Matt says, "Pull!" and we stall up
and land pretty nicely in the mud and wet grass. As we're putting feet to the
ground, though, another gust blows up from our right and just whips the chute
over and Matt and I land on our right shoulders and get dragged through the mud
for a ways. We're both laughing, and so is everyone else. Finally, Matt gets me
free and gets the chute and I look up and think about how far we just fell and
how fast that whole thing was and I feel really warm and fuzzy. I realize for
a moment the dance between fragile and tough that life really is and I am so glad
I did that! I look at everyone and even the most experienced among them are grinning
like crazy folks. Roller-coasters just won't be the same, I guess! I am going
to do this again.