“NO! NO! NO! I CAN’T DO IT!”
I froze at the door and backed my way back into the plane. Not the easiest thing to do at 14,000 feet, and it was even harder with Brian, my tandem skydiving partner, strapped on to my back. Then again, when you’re faced with the prospect of throwing yourself out of a plane and turning into a 120-mile-an-hour rocket hurtling toward the Earth, logic pretty much disappears from your frame of view.
I had reached this point, courtesy of my own search for excitement and my wife Megan’s Visa card; she had bought me this airborne adventure for my 40th birthday. This was my fourth time trying to skydive, and until we got out to Bay Area Skydiving’s location in Byron, California, actually in my skydiving gear, I was still unsure this jump would occur. This is because of a series of natural and man-made incidents that seemed to conspire to keep me from my skyward-and-then-Earthbound destiny.
I couldn’t go on my actual birthday weekend because at that time, in the words of Megan, Mercury was “in retrograde". My wife is a bit into astrology and, apparently, when Mercury is in retrograde, you aren’t supposed to do things like sign contracts, make large financial deals, or throw yourself out of a plane at 14,000 feet.
The following weekend was a washout. Literally. Mother Nature decided it was time to rain and rain hard. The view would have been terribly obstructed by clouds, and the rain would have been driving like nails into my body if I had tried to jump.
Attempt Number Three looked promising; the weather cooperated and Megan, her friend Brigette, and myself hit the road, bound for Cloverdale, California, about 1.5 hours north of our home in Oakland. Things went smoothly until we got about 10 minutes away from out destination when my cell phone rang.
I recognized the area code, answered it. Sure enough, it was the skydiving center. They were calling to say their plane was down and wouldn’t be getting up in the air that day. I told them that while I appreciated their concern for my safety, it would have been nice if they had called earlier before we had driven nearly all the way to their front door. We made plans to go the next week.
As an aside, the third failed attempt wasn’t a complete loss. A quick U-Turn put us on the road to Sonoma; a drive you can throw a cork in the air and hit a winery. Five tastings later, we really didn’t care that the skydiving hadn't occurred.
My fourth, and ultimately successful try, also almost didn’t happen. Something told me to call the original skydiving place before we got on the road, just in case. My thoughts proved prescient; it turned out the plane was still down for the count. To their credit, they pointed me to Bay Area Skydiving. I called that place. They seemed to be on their game because they said I could be up in the air as soon as I arrived, which would turn out to be noon. The place looked like an open-ended concert shed. We had to hopscotch our way over the parachutes that were strewn about the floor, in various states of preparation for the next jumpers.
Skydivers are a colorful lot. They don’t seem to be as intense as daredevil skiers or snowboarders. They aren’t as dirty as skateboarders, but they definitely share those people’s sense of the dramatic and wicked humor.
“How long have you been doing this?” I asked Brian, my tandem partner.
“Oh, I’d say since about nine this morning,” he replied, turning away to zip up his suit.
Prior to the jump, I had to watch a video describing what awaited me. I didn’t catch the name of the guy giving the guidelines, but I gathered that he was the “inventor” of tandem skydiving. It was hard to pay attention to what he said because he delivered his message in a 1970s-style wood-paneled office and wore a beard that would have shamed the guys from ZZ Top, made him look like a cult leader calling you to get out the white outfit, the tennis shoes and wait for the mothership to arrive.
In a way, all of us who were about to jump that day were in our own cult. A cult of thrillseekers, definitely. A cult of the insane, quite possibly.
I zipped up my suit and got the 15-minute training session from Brian. Squat down. Cross my arms. Kick my legs back. Lean my head back. And Brian would do the rest, meaning he would throw us both out of the plane and, if everything went right, pull the ripcord to open the chute and save us from hitting the ground and turning into a human grease spot.
The flight up to our jump point was uneventful. It was Brian and I, a girl and her tandem partner, our videographers and about eight solo jumpers. Brian alerted everyone to the fact that it was my “birthday” (no need to tell him that was three weeks ago). The whole posse broke out into some silly, Olive Garden-style birthday song that ended with “let’s throw him out the plane"! This was just what Brian intended on doing.
At 14,000 feet, one of the solo jumpers lifted the side door open. Like lemmings heading off a cliff, they went out the door, one at a time, on their way down. Then it was my turn. Brian and I hobbled our way to the opening looking like someone had slipped us Ex-Lax; the results were about to be felt. Jason, my videographer, was already halfway out the plane, recording this silly progression for posterity. What happened next, I didn’t want anyone to see.
I froze. And it was freezing. The air has a tendency to be bitingly cold when you’re going about 200 miles an hour at 14,000 feet. Looking down didn’t bother me too much, but man, that cold hit me hard and in an instant, I panicked.
“NO! NO! NO! I CAN’T DO IT!”
I shouted back at Brian. He yelled, “Are you sure? OK"! We backed back into the plane, forcing the girl with her partner back as well. The big loser right away was Jason, who was set to go when I had my panic attack, and caught his foot on something, causing him to lose his shoe out the door. We never heard any reports about a driver getting pelted with a size 10 Nike.
We sat down and Brian started talking to me. He told me he had done 3,300 of these in 14 years and that we would be fine. But what got me going again was when he said that we had come all the way up there and I would regret it if we didn’t jump. Even worse, I would look like a little wuss back on the ground if I didn’t go.
So we stood up again and did our Ex-Lax walk to the door. I crossed my arms, held my head back and then, the obscenities started as Brian threw us both out of the plane and we tumbled head over heels into the sky above Byron.
Amazingly, Brian managed to right the ship, so to speak, and we were soon in that classic skydiving pose, “flying” with our arms and legs spread out as we sped toward the ground. Falling at 120 miles per hour creates several unnatural sensations, the first of which is you don’t actually feel like you are falling at all. The force of you hurtling through the wind makes it seem as though there is a huge wind blower holding you up in the air. Then you realize that you are the object that is moving. And moving very fast.
Goggles saved my eyes, but my ears bore the brunt of the eruption of noise all around me. My mouth soon felt like it had been suctioned out by the world’s largest dental vacuum. We screamed and made rock ‘n roll hand gestures as if we were at an Iron Maiden concert. Jason would use all of this for the video and about 120 pictures that he took of us with his helmet cameras.
After about a minute of free falling, Brian hit the chute. And just like any skydiving you’ve seen on television, we rocketed up who knows how many hundred feet until the chute completely opened. Then – everything was quiet.
Floating down with the chute open was about as opposite an experience from the free falling as possible, mostly because of the total silence. I was actually able to take in the scenery. My ears were still screaming from the initial drop, but my mouth had begun to get a little moisture and I could talk to Brian. Granted, most of my conversation was along the lines of, “Uh." “Whoa!” “Man!” “Holy Sh*t! That was insane!" “When do we land?” but I considered it a victory that I was able to speak at all.
The fun was not yet over. Brian said we had to do a couple of “spins” to get us in position for landing. He pulled something and we soon began a series of hard right banking turns that sent my stomach up into my throat. It felt like doing corkscrews on the Medusa rollercoaster at Six Flags. Megan later said it looked as though we were spinning out of control.
But Brian straightened us out. The landing was smooth, especially with four legs to hit the ground. A couple of people were waiting to help us with the chute. When it, and Brian, were disconnected from me, I leaned over, caught my breath and tried to walk. Brian laughed maniacally and congratulated me for going through with the jump.
The excitement ended up outweighing the fear and the near-misses that occurred along the way. It was completely worth it.
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