On Saturday I was up at 6:45, had to pick up a car in mid-town Manhattan and grab a friend down in the village. We were going skydiving. This was going to be my third jump and my last tandem before starting ground school next week where I’ll learn how to jump out of a perfectly good airplane in what’s called an Instructor Assisted Freefall. Just writing that sentence made my heart skip a beat.
Thanks to traffic, construction, the New Jersey Turnpike and a few other things it took about 4 hours to get there. It should have been an hour and a half. Still, the drive down me and my friend talked and caught up. He had never been jumping before, which made me something of the expert between us two, as absurd as that sounds.
I went to Freefall Adventures in New Jersey, a few minutes over the river from Philadelphia. By the time we got there the early morning rain had caused delays, but a tattooed kid in a yellow jump suit assured us that “we’re punching holes in the clouds and blue skies are ahead. We’ll get you up.” In the three hours we waited, we just tooled around the site. Anything else in my life and a three hour wait would have had me fuming, steaming pissed that I was wasting my time. For some reason with jumping it’s just different. I didn’t give a fuck, as long as they got me up, as long as my feet fell out below me and all that was between me and the ground was 13,500 feet of sky, clouds, wind, and clean oxygen, I would wait far longer. We watched planes take off; radical bastards skim over the roofs, tearing to the ground before setting themselves softly down. It’s a lot to take in, a Drop Zone. Even though everything revolves around the act of casting your body out of a plane, the repetition of it all seems like something new each and every time. Perhaps that’s the appeal for me, the newness each time, though I certainly don’t know what I’m talking about. This was my third time. They kept calling the place Cross Keys, which seemed a fine name to me.
Then it was our time. My tandem instructor was a man named Simeon, a former flyer for Her Majesty in his 12 years in the British Army; he had been given the choice of resigning for more tours (his company shipped out to Iraq a few months after his tour was up) or coming to New Jersey to teach skydiving. He chose Jersey. He’s an interesting bloke, very cool, and put me instantly at ease. Some jumpers are hyper kids, stoked to be in the air, feeding off the adrenaline of the jump. Simeon seemed to have a peace about him, something I’ve begun to associate with my experiences in freefalling. He put me through my paces for 20 minutes before we jumped, I was going to have to pull off some elements before he would okay me ground school. I was to pick a heading in the air, locate a patch on the ground that would tell me where I was and then he was going to spin me, knock me off course. It was my job to right myself, spin my body through the air back to the original direction. We went over hand signals and then talked about the jump itself. I liked him immediately.
The plane we took off in is called a caravan, a large open metal thing that opens from the back, so you literally walk off and into the air. Above one of the seats there is a sign that says, “President George H. W. Bush sat here.” By the back door that opens where you walk out is a red target with the words, “President H. W. Bush Hit His Head Here.” This was the cause of much laughter and many stories, all apparently true. When we hit 3,000 feet I told my friend to check his altimeter. “We’re at 3,000 feet,” I said, “now look outside.” He turned, looked down at the ground. “Holy shit,” he said, “we’re really high up.” I nodded. “10,000 more feet to go before we jump.” “Holy shit,” he repeated. I started clapping my hands, I don’t know why, but I was starting to feel geeked out. I was back in a plane.
“When we drop off,” Simeon told me, “the wind is going to kick your feet out from underneath you. I want you to throw your head back, arch hard, we’re going to back flip out. If you arch hard and then get into falling position you’ll right yourself quick.”
“A back flip?” I asked.
“Yep,” he smiled.
The lights went from red to yellow and the guy who was going to film one of the tandems in our group opened the door, came around and gave all of us a quick five of skin. We turned to everyone, gave skin, a perfect ritual. The cameraman grabbed a bar and dangled his legs out as the first tandem walked up to the edge and both went simultaneously. She screamed. Simeon and I started to waddle to the door. “Arch hard, put your head back, I’ll take care of the rest. We’re back flipping out.” And that was that. I stepped off the edge and threw my head back, arching hard, my feet thrown waist high. As my head tilted back I saw the bottom of the plane as we fell below, and my body rolled in its back flip. I popped my hands out, squared my feet, and as soon as we started heading down it naturally rolled into freefall. I checked my altimeter, checked my headings and my right and left, then picked a spot on the ground. So fucking far away, a tiny housing complex, and before I could even think if this was going to be big enough to keep as a heading I had already given Simeon the thumbs up, he threw my body right, spinning me about 90 degrees. I put myself back perfectly. Checked my altitude, there was going to be so much time.
In the air, time elongates, stretches like a rubber band. A 60 second freefall is not a 60 second freefall. Closer to 5 minutes in how it feels. As my tandem kept throwing my body out of position, sometimes with quick jerks right and then left, I would right myself back to my original heading. Every time I checked my altitude I was amazed how much time we had left. There’s so much sky to fall through, it’s not even funny.
I pulled at 5,500 feet, letting out a scream as I did so. Just pure joy. For five more minutes we worked the canopy, he ran through different maneuvers, landing philosophies, how to read the wind, how to plan your approach, how to be aware of the things around you. We then chased my shadow along a cloud and through, a huge rainbow around it. I flew through a cloud. How ridiculous does that sound?
The thing about skydiving that has amazed me is that the sense of falling through the air is not just something that stays with you; it accentuates and strengthens like a drug once you are on the ground. Like your skin is puffed up, your capillaries, veins, and arteries expand, the blood flows like water and you take everything in. This feeling does not last for the 60 seconds of freefall, or even the 6 minutes of your jump. You hold it in you for hours afterwards. Hours and hours. The deep, cold oxygen you jumped through, it carries a particular scent with it, the air smells different up there, and somehow that deep blue oxen stench sticks in the back of your nostrils into the night. It's a beautiful scent.
When you fall in love with someone, part of it has to be chemical, a pheromone. When was the last time you fell in love with someone and didn’t like how they smelled? I don’t mean their perfume; I mean their odor, their stink. The one you know by heart after that first day you stay indoors, in bed, you go down on them, you feel their skin, bury your head in their stomach, they sweat so much, and you fuck five or six times. Afterward, long after you’ve parted company, you can smell them, the human them, in you. It’s buried up your nasal cavity, on your sweater. This is the smell of skydiving.
I’ve never felt this consistently happy, not since the last time I saw Mel, and that trip was one half misery and one half bliss. I’m generally a contented person, even at my lowest I no longer lose sight of how excited and caught off guard I am by life, but I rarely carry around a sense of peace with me, so perhaps “happy” wasn’t the right word up there. I’ve rarely felt this consistently at peace as I have since I discovered jumping out of a plane.
I applied for a job with the manifest office at the Drop Zone, to help check in tandem jumpers, take their money, smile at them because I know what they are about to do. I’ve offered to help write their website for them, anything to negate the costs of training, because in truth I cannot afford it. I’m not going to go into hoc for this, I won’t screw my credit cards in knots just to jump, because if I don’t figure out a way to do this, that’s exactly what will end up happening. I have a pretty addictive personality, and I have to jump again. I might even go to the extreme, quit smoking. Every pack costs $8, so if I take the $56 I spend each week on packs I can set that money aside, in an envelope, and once I have my money, head out to the Drop Zone for another fix. No matter what I do, it has to be done. Blue Skies.