Keys? Check. Automobile? Check? IPod for some kickass tunes? Check. The hetero lifemate’s car adaptor that allows me to listen to my iPod through the car stereo? Double check. Directions to Cross Keys? Ingrained in my brain, on automatic pilot, a part of my soul.
The truth is it’s been quite a hectic week and a half. My father’s knee replacement surgery went as planned; the doctor’s were pleased with the whole thing. But since we awoke, drug addled and grinning like a kid, complications set it. He moved quite a bit during the operation, which caused internal damage and bleeding, which lead to a tremendous amount of swelling. The recovery has taken much longer than any of us, but especially him, figured that it would. He has struggled mightily, straining against pain, such great pain, and the frustration and being bed bound and largely uninformed. These are situations my dad does not function well under. So, between 8AM meetings, closing a double issue, and going on dates (no, we never made that second date, in case you were wondering—perhaps we will, but at this point I doubt it; I’ll explain in another post) I’ve run from work at around 9:30 or 10 up to his hospital to see him. Not finally getting home until around 1:30 or 2 most nights, up again the next day for my meetings.
By the time Friday rolled around I was wiped out. Thoroughly exhausted. Bone tired as they say, but not really bone tired because my job entails exactly zero manual labor. Writing and editing is emotionally draining, but lifting a pencil has never pulled a muscle, to my knowledge.
So after spending Saturday with me Da and that night with my step-mother, I got the car and decided Sunday was a skydiving day. It just had to be. Time to get away, time for me to be just for me if I could manage it.
I was too wiped out Sunday to get up with my alarm. Slept right through it. At 10, when my eyes peeled back, I stared at the clock and thought, for the briefest of seconds, whether I even wanted to make the effort. The drive down to Cross Keys from New York can hit 2 hours. But, and I always end up remembering this, if you live in New York, as amazing as this city is, as much as I would choose hardly any other place in which to spend my 20s, there is not greater gift at times to give yourself than to get out of Dodge. So I got out of Dodge.
The roads were relatively empty on the way down. Cars, sure, but not with the same oversaturated crawl that came in the summer. The weather wasn’t nice enough to go to the beach; it was cold, so I sped along the Jersey Turnpike, past cars and rest stops, winding the car towards the one place that I have felt more comfortable in the past few months than anywhere else. To my adopted family, of skydiving relatives. I was charged just driving there.
I quit smoking recently for about a month. It didn’t take, and hopefully someday it will, but during that time I took every dollar I would have spent on cigarettes and put them in a plastic bag, just off to the side. Since picking the habit back up, I continued to store away the dollars, nuts to my squirreled habit, although it was a huge cramp in my budget. I knew that they would go to jumping; get me closer and closer and closer. I had this bag beside me in the car as I drove down, singing every damn song that came from my iPod, whether I knew the whole thing or not.
“How many are you going to do today?” Bonnie asked. She’s always there, behind the counter, no matter what day I show up. She’s taken the job as a means to subsidize her jumping, but has found that she works more than she is able to jump, so we are at about the same level. Even still.
“Five,” I said, handing her the pile of money and my credit card. “Over half in cash, the rest on my card.” She pulled up my file from the computer.
“Five?” she said, smiling at me. “You might graduate today!” I hadn’t realized I was that close. The past few times I’ve jumped the wind has been too strong for an AFP student, so I’ve jumped tandems just to stay current. You have to jump once every 30 days just to stay air aware.
There’s this kid out at the drop zone, Danny Koons (I hope I have the name right), everyone calls him DK, and he is one radical mother fucker. Probably about 5’4”, he shoots videos of tandems, often flying within pimple range of their faces, flying on his head, his back, his side, but never, not once, moving the camera from the jumper. He’s also a remarkable swooper (a type of speed landing where the parachutist angles down to the ground at speeds that can exceed 60 miles an hour), and a jump master. He had taken me on all but one of my AFP jumps, so 2 to this point, but he made me feel remarkably at ease. His enthusiasm for the sport is infectious, his skill is awe inspiring. I felt comfortable with him, and he happened to be free.
“I’m taking you up, kid! We gonna graduate you today?” he said as he ambled up.
“Yeah, baby! We’ll turn you into a skydiver before you know it.”
We went over a few things, refreshers, what to do if I found myself in trouble up there, how to cut away, got tumbled or turned or unsorted.
“I’m not going to turn you into a skydiver, but I’m going to teach you how to jump responsibly, how to fall under control. I’m teaching you, in short, how to save your own life. Some people jump because they think it’s radical, they find a rush in it, and that’s obvious, but this is not something to fuck with. Fuck with skydiving and she’ll fuck with you right back, usually by knocking you straight out of the sky. Don’t ever forget that.”
That, right there, in essence, is why I’ve vibed with Danny. He would be what I call a soul flyer. He gets the rush, the shot of adrenaline, but there’s a respect in what he says, in how he flies, that I hope I never forget. Of the people I’ve been around in this sport, Lucia (who took me out for the first time, stole my cherry), Marcus (my first tandem master), and Danny have left their mark on me. Marcus and Danny may not remember me, but damn it would be hard to forget them.
Here was my progression, all 4 jumps.
Danny docked with me in the plane, at the door. I checked in with him and he flashed me a thumbs up. “Ready, set. GO!” I said, and at “Go” I was out the door, arching and with my head up, watching the place recede away, Danny grabbing on pads on my arms and legs. After I steadied myself he let me go, flying in front of me. I checked my altitude, checked the horizon. I grinned. I cannot help but grin in free fall; it is so unlike anything I have ever done. I performed some turns, righting myself to face my jump master each time, the grin glued to my face, stretching to my ears. At 5,500 feet I waved off and pulled, full canopy, clean lines, clean everything. My first air bath of the day.
We were back up in the next load, almost immediately. Danny didn’t dock with me in the plane this time; I was going out the door myself. For the first time I would have no one with me in any part of my dive. He would be there right by me, but unless I went haywire, he would fly by my side. Again I checked in with him and again he gave me the thumbs up and I was out the door. This time I was to 360 a few times and then track. Tracking is, essentially, flying forward. You draw your arms back to your side, still keeping them out to control your flight, and extend your legs. It’s in this, the simple extension of your legs, that your power comes from. I learned this when I straightened mine out. The ground, which is generally static in free fall, a descent towards one single point, began to move below me. I couldn’t believe it. I returned by body to free fall, extending my arms, pulling my legs in a little, and waved off an pulled. I steered my canopy towards a giant X on the ground, falling to my knees on landing.
Danny would go first this time, and I was to follow him out immediately, jumping arms first from the plane. Superman position he called it. At the door he docked in front of me. “You ready for this?” he said. “Get out the door right behind me. I’m going to drop like a stone, but you’ll catch me. No worries.” I checked in. And at “Go” I thrust towards the door. You never get over seeing someone jump out of a plane in front of you. They disappear. They are gone, a whoosh of sound and a speck in the distance. I got out the door, tilting my hands down, fully extended towards him, my legs tucked up by my ass. I never lost sight of him, but he did drop out. When I caught him I steadied my fall, coming along side him. He gave me a huge thumbs up, both hands. I check my altitude and then trust my hands down towards the ground, tucking my legs up to my chest and throwing my head back. A back flip. I righted myself and did another, this time flipping back twice before catching my fall. I cannot believe I just pulled off 3 back flips, I thought. I cannot fucking believe it! Danny was grinning at me, and my smile had to be huge at this point. I checked my altitude for the 4th time in free fall, waved off, and was under canopy.
Jump 4 – Graduation
It was my choice how I went out of the plane, and I wanted to Superman. I had been a bit wobbly my first time out, and wanted to go again. I had to get this right. The whole way up Danny and I went over every maneuver. I was going to pull off 6 tricks: back flip, front flip, barrel roll, 360 and then track away. I had never done more than 3 on any given jump, and that was 20 minutes ago. To say I was unsure if I could do this would be an understatement. As we neared the door I checked in one last time. “Are you sure there’s enough time?” He just gave me a smile. “You’re going to be amazed just how much time there really is, my friend. You ready for this?” At “Go” I was out the plane and after him. On the video I would watch later it shows me exit immediately after Danny, and even though I was only a second behind, if that, he had cleared 100 feet in that time. But it shows me leaving. It shows my hands down, fully extended, my back arched, my legs tucked into my ass. It shows me 2 seconds in get fully stable. It shows my front flip, opening up my turn too early and ending up on my back, fighting to get stable. It shows me try another front flip; get almost all the way around, but untucking too soon again, and flailing a bit. It shows me back flip. It shows me do another. I barrel roll and 360. And at 6,500 feet it shows me turn 180 degrees away from my jump master, pull my arms back, extended and at my sides, and push my legs out, shooting away from the camera as I track. As Danny approaches I look at my altimeter. I wave off. And I pull and as he continues to fall away I wave with both hands at the camera, my lips peeled back in a huge grin. What it doesn’t show is me landing, about 5 minutes later, square in the middle of the X, standing up, punching my right arm in the air.
On the drive to the liquor store afterwards to buy everyone a case of beer, a tradition for those who have graduated their AFP levels, Danny turned to me.
“I haven’t bullshitted you once through this, have I?”
“No,” I said, “You’ve been hard on me. But I wanted you to be hard on me. I’d rather know what I have to work on.”
“Exactly, I’ve been straight up with you. I’ve told you when you made mistakes; I’ve told you exactly what you did wrong. Now I’m going to tell you what I think. You’re a hell of a flyer. I wish it was always this easy to teach someone to skydive. I send people back levels all the time, and I didn’t send you back once. Not once. You understand the air; you’ve got that thing inside you, if you want to keep doing this. And I hope you do, because when I come back in the spring, we’re jumping together. You seem to do this for the right reasons, you listen and you think about it and then you fucking execute it. You’re no skydiver yet, you’re a novice, and don’t ever forget that. But you’re a good flyer. Good instincts. Keep it up.”
And I drove on to get the beer with him. And I felt like I had accomplished something. There are 30 – 35,000 registered skydivers. That is it. That’s the total number. I don’t have my A license yet, but I’m not longer a student. I cannot tell you what that feels like, only that, after we returned to the drop zone, as I accepted hugs, high-fives, daps, bumps, kisses on the cheek and clinks of bottles from the people around me I felt as good and as accomplished and as proud of myself as I have in almost anything I have ever done. And if you’ve never done this, you just wouldn’t understand. And if you have, if you’ve dedicated yourself to this, well then I’m only beginning to learn and understand and feel the things that you do.
I have spoken Spanish since I was 12 or 13 years old. At times with some form of fluency, but usually just conversational. I can generally understand most of the words someone speaks to me, but will in turn fumbled frustrated for the proper response. I have them there, at the tip of my tongue, but the just won’t fight their way through. But in college I spent a few weeks in Spain with some friends and the rust knocked off. Words flew fully formed from my tongue, rapid fire ricochets of language and I had no idea where they came from. They were just there.
A few days into the trip I started to dream in Spanish. Didn’t matter what I was dreaming about, it was all in Spanish. And that’s what skydiving has become to me. It’s like a language, with it’s own nuances and subtleties, something that you have to drown yourself in, immerse into the culture, be willing to accept all of the little things that come with it. Because you don’t get to do this if you just pick up a translation dictionary and pick phrases from the book. You have to study it. You have to respect it. You have to love it.
There is still so much for me to learn. I’m well aware of that fact. I know nothing about this sport, back flip or no. I’m not impressed with myself, but I am proud of making it to this point. This morning when I woke up for work my body was sore, wrecked. My back hurt, my legs hurt. My body was so sore.
But my head was at peace. That’s something not understood about this sport. It can be religious, like drugs in its sense of euphoria. Jump a few times and you will walk away body sore and soul at ease. I would never try to recruit someone to do this, you choose it of your own free will, but if you should decide to do it, that peace is there, I promise you. It’s up there, somewhere above the clouds. As someone said the first time I ever jumped. “Man, you are never going to look at the sky the same way again.” Amen.