There are few places on this earth I love more than a drop zone right now. I love being around skydivers. I love the people. I love the sense of community. The feeling of belonging. You live your life moving around—and while I did spend extended periods of time in a few places growing up, we moved often to different houses, apartments, and places—and you yearn for that feeling of home, that familiarity. Knowing a place without having tangibly experienced it. For me, that sense has come in San Francisco, in parts of New York, at Kenyon for school, and right now at Cross Keys down across the river from Philadelphia.
There are hours to be spent doing nothing but lounging and talking, learning and watching. It’s just a place I feel comfortable and at ease, and feeling at ease is a big thing for me. Most of the time, around 80% of my life I’d estimate, is spent just slightly feeling wrong. A bit off. Misplaced. Right life, wrong time, wrong place.
I drove down to the drop zone early Sunday morning. It was cold out, frigid. I drove with the heat on and the music blaring, cruising past cars, shooting down the Jersey Turnpike.
I said my hellos, bumped fists. A guy with frazzled hair gave me a handshake chest bump wrap around hug. “What’s up, son? Where you been?” I told him I was here last month for my graduation jumps. “Oh, damn! Nice. That’s right. It was me who was gone.” I recognized so many people, got head nods and looks of recognition.
At the giant smile face outside of the hanger the tandem students sat, waiting for their instructors. Nervous smiles and “what the fuck are we doing here” looks exchanged across the divide. Somehow they were talked into this silly place. They were going up, but only because backing out just doesn’t seem like an option after you’ve signed all those forms.
In the hanger is chaos. Seasoned jumpers land and walk in, their parachutes strung over their shoulders. They drop them on the ground and extend the lines down smooth, pulling the pack at the end, laying the whole thing out. They talk about their recent jump, the air and wind conditions at 13,000 feet, what happened when they pulled their chord. They ask about kids and spouses and whats his name from the last time they saw each other. They fold the canvas, lay on the material, pushing the air out, flattening to fold so they can get back up again.
In the corner is a large screen television which plays a constant loop of videos tandem students purchase to show their friends. Most of the time they don’t remember much about the jump at all. It's more emotion, remembered experience through their nervous system. Dean, one of the tandem instructors, likes to tell them they have just, and probably for the first time, experienced sensory overload. “Think about how little you actually remember from your jump. It’s just sensation right now, just a feeling. What color was the bottom of the plane?” They don’t know. They never know.
The videos are cut and edited, played over music, some bumping, hard-hitting, oh so fitting, holy shit tune. It’s basically the same thing each and every time it plays save one thing: the first timer. Every experience is different, and that makes every video imminently viewable. Most people are surprised by what they see. There is nothing natural about jumping out of an airplane. Put yourself in any situation, think back on how you’ve handled pressure in the past. You are not that person as your knees dangle over the edge as you look out at the ground and how very far it is below. You are someone you won’t even recognize. When they hit the air most first time jumpers flinch. They expected it to feel like it did in their dreams, when the bottom dropped out and they thought they were falling and they jumped awake, and skydiving is nothing like that.
When the column of air forms beneath them, billowing and pushing back on their bodies like cotton that gives and gives and gives, but doesn’t let you pull down, their face changes. And that reaction, that look, the way the hold their arms or flail their limbs, that has everything to do with the individual. That’s why most people who have seen these videos hundreds of times before still circle round. And will circle around again the next time.
Deep in the hanger are the packers. They are paid to fold the chutes for lazy jumpers, students (like I am), or tandem instructors. They wear knee pads and have their own language. A huge radio blares in the corner, blasting Digweed or Carl Cox or Chicane. When they stand up they will dance, let the music take them.
Although the wind on the ground was calm on Sunday, at 13,000 feet it was kicking hard. Bucking all over the sky. Because of this the drop zone had limited loads to tandems or divers with 200 jumps minimum, which pretty much excluded me. I knew there was little chance of the conditions changing, but I saw no reason to go home. I’d driven an hour and a half to get there, and although the drive back would not be a bad one, I just wanted to stay.
In the back I found Lana, a beautiful light brown skinned packer with curly hair. She and I have spoken from time to time, and the last time she packed up my chutes on my graduation day, one after the other, all in under 5 minutes allowing me to get back into the air. I bought her a 6 pack as a thank you and she told me if I ever wanted to learn how to pack (a requirement to get your A license, which allows one to jump wherever they want), to come find her.
“Remember what you told me last time? If it was slow and crappy you’d teach me how to pack. Remember?”
“Then teach me how to pack, Super.”
“Yeah, Lana Lane? Superman.”
“Lana Lane was the lame Superman, retard. LOIS Lang would have been cool.”
“Whatever smartass. I’m still calling you Super.”
“Because you’re going to hook me up, teach me how to pack for free.”
She laughed, “Oh I am, am I?”
“As a thank you for that marvelous 6 pack I got you last time.”
“Ohhhh, right. How about I just give you a discount?”
I sat in the back with Lana for over 3 hours, on my knees the whole time, learning the proper way to fold and pack a canvas. Everything you learn in skydiving, every trick or tool or story someone teaches or tells you is, in the end, for one thing only: it saves your life. So you pay attention. You take it slow. You ask any question you have, no matter how stupid. And they answer all of it, usually with the way to do it and an anecdote.
Lana sat with me the whole time, going over everything in painstaking detail. She watched as I pinned the canvas under both knees, bending everything into a size smaller than you thought was possible.
Most of the people I’ve met at Cross Keys live down there. They make their livings from that place, living in tents and RVs that circle the site. Transient. Many of them have already left for the winter, following the warmer air south, where they will work for the summer, returning to Freefall Adventures next March.
Over the past few months the pull of this lifestyle has grown. If I were a stronger man, I’d drop it all. My job, my apartment, my life in New York. I’d get work around the site and jump all through the day and all through the winter, whenever I could.
It ebbs and flows, this agitation comes and goes. A few years ago I talked about it with my dad. Tried to explain to him what it felt like.
I’ll try to make this easy and quick, painless as a doctor’s visit. Most of the time I don’t understand how it works. I look around at my friends and family and am amazed at just how capable they are at life. They seem to understand something I don’t, like I was absent the day they handed out the manual. I tried to explain this to my father.
“Son,” he said. “Everyone hates their job. No one really enjoys work.” The answer frustrates me. I know what he meant by this, but I think it ignores a simple truth of my personality. I think he knew what I meant, he just chose to deal from a different perspective. There was purpose behind his words. To admit that maybe I wasn’t meant for this shit would give me the out I needed, would have allowed me to go off the reservation. In grouping me, so to speak, with everyone else, by the simple difficulty and confusion we all feel in life, he might have been saying he understood what I was saying, but still wasn’t going to make it easy.
If I had the means, I would probably be gone. No idea where, but I’ve wanted to leave New York for years now, wanted out of this lifestyle, wanted away from this place.
I’d never admit this out loud, which is in essence what I’m doing here, but it’d be impossible to act at times without his approval, or at least understanding.
In not letting me off the hook one thing did happen. I learned over the last few years that I can write. I learned that people will pay me for the things I say, the thoughts in my head, the words I put down.
I don't know what that means now the agitation is back; I’ve been trying to figure out what’s next. I don’t have the answer yet. I have an idea, I know when I’ll start, but as for leaving New York, that’s going to have to come at the right time, in the right circumstances. In a way that I can sit down across from my dad and say, “this is what I’m going to do.” I don’t think he’ll ever completely understand, but putting it in a way where he meets me half way, where he thinks, “I’m worried, but he’s clearly thought about it. He’s not just going on instinct.” That’s what I have to figure out.
I didn't end up jumping on Sunday. The wind barely complied. But I didn't mind. At ease.
Until I know what's next I’ll head down to Cross Keys as frequently as I can, as often as I can afford it. That place, and sitting here at my computer, outside of time with friends and family, are the two places I feel the most at home. When the shards of glass and rattling of loose parts seem to quiet for awhile and I can finally relax. And just feel at home for a bit.