Register Friday | December 14 | 2018

With Angels on the Wings

I’ve tried to be good about not actively recruiting friends to come skydiving with me. I remember what Lucia said the first time she took me, remarking that I was one of her first friends to take her up on the offer. “Really?” I’d said, shocked. I would have figured there’d have been a flood of people behind her, like taking numbers at a crowded deli. Not at all, she explained. “This is something everyone says they want to do, and then end up backing out.” The truth is, the idea of skydiving usually sounds better to my friends than the actual follow through.

Lucia told me to be careful about it. “Let people share your enthusiasm, but don’t ever push anyone into this sport. Let them make up their own mind, this is not a trivial decision. I used to get pissed that my friends didn’t want to join me until I realized you are literally taking your life into your hands. Respect that.” I’ve also come to find, as Lucia hinted that you make drop zone friends, and those are of an almost equal quality as your real friends are, though within a different context. At Cross Keys, Shani and Lana and Dean and that frazzle haired kid who base jumped off the Taj over a year ago are all my friends.

I limit my exchanges to just asking if they want to come along. They generally say yes, but when it comes down to firming up a yes they suddenly become vague and vapor-like. Like that girl you freaked out without realizing you were being a tad overzealous.

“Are you free tomorrow?”
“No, I’m busy.”
“The next day?”
“Oh, shoot. I can’t.”
“Next week?”
“Not looking too good.” And then you get it. After that I just let it go, and I hope I wear my disappointment well. I don’t want my friends to think I feel rejected, and I prize my alone time, love having my own habits—I mean, they all golf now anyway, and I’m skydiving—but every now and then I’d just love to share this experience with someone I knew before.

And the few times someone had come with me, my Dad and step-mother for instance, I’ve prized it. But as Lucia said, this is very much a decision one comes to on their own. You either want to or you don’t; it’s in you or it’s not; you get it or you don’t. I would never push anyone into this. But I wouldn’t mind if they all simultaneously, of their own accord, decided to pick up skydiving as a habit either.

***

The day after Thanksgiving I drove down to Cross Keys. I had gotten a late start and the plan was to get a few jumps in before meeting up with the hetero lifemate at his wife’s parent’s house and crash there for the night. He and my step-mother were born on the same day, so I would have brunch with him in the morning and the dinner with her that night.

As I left the city I gave him a call, on a lark, and asked what he thought of jumping with me that day. He’d said he might want to go one time.

“I’m in,” he said.
“Really?”
“Done. Pick me and the wife up, we’re jumping.”
“Alright, put Bob on the phone.”
“Fuck off. Count me in.”
“No playing?”
“No playing.”

Even though the wind conspired against us that day, Bob, the Magnificent Geebs, and his brother, John each bought tandems for the next morning. Geebs’s parents live 20 minutes from Cross Keys, so we planned on getting up at 7:30 the next day and charging it.

***

I have never been Cross Keys earlier than 11. Normally the morning hours are spent in a car bulleting down the Jersey Turnpike. We were at the drop zone a little after 9, maybe 15 people milling about intermittently throughout the hanger. The place is usually crowded to the gills, but winter seemed to have started to stretch in, and a lot of the more jumpers were following the warm weather to Mexico, Florida, Australia, you name it.

Because Bob, Geebs, and John had filled out the “AND IF I DIE, BEFORE I LAND, I PREY THE LORD, I WILL NOT SUE” form the night before we were booked on load #1. First load of the day.

Bob had jumped before, in Australia, and considers it one of the worst experiences of his life. Over the past few months since I started he’s constantly giving me shit about it. Because his experience was so miserable he fails to see how mine could have been the polar opposite. This is a bit of a truism in our friendship; I cannot think of another thing that one of us loves that the other abjectly hates. Aside from his asinine need to run 1 hour a day.

By the time I picked up skydiving Bob was a few months into running. When he signed up for the Chicago marathon, I think I gave him the same cockeyed glance that he had come to give me when I talked about skydiving. Our conversations began to take a playfully mocking tone.

“What’s wrong with you? A marathon? What is this running shit?”
“Do you know how many people can say they’ve run a marathon?”
“Hundreds of thousands.”
“Out of millions and millions, yeah! And I’m going to run this thing, not spend 5 days walking it. There will be 40,000 runners in the Chicago Marathon.”
“That’s more than there are registered skydivers in the world.
"Whatever, you’re just following a trend.”
“Well, we don’t have to wear those super cool crotch riding shorts, so that’s a plus. And how is skydiving is a trend?”
“It is a trend! You’re just selling out. Have you seen that stupid deodorant commercial?”
“The marathon has corporate sponsorship!”

I always figured if I could get Bob down to Cross Keys he might see things differently. His first jump in Australia was not a tandem. He jumped under his own canopy, off the rickety wing of a held-together-by-duct-tape single engine death flap. I don’t think anyone should ever jump on their own their first time. It’s too much. Let alone from a plane that looks like it’s going down with you.

Bob figured the same thing about running. If he could goad me enough, get me competitive over it, maybe I’d quit smoking and run a marathon with him. It didn’t take us long to figure out the percentages, you could see the figures running through our heads as we hacked each other’s habits to pieces. Running a marathon is hard fucking work. Not many people do it.

“Think of it this way,” Bob would tell me. “Imagine being able to tell your kids you did one day, you ran a marathon.”
“Check this out,” I would counter. “Picture being the coolest dad on the earth. You jump out of planes and flip through the air.”

And thus was born what we have dubbed THE GREATEST BET OF ALL-TIME. It goes something like this: Sometime in 2005 I have to run a marathon with Bob. Sometime in 2005 Bob has to get his skydiving license with me. The justification is simple: If not that many people on this earth can say they’ve run a marathon, and not that many people can say they have a skydiving license, imagine the percentage of people who can say they’ve done both. Could there possibly be a better bet for two friends who’s egos have never had a problem acknowledging themselves as two of the more unique people around, if we don’t say so ourselves. Why stop at unique? Why not just keep going, sticking our tongues out the whole time. That’s probably, a little bit, how each of us looks at this.

Bob’s mom (the SMAK Mama) asked the obvious question: What does the loser have to do?

We stared at her. “What do you mean?”
“If someone backs out on the bet? What does that person have to do?”
“Backs out on the bet? Do you realize the world of hurt that person would be in? No, no… the bet is a simple trade. No backing out.”
“But what if someone does?”
“What would one of us do that?”
“Well, these aren’t easy things to do.”
“Yeah, but neither would be living with the smug reminder that you didn’t live up to your side of the bet. That’s worse than anything we could actually lay on the line. A lifetime of catching grief.”

It’s true. There doesn’t need to be anything laid on the line. All that had to happen was one of us had to start towards the other’s hobby. That was all that was needed. The shot across the bow came in the form of an answer to a simple question: “Hey, I’m heading down the drop zone this weekend. Want me to pick you up?”

“I’m in!” he said. Shit, I thought. I’m going to have to start running.

***

We took off in a seatless plane, smaller than any I’ve jumped out of before. Each person sat on the floor, legs spread, the jumper in front of them leaned back into them. I was doing my high solo jump. For the first time ever I would be alone from departure, through freefall and into landing. No instructors at my side, nothing but me in my own air.

I looked over at the Magnificent Geebs, who was behind me to my left between the legs of her tandem instructor who was leaning against a wall near the cockpit. She had gone white.

“Geebs?” Nothing. “Geebs? Oi!”
She looked over at me, her eyes were huge and glazing over. She had a grin peeled back to her cheeks. In Geebs land this means all is not good.
“You okay?” She nodded her head. She was not okay.
“She freaking out?” Bob asked.
“She’s a little scared.”
“You okay, bug?” he leaned forward, he was just behind me, by his wife. He grabbed her hand.

Geebs is not one of those girls who freaks out. She doesn’t lose it or draw attention to herself. She just goes really really quiet, into her head, making sense of what she is feeling. Over the years you learn that this is just the great quiet before she tackles whatever it is that’s scaring her. That’s the thing about Geebs. You can freak her out, but once she’s decided to do something good luck stopping her or talking her out of it. She was going to jump.

“You alright John?” I looked to my left at Bob’s brother.
“I think my psyche just split in two. I really thought I’d be more afraid than this.” This, right here, is a perfect John moment. He’s a remarkable kid, highly gifted and intelligent. He experiences the world through a bizarre intellimotive filter that allows him to feel and intellectualize an experience simultaneously, which can lead to some of the most interesting dialogue you’ve ever heard. If he’s going through an emotional time, his filter registers too high on one end. If he’s over-intellectualizing it does the same. Eventually, he always makes his way back to some balance, but watching him experience the world is one of the more unique experiences once can have.

Because they were tandems, I was going to leave the plane first. In skydiving there are a number of firsts you experience: first ever jump, first jump under your own canopy, first solo exit, first air maneuver, and, for me thus far, first solo jump. And the one thing that is the same about each of these is that you freak out a little bit before each one.

I always go over what I’m going to do in the air before I jump. But I was geeked, so the only thing I decided I was going to do was this: jump, freefall stable, pull.

But when I got out the door it all changed, which is the other unifying experience of all my dives. Once in the air, a sense of rush and a sense of calm settle over me all the same time. Things slow down. At 11,000 feet I realized I had a long way to go to 5,500 when I would pull. I may as well have some fun. I front flipped twice. I back flipped twice. I did a barrel roll. At 5,500 I waved off and pulled.

The wind had kicked up a little bit on the ground, which sent me over a set of trees I didn’t want to be over. Below 1,000 feet the rule is that you never fly over anything you don’t want to land on, and I had found myself kicked over a grove of trees. The speed of the wind had caught me off guard, but I managed to turn and track myself into a safe space on the landing field of drop zone. Lesson learned.

***

That day was Bob’s birthday. My present to him was to get Geeb’s and John’s jumped videoed. After we were all down we converged on the large screen TV in the hanger to watch what had just happened.

As Geebs nears the door you watch her sit down, hanging her legs over the side. I don’t know what she was thinking, but she looked terrified. I think this was her “I’m going no further” moment, like she was saying, “well, I’ve gotten us to the door, now you’re going to have to get us out.” Her tandem instructor looks at her for a second before realizing he was going to have to just roll her out of the plane. He does.

As she falls head forward, as her body looses contact with the plane, Geebs screams. You cannot hear what she’s saying, but you can see the words formed: “OH MY FUCKING GOD! FUCK! FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!”

Three seconds into her free fall something passes across her face, the fear washing away in the cleansing foam of her first air bath. Her mouth goes straight; for a second she registers no emotion. Then her lips peel back. Then she sticks her tongue out. Then she grins to the wind, pumps her fist.

John’s is a little different. He’s almost stoic when he gets to the door, like a dead man resigned to his fate. This is what he meant when he said his psyche had split. The look on his face. But as he leaves the plane there’s start, a jolt. He looks around, you can see him taking everything in, trying to process, but the emotions start to flood him. He grins and then just shakes his hands up and down up and down up and down.

On the ground, after I had stowed my gear I walked over to Bob, we bumped fists and hugged.

“Happy Birthday.”
“Aw, thanks, brother. This was 1,000 times better than Australia. I fucking loved it.”
“Yeah?”
“Yeah. Brilliant. I’m in. Now it’s your turn.”
“I’m on it. I’ve been running already. Going to try 4 miles this weekend.”
“It’s on.”
“It’s on.”

And while I hate running, I think I will work my way into enjoying that too, if only for the positive benefits it will have. I’m going to have to quit smoking to do this. But I’ve been running 3 days a week and 1 weekend day the past two weeks, hitting 4 miles on the weekend and hurting in every part of my body the following day. And I was right. So far I’m fucking hating it. I definitely have the harder part of this bargain, but I think both will be just as rewarding. I mean, how many people can say they’ve run in a marathon? How many can say they jump out of airplanes? How many do both?

That’s where we stand. It looks like I won’t be heading down there alone anymore, but someone will be coming with me. And although I love going down there and having that place to yourself, there are some things you do alone, and some things which are better for having shared them. As much as Lucia is right, you cannot ever force someone to want to jump, they have to come to the decision on their own, there is something to this sport that has made sharing it all the more rewarding for me.

I can’t wait to get down there again.