I have a tendency to fall. Places I have fallen from include, but are not limited to: horses, surfboards, grace, brick walls, and airplanes. Though falling from planes is decidedly the most fun.
I had meant to start blogging by chronicling my way through skydiving and getting my ‘A’ License (the first license you can get, which basically says ‘I am now responsible for my own shit, getting it together and messing it up’), but somehow I never quite got around to it. Probably because I was afraid; afraid of failing, afraid I’d never actually get my license, afraid of what random strangers reading it might say, afraid I’d look ridiculous and the other REAL skydivers would laugh at me. But I’m pretty ridiculous most of the time anyway, and people laugh at me already, so who cares, right? So here it is, two of my more memorable skydiving ‘falls.’
Skydiving is, in my personal experience, a unique blend of euphoria and terror. My first jump was pure euphoria; one of the last before getting my license, slightly more terror.
I did not have the most…fluid…of student progressions. I was/am the skydiving equivalent of a 26 year old Undergrad – a ‘super senior’ if you will. I did my first AFF (‘learning’) jump in May 2010 with a college class. I finally received my official ‘A’ stamp in November 2011.
The first jump I was nervous, of course. My mother called me the night before to remind me that she loved me very, very much. My lovely coworkers spent the day joking about my last meal and flowers for my grave. Everyone was incredibly supportive that way. At the last ground training class the night before, however, one of the instructors approached me and asked if I’d like to go on the first plane in the morning. Ha! I thought. Someone thinks I’m good enough to go first! I must be ready for this! It would also give me less time to actually THINK about what I was doing. You know what they say: Confidence is the feeling you have right before you fully understand the situation. I think that’s about where I was.
So, dark and early that May Saturday morning, I and a couple hundred other proud Buckeyes loaded onto the buses and headed out to the dropzone (airport). When we arrived in all our groggy glory the students designated for the first load huddled around and went over our gear and Emergency Procedures. They showed us photos of possible parachute malfunctions and we told them what was wrong and how to handle it. My answers consisted mostly of: That is a big ball of shit, get rid of it. I’m very good at technical terms – my teachers are so proud of me. Then we met with our instructors to go over the whole plan once more – though most of my pre-flight preparations consisted of both my instructors shaking their hands at me – skydiver lingo for ‘Chill the F— Out.’
“I AM relaxed!” I shot back. And they just shook their hands at me and repeated.
I hated that word. But in the plane, the whole ascent to 12,000 feet, it was repeated over and over again, until someone said ‘Are you ready to skydive??’
Well, hell, it was a little too late to change my mind. They slid open the plane door. I was excited, nervous, anxious, absolutely terrified. The worst part of a first time skydive (and many subsequent dives) is this moment; the whole business of the ‘door.’ There is the sudden rush of wind and a gaping hole in the side of the aircraft; nothing to keep me from hurling back down to Earth at terminal velocity. Then the instructor says it’s time to get in the door, which really means position myself half in the plane – half hanging out into nothing. All possible human emotions start exploding inside my head and stomach simultaneously, and then shit gets real, fast. Instinct says: you should not be doing this terribly unnatural thing, people weren’t made to fly, dumbass! Get back in the plane!
But I had 2 trained professionals holding onto me, and a third guy with a camera somewhere that I’d lost all awareness of, so I climbed into the door, clutching the airplane desperately, and shifted all of my focus to the instructions I’d been given. Despite the attempted focus I ignored the very first step that includes looking to both instructors on either side to get the official ‘go ahead’ nod and went straight for the exit.
And then I was falling. My stomach caught in my throat and I had the sensation of cresting the initial hill to a rather large roller coaster. Except there was no seatbelt, or metal car, or other restraints I was used to having. Once that insane, incontrollable, vertigo-ish first sensation of free-fall subsided and I could regain some semblance of awareness and control, it was nothing short of euphoric. I. Was. FLYING! Holy Shit. FLYING! Like a freaking bird! Something until then I could only do in my dreams. Any conscious thought of falling towards the ground really, really fast and landing very, very hard fled from my mind. The sheer amount of adrenaline running through me that first jump was unlike anything else I’d ever experienced. I had never felt so exhilarated. There really are no words.
After almost a minute of falling, I got the signal to pull the handle and release my parachute. The first instructor peaced out and the second hung on until the force of the chute ripped me from his grip. My head whipped around a little and it felt as though I was suddenly, violently jerked upwards. I looked up as quickly as I could to make sure my parachute looked like it was supposed to– big, square, hole-less. I think then I finally let go of a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. I grabbed the steering handles and began to test my ability to drive. There was also a radio strapped to my chest that one of my instructors was supposed to use to talk me down and help me land safely. I waited for a while thinking maybe I was just too high up still, but radio contact never came. I had secretly suspected this would happen. So I went over everything they told me about how to land safely and not be the idiot who runs into another person, or a tree. I probably looked like an idiot anyway…circling slowly downward apparently ignoring everything they were trying to tell me over the radio. As to my actual landing, I did end up following the pattern correctly but I hit the brakes a little too early and tumbled onto the ground in a wonderfully ungraceful manner, in typical me fashion. I just wrote it off as no big deal, I was used to hitting the ground fairly hard after 4 years of playing rugby. Even despite the bruising, clumsy landing, I could not have been happier. I was still coming down from the ecstasy of my first skydive.
Before the jump, I figured it was a once in a lifetime experience. Brushing the dirt off my jumpsuit afterwards, however, all I could think about was doing it again. A week and many, many exuberant ‘I went skydiving’ stories later, I showed up to do my second dive.
“We got one!” one of the skydivers said upon my arrival.
Yes sir, you did. You did indeed.
I made three jumps and spent several days trying to learn how to pack a parachute at that airport before I began my stint of gypsying. I didn’t get the guts to start back up with my skydiving until about a year later out in Colorado. I showed up at a skydiving airport one day, went to the front desk, told the girl at the computer that I hadn’t skydived in a little over a year but I wanted to get back into it, and handed her my logbook. I lucked out. The manager happened to be standing right there when I walked in, got one of his spare instructors to do a crash refresher course with me, then sent me up to redo my 2nd and 3rd learning skydives. It was thrilling. I instantly felt rejuvenated, infinitely happier than I had been. I decided I was going to get my skydiving license. I just…had to.
I made several more jumps out in the mountains before I returned to me ‘home dropzone’ in Ohio. I spent every weekend there for 2 months or so. Some of the professional skydivers remembered me from the few years before. However, the jumping started to become less…euphoric and more…aggravating. I had started struggling with control in free fall now that I didn’t have any instructors to hold onto me and keep me stable. Things weren’t clicking for me like I thought they should. It was maddening. Still is, actually. That word ‘Relax’ keeps haunting me. Apparently I have a hard time doing it and it is a key ingredient to being a successful skydiver.
Battling weather and my own head though, I crept closer to my first license. You are required to complete a competency/skills card with coaches/instructors and 25 jumps in order to receive your first license as a skydiver. I spent more than one jump spinning in circles as opposed to working on my skill set. I could see in my coaches’ eyes the ‘what are doing?’ look, but I still couldn’t stop myself. I got quite frustrated but pressed on, until I had one day left to complete it all. It was cloudy, exceptionally windy, and I was on the edge of severe disappointment (I was going to have to wait ANOTHER winter to get my license!) One of my coaches was determined to get me certified and we left the plane just as the pilot was shouting back ‘we’re really far away…’
And we were really far away…from the airport, that is. I locked onto my coach, kept staring straight at him, hoping, praying, demanding my body to fly where I wanted it to. Then my coach instructed me to deploy my parachute, at a slighter higher altitude than I expected. But he was the teacher, so I obeyed. The chute opened, I looked up at it to make sure I couldn’t see anything wrong with it, and then looked toward the ground, trying to find the landing area at the airport. I was nowhere near where I wanted to be. I was incredibly far away. And the wind kept pushing me backward. No matter which way I tried to face I could not gain any ground in the direction I wanted, I needed to go. I was not going to be landing at the airport.
I wracked my memory. What had they told me about off-airport landings? I suddenly couldn’t remember if I should do one thing, or not do that. Holy Hell, I thought. How do I do this? How am I going to get back to the airport after I land?! Where am I going to land?! I have no idea what I’m doing!
Avoid straight lines, I told myself. Straight lines mean roads, power lines, and fences….all bad things. Avoid the river. Water bad, large open spaces good. I spotted a park that looked promising. But the wind pushed me past it, and then another. Effin’ A…
I slowly lost altitude and still couldn’t decide where to land until I reached the ‘pick a spot now otherwise you’re going to crash’ moment. Except I hadn’t really realized my original spot was basically mysterious riverbed brush…so I gently re-routed myself into the neighboring yard. The yard littered with trees. I was going to turn into that idiot that landed in a tree. Frick. I tried desperately to suppress the panic rising in the pit of my stomach as I came upon the first set of branches. A glimmer of hope sprung up as I closed in; irrationally thinking I could avoid most of them if I just lifted up my legs to my chest.
I was wrong.
I went through the top of the tree in a quick, painful burst. At least my well worn and toughened shins protected my chest and other vital organs. I cleared the tree and noticed a fence….shiiiiit! My brain hissed. I slammed on the parachute’s brakes hard, praying to just be on the ground and not run into the fence or the trunk of the next tree, which I would NOT so easily go through. I tumbled disastrously onto the ground, but I was on the ground! The ground! I think I might still have been in some sort of shock as I hopped up to my feet. I barely registered pain in my lower legs as I noticed that I had ended up on one side of the fence while the actual parachute was on the opposite side, with the lines connecting us draped over a lovely strand of barbed wire wrapping around the top of the fence. I started shaking then, and laughed to keep from crying.
So crying/laughing, I took off my parachute rig and placed it over the other side of the wire. It was rented gear after all, and worth more money than I was – I was not going to risk ripping holes in the nylon by trying to drag the horde of fabric over the barbed wire. Instead I climbed over, possibly putting little holes in myself. I was literally straddling the fence when the owners of the house whose yard I landed in came out. Awesome. They turned out to be very nice and understanding people, however, and even drove me back to the airport.
There was not much I wanted to do less than walk back into that hangar, but I didn’t have much of a choice. I was so ashamed of myself, even though no one else had witnessed that shit-show of a landing. I could lie. No one had to know how close to shattered and broken I’d been I thought as I entered through the door.
There was a chorus of ‘oh, hey! There she is!’
‘There might be some little holes in the parachute…” I admitted to one the skydivers as I laid the whole thing out to be inspected. “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry…but there was a fence and it had some barbs on it, but I don’t think I tore it too much, I’m sorry, sorry…”
I think someone asked me where I landed. I can’t quite remember the exact aftermath….I was dealing with the full reality of what had happened, and what could have happened. “I went through a tree…” I said. So much for lying.
“You landed in a tree?!”
“No I went through a tree. My legs hurt…” I rolled up my pants to reveal two bright red, growing welts on my shins.
“Well they’re not broken!” someone said.
“They should be…” I muttered.
“Hey, you walked away, right? That’s all that matters,” the skydivers assured me.
It took me several months and a multitude of nightmares to come to agree to that sentiment.
I did, however, manage to obtain my license that day. “Hey congratulations! Have a beer!” the real skydivers told me.
I took a beer, and everyone who had helped me through my tumultuous skydiving-license congratulated me on finally graduating from student status. I was finally a real life certified skydiver! With a hell of a lot to learn.
Even now that I’ve moved passed the horror of such a terrible off-airport landing and turned it into a joke (oh, ya, the incident with the tree…I went through a tree once…no biggie….) I am still trying to learn. I still have a lot to figure out with my skydiving.
Truth is I’m still figuring out a lot more than that. I’m still working out my whole ‘life.’ I firmly believe, however, that if I hadn’t taken that very first step and let myself fall from that first plane, I never would have had the courage to do many of the things I have in the last couple years. Like packing up my life and moving across the country multiple times or going to work for free on a wild horse refuge.
I’ve recently relocated back to where I started, taking some time to figure out what my next step should be. I still have no idea what I’m doing, but even if I fall taking that next step it’s nothing I haven’t done before. As long as I have skydiving to remind me how amazing life and falling can be (and I avoid any more trees on my way down) I think it’ll be okay.