A Metaphor for Living
by Mark Liberator (e-mail: email@example.com) [April 28th, 2000]
It was September 6th, 1999. The sun was shining. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. I woke up to a normal looking, fall-like day. The temperature was perfect for shorts and a T-shirt. There was absolutely nothing amazing going on, except for the fact my friend and I decided to jump out of an airplane that day.
The desire to do a jump has always fascinated me ever since I was a kid. I saw clips of skydivers and their huge smiles. As a kid, I often dreamed of being a bird, flying over rooftops. What a feeling... When my uncle mentioned skydiving some months earlier, it flipped on the same internal switch.
Most of my family knew about my desire to skydive but they didn't know exactly when the deed would take place. This was purposeful, of course. I didn't want them trying to stop me by carefully logging their complaints. They tried that angle a few times. I was determined to make this jump in light of it.
The determination was very strong, so strong that I wanted a friend to join me. If I tried to do it myself, there was some concern that I might chicken out at the last minute. Having a friend along prevented that possibility. A friend -- even a good one -- would never let me live it down. Friends tend to do that for one another. Call it male bonding. Call it whatever you like but it's what guys are all about.
A lot of people turned me down when I asked them to dive with me. Some of them seemed interested but never landed up materializing toward the jump day. Others flat out rejected the notion. I started to think that they knew something I didn't know. Nah... I was going ahead with this, even if it killed me.
I never told anyone about this next part. I drafted up a will. A semi-detailed list of personal items was put to paper along with a name. My family taught me never to leave anything to chance. On one hand, I was covering the details of my possible untimely death. On the other hand, I was going to risk my life by hurtling toward the rigid surface of Earth. Talk about connected opposites.
To this day, that sealed letter has never been opened. In fact, I intended on mailing it to myself. I was going to drop it in a mailbox on the day of the dive. Imagine having a piece of postage arrive at my own residence days after my own gravity induced death. There was a certain mystique about that possibility.
It was a day of death, so to speak. I was in the process of separating from my longtime girlfriend. This jump symbolized a new beginning. A death of an older me was going to be replaced by a new me -- a resurrection of sorts. Come to think of it, my friend Bill had long hair. Maybe he symbolized Jesus, and I Lazarus. Who the Hell am I kidding... We were both simple men whose destinies included a drop from the sky, like eagles swooping down on prey. The prey being the adventure in life.
“My knees were at the extreme edge of the airplane and my cheeks felt the push of the wind as it rushed against my face. I could see farms 13,000 feet below in neat little rectangles.”
First, we had to get there. I picked up Bill and we drove in my Chevy pickup approximately 80 miles to a little town away from the big city of Chicago, called Morris. To my knowledge, there's only one skydiving company there, but I'm not being paid to plug the business, so there. It was an uneventful trip really. We made small talk the whole way. As we got closer to our destination, I sensed a small adrenaline rush.
The Tunnel of Life
I pulled up on a gravel road that led up to the facility. The crunching noise of rubber wheels on loose stone was deafening, due to the silence in the truck cabin. We stepped out of the vehicle to feel gusts of crop-scented wind at our faces. Country air was refreshing. It was also refreshing to see a place to take a leak.
After we emptied our bladders, it was time to make the purchase. We walked through a huge tent, which had a tunnel shape, to get to the main building. Once there, we had to sign our lives away, quite literally. There was page after page of documents to sign to protect the business from loosing its ass in the event of a fatality. To me, they were meaningless papers that had to be dealt with in order to make a two-mile fall -- a mere speed bump. I was more concerned about the $175 cost of the whole experience than anything else.
The next step on the two-mile ladder to the sky was the training. Our Australian-accented instructor talked about the proper procedure for jumping out of a plane, which was a rolling dive. He told us how to hang our legs and arms while in freefall to allow us to be parallel with the horizon. An altimeter would tell us when to pull the parachute; 5000 feet was the magic number. Landing with bent knees was another must worth remembering.
I listened carefully and I registered the information under 'best be knowing that.' It was evident that everything would come naturally once the situation presented itself. Also, since the first jump with this business required a tandem pairing with an instructor, the details were not going to be a big issue.
Another Jesus Figure
I was paired with some guy named Chip, or some other name that rhymed with Skip. What was memorable was his choice in footwear. He was wearing sandals. His little piglets flopped freely in the September sun. It was odd but he definitely looked comfortable, but at what cost? Was there a safety concern with sandals? I couldn't imagine boots helping us if the parachute did not open. The sandals soon became unimportant.
Bill and I had to wait our turn, for the return of a previous group. We waited sitting on a red-colored picnic table, gazing up at the light blue sky. We hoped to see the other group as they fell from the sky. Bill, the non-meat-eater, sat Indian-style. He looked like a skinny Buddha or maybe a yuppy-hippy hybrid: a huppy.
Eventually we saw a handful of dots in the sky, each one a falling body. They looked like tiny balloons that had lost their helium or possibly disinherited angels. They appeared to be slowly falling from the sky but my knowledge of physics told me otherwise. I knew that gravity was accelerating them at 9.8 meters per second every second until they reached a maximum speed due to air resistance. We were told that a tiny chute would be thrown at the time of departure from the plane, which would set that maximum speed at about 130 miles per hour.
The dots became larger, until their parachutes opened. They dangled from their harnesses, helplessly bound by the constant tug of Earth's gravity. Moving left and right with the pull of designer straps on their parachutes, they had choices. They were able to land within a given area but one fact remained. They were coming down whether they liked it or not. Much like life, the roads within it present themselves with some options, others were mandatory.
They landed as soft as birds landing on branches. With the pull of nylon cords, they grabbed the ground effortlessly. The emotions they felt as they passed by were hardly confinable by the faces they sported. They looked like children in adult bodies. Do we have to come close to death to appreciate life? I wondered momentarily.
The Simplicity/Complexity Dynamic
What about the simple pleasures? This day wasn't about simplicity. I was about to be dropped from a moving airplane that would be two miles in the air. In moments, I would be plummeting to Earth. Simplicity would be the act of sipping lemonade while swinging on an old wooden porch. Heck, humans have no right taking their flying contraptions up in the air where eagles fly. That's exactly why it's such a rush. On that day, simplicity would take a backseat to the thrills only technology could offer.
It was our turn next. We stepped up to the light, single engine airplane. I looked inside to find only one seat, and it was reserved for the pilot. We had to sit on the floor of the plane and lean against each other. It was apparent that seats would only obstruct the skydiving experience in this small plane.
I sat against my tandem partner, as directed. Each skydiver did the same with their instructor. We packed ourselves in like sardines. There were seven of us that were going to dive out of that plane, three pairs of jumpers and one lone instructor. The lone instructor, a blonde-haired fellow, had tattoos and was pierced in at least one eyebrow and probably a nostril too. He was a wildcard.
“Without warning, my harness gave way. My heart jumped up into my mouth and my eyes sprang wide open.”
Once again, I contributed in small talk. However, this time a plane engine was rumbling and I could feel us moving over the slightly uneven runway. It could have been the gusting wind that bounced us a little; it was uncertain. Another fact of life was approaching: I wasn't going to be landing within this airplane. I was going to dance on air molecules and make my way back to Earth faster than any airplane dared.
The plane gently lifted free from the runway. I watched the outside scenery through a translucent, plastic door. The air passed quickly against the door. The irregularities where the door met the doorway allowed air to pass through and make a whooshing noise. It was neat to be so close to the sky, only a plastic door away.
The plane made a small angle with the horizon and spiraled its way into the heavens. By bird and plane standards, we were not high at all. By Earth bound human standards, we were up there. I mean really up there. I could never launch a rock that high. I guess I had a lot of faith in parachutes to perform such a feat.
As we approached our altitude, more than two miles up in the sky, the instructors strapped us to them, in pairs. The instructors carried the parachutes and we, the people who paid for the experience, were strapped to them, harness to harness. Talk about faith. We didn't even have our own parachutes. We had to trust our harnesses, hope that the parachutes actually would work, and believe that our instructors were knowledgeable in case a problem developed. There were too many logical assumptions going on. It's a good thing that I wasn't thinking that way, else I might not have done the deed.
The instructor that was unpaired opened the plastic door to reveal an opening that led to a 13,000 first step. It was something all right. The wind was flowing through the cabin; tensions were elevated. We were about to toss ourselves free from a silvery bird and be embraced by absolutely nothing. It runs against human nature to do such a foolish act. One has to command ones body to do it, to overcome the protective programming that safeguards us all. Once again, that's part of the rush.
What Goes Up Must Come Down
The unpaired instructor went for the door and tossed himself from the plane, hands at his side, seemingly without a care in the world. I was shocked to see such a thing. It's unnatural to see someone hurl himself out of an airplane.
Next, a woman in front of me would be the first one of us paid jumpers to do the deed. Tied to her instructor, they waddled up to the doorway. She crumbled. She became extremely nervous and backed away from the opening. Her instructor comforted her and tried to convince her to jump. The woman wasn't going through the doorway until the plane landed, that was clear. The instructor tried again to make her reconsider. It wasn't going to happen. She and her instructor moved away from the doorway.
I was next. What a tough act to follow. I, along with my partner, waddled up to the doorway. My knees were at the extreme edge of the airplane and my cheeks felt the push of the wind as it rushed against my face. I could see farms 13,000 feet below in neat little rectangles. The rectangles butted up nicely against many roads and a highway. It was easy to see the planning that must have taken place to arrange these spaces so perfectly. From down below, in the middle of a corn patch, these observations would have gone unnoticed.
I remember being surprisingly calm at that moment. Sure my heart was pumping like mad, but I felt a level of peace amidst the chaos of the wind, the speed of the airplane, and the height I faced outside that doorway. A wing jutted out from the side of the plane's cylindrical body. It was surreal. It couldn't possibly be real in any meaningful way. My brain said, What are you nuts? Yet, my heart said, Fly like an eagle. There was a war going on inside of me. No one saw it. I only felt a part of it at the time.
A Magical Moment
As instructed I let go of the doorway and crossed my arms in front of my chest. On the count of three, my instructor said, we are going to roll. After three, we did a complete tumble out the door. Halfway through the tumble, I saw the airplane fly away. It caused a sensory overload as my brain tried to synthesize these facts.
We adopted the proper relaxed position of our limbs and we fell as we were supposed to fall, parallel to the horizon. Even though it felt as if we were standing still, the air blasting past us told us differently. The dry air shot up my nose and easily filled my lungs. Exhaling became a minor chore.
I checked three different fields of vision. I looked straight down to see the ground I knew had to be getting closer. There was the horizon, where sky met land. Then there was the in-between -- an angle between the horizon and my straight path to Earth. The view was incredible. It felt right on some level, once my mind was able to accept its predicament. My mind didn't like taking a secondary position to raw emotion, but it had no choice at the moment.
I tried screaming during the freefall, but I couldn't hear a sound. My altimeter measured the rapid drop. The speed of descent combined with the rushing wind interfered with me hearing myself yell at the top of my lungs. It was peculiar, another first on a growing list of activities for a one-day period.
The wind ruffled my jumpsuit and pushed against my goggles, arms and legs. With a turn of an arm, we rotated one way. Turning the other arm caused a counter turn. It made me want to sprout wings. If only evolution worked quickly, it might have happened.
Meeting the Pull-Cord Zone
Less than a minute after the jump, my instructor showed me my altimeter by throwing it in my face -- a sign to pull the cord. There were 500 more feet to go before we hit the 5000-foot mark. I waited. Then I reached for the red plastic handle that would save me from disaster. I pulled it, gripping it with the expectation of a sharp tug of the chute. The parachute exposed itself effortlessly.
When the chute fully deployed, my harness tugged on my body with sudden force. The harness grabbed at my groin, the lowest point of the lifevest. I hoped that the material was as strong as it was said to be because it was the material that kept me connected to my instructor who was connected to the parachute.
We slowed to a gentle descent. Now I could verbally communicate with my instructor. After I told him about the sheer pleasure of the ongoing experience, I peered across the countryside. We were slightly less than a mile high and the sight was gorgeous. I spotted the place where I was sitting earlier, waiting for a previous group to land. My vision must have been exactly what they had seen. It was quiet, peaceful and serene.
Dangling in my harness, I grasped it with two clenched fists. I was enjoying the view but I considered the possibility of a strap tearing. It was a bit odd to see the distant patches of cornfields through my own legs. I felt an indescribable, quirky anxiety.
Without warning, my harness gave way. My heart jumped up into my mouth and my eyes sprang wide open. I dropped no more than six inches below my instructor. My instructor had to adjust the harness for landing purposes. He did this without warning me ahead of time, the bastard. It scared the Hell out of me for a microsecond. When people talk about time slowing during stressful situations, they are right. Time ended. I never felt more alive in my life.
A Bird's Eye
I regained my composure, not wanting to miss a second of the whole experience. There were automobiles that looked like miniature replicas. Proud trees appeared as small weeds. I started to make out individual people as we got nearer to the ground.
My instructor pulled on two control cords. Pulling one cord turned us clockwise, while the other turned us counter-clockwise. We were twirling in the air as if we were on some amusement park ride. I mentally recorded each frame of every second. I wanted to remember it.
We turned ourselves a few times and prepared to land. A man stood in the field, waiting for us so it seemed. My instructor set out to get as close as he could to the man. His accuracy was pretty good because we made the man back up. Our landing was as smooth as a drop of water caressing a still pond. It was a wild ride that ended without harm. It was too gentle, I suppose. I waited for something to spring up, as if the plummet through space was going to provoke an angry god.
The only thing that happened was a freefall experience that I'll cherish until the end of my days. I was left wanting more. It was the signature of every great experience. Would I return to the skies to relive it? Was it enough to cheat death once? Who knows? One thing is for certain: telling the tale was almost as good as the original experience...almost.
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