So, what's it like to skydive?
Well, it begins with some preparation. Maybe a month and a half before our jump, I was working at home when I got an email from Jenny: "Hey, wanna skydive?" Honestly I was too busy to dwell on the idea. But after two decades of saying we'd have to try it "someday" I couldn't say no. She had a "Groupon" and was willing to handle the arrangements; I had no excuses. The training and jumps themselves would be relatively cheap. Add videos and photos (a much more complex operation for all concerned, since individual jumpers would memorialize our exploits) and the total was around $450.
Waiting for our jump-day to arrive, both of us continued to be inundated with work and travel. There just wasn't any time to contemplate the gravity of our situation (sorry 'bout that). Only in the final days did I occasionally think: "You're really doing this. You know that, right?" I had some trouble sleeping the night before, especially when I did the math and realized: "Dude, you're jumping from 15,000 feet. That's almost three miles!" That morning my joints felt a little creaky, and I pondered, "I'm going to throw this body out of an airplane." Putting on some antiperspirant, I really slathered the stuff on. I figured it could get a little hot today.
Jenny joined me in feeling a little wired about our day's adventure, so she suggested that we pump ourselves up for the drive to Hollister by playing some suitable music. Our trip-list: Foo Fighters' "Learn to Fly," Pink Floyd's "Learning to Fly," along with U2's "Vertigo," "Elevation," and "Beautiful Day." We also downloaded Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone" but forgot to play that one. Our weirdest but most appropriate choice? Styx's "Come sail away."
Arriving at about ten, we had little clue what to expect. Well, we knew of one thing: We were going to hang around for a while. The Hollister folks had warned us to anticipate a two to four-hour wait from arrival to jump time. Some snippy Yelp reviewers had moaned of daylong drags in a boring facility without much to do. Fortunately the schedule seemed to be moving along smoothly. We paid our fee and were invited to select three pieces of music to accompany the videos they'd make. Not so amazingly (knowing Jenny and I) we chose the same three pieces from their list (Foo Fighters' "Learn to Fly," U2's "Elevation," and some knock-off version of ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky").
We also signed "You can die doing this stuff, but you can't sue us" paperwork, which included an obligation to write out a phrase signifying our knowledge that this activity can end in "injury or death." To reinforce the message, we also sat through a video hosted by tandem parachute equipment pioneer Bill Booth (a guy whose epic beard earned him the nickname of "ZZ Top guy"). Staring into the camera, ZZ Top promised us that litigation is futile even in cases of a staff member's "gross negligence." Reflecting on that warning, I imagined myself in court: "But my instructor held me up at gunpoint. He stole my wallet!" - only to have some smirking defense attorney hold my signed waiver up for all to see: "But you were in a parachute, correct?"
We locked our stuff in the car after being assured that anything in our pockets would be lost in the air, and we waited. I'd dutifully brought some papers to grade, but couldn't muster an ounce of energy for that task. Instead I flipped through a book about surfing and occasionally joined some smalltalk with Jenny and another woman making her first jump. Our new pal's boyfriend was making his eighteenth solo flight, and he projected only the most subtle trace of swagger as he described how he'd advanced through the Accelerated Freefall training program over a few weekends. When one of the jump instructors walked by, he offered a hearty shout-out: "Didya hear about that new suit?" - naming an otherwise random assemblage of letters and numbers. I flashed back to that scene in Star Wars, when one stormtrooper asked another, "Have you seen the new BT-16?" I felt strangely still, waiting.
Right about then, geared-up instructors and googly-eyed jumpers walked past. I knew it: These folks had just gone up and it was our turn next. Like turning a dial to ten, things sped up. I was called by name and directed to a guy wearing an Army t-shirt who looked just like a young Tom Sizemore. Another fellow joined us, describing how he'd be shooting video and reminding me that I might want to grab onto his feet at some point. "Grab onto your feet?" I wondered to myself. My mind spun. I was trying to remember the names of these folks; it seemed like a good thing to know.
I learned that my trainer - the guy who'd be attached to my back the whole way down - was nicknamed "Mr. Rogers." His attitude was reassuringly no-nonsense. He explained the procedure of tandem parachuting and emphasized my role in this relationship: my job was to arch my back and to relax my arms. I didn't feel the slightest desire to point out the contradiction. For good measure Mr. Rogers instructed me to get on the deck and practice. Ever the studious learner, I tried once, got an OK, and then asked if I could try it again. "I'm thinking it, but I'm not feeling it."
"Oh man," my instructor was surely thinking. "This guy's going to be a handful."
Then we got harnessed up. Tight. Tighter than you'd imagine. I looked over at Jenny who was enduring the same process. She was laughing. I just wondered how much more squeezed my jiggly-bits would be with every adjustment. Time was racing now. We were getting suited up. We were walking outside. We were boarding a small plane. We were packed in to a tiny cabin. We were aloft. I was sitting between Mr. Rogers' legs; he was adjusting my gear tighter and tighter. Videographers were asking us questions for the shows they'd later produce, and Jenny and I somehow managed to answer. We were performing our parts: high-fiving, fist-pumping, woo-hooing. All the while my instructor counted off adjustments, hooking us ever closer together. "One. Two. Three. Four." [squeeze, clinch, shove, pull]. "Did you feel those?" Oh yeah. Then he told me on three separate moments, "I'm gonna ask you, 'Are you ready to skydive?' What are you going to say?"
The door was open and I felt cold. We circled higher and higher, watching the blue curve of Monterey Bay arch away from the Pacific. Someone else in the plane had forgotten their antiperspirant. I was focused on the bloody handprint stuck to the window. Halloween is coming, and someone thought it'd be funny to place a plastic reminder on the glass. I realized then that the only truly terrifying part of this adventure was the physical process of jumping. I still couldn't quite fathom what we were going to do. Would we stand up? Does one person go first, followed by the other? What if the wind snaps us against the plane? Oh, and what if all those adjustments fail and I plummet to a fast and violent death?
I reminded myself that I can't control what's going to happen. I'm going to be hurtling toward the ground with only confidence that my instructor knows what he's doing. I could only presume that this dude also, you know, wants to live. As we continued our climb, Mr. Rogers told me about his experience, that he'd made thousands of jumps and was the instructors' supervisor that day. I felt calm enough, I guess, even as I watched Jenny scoot toward the door. She and her instructor were going first. I patted her shoulder and we smiled at each other. They took their positions. They rocked - forward, back, forward - and were gone.
"Are you ready to skydive?" Mr. Rogers asked. "I am ready to skydive," I replied. What else could I say? We edged up to the open door. My feet dangled crazily out of the plane. I thought for a second that we might fall accidentally, just slip off the edge. How bad could that be? We're going out anyway. Then I thought more about what it'd be like to slam against the side of the plane or to cartwheel off into the air due to some micromoment of error. Just a second or two to go. We shifted our position as my instructor made his last adjustments. I thought about all those straps and connections. All that work, just for this. Then we rocked. Forward, back, out.
An explosion of wind blew my mouth open. I didn't feel velocity so much as pressure. The air pounded against my chest and I yelled for the thrill of it all. I knew we were falling at a rate of about 120 miles per hour, but I felt no fear. Nothing but exhilaration. My mouth grew stale with the storm rattling my tongue; I didn't care. We plunged and I shouted "Hell yeah!" I loved the feeling of racing toward the ground, daring it to grab me. I arched my back and held onto the straps when my instructor checked his altimeter. I remembered that he had a helmet, but that I didn't. I wondered why. The wind beat against my goggles. Then, a jolt. The canopy deployed and we hung in sudden stillness.
At this point we had a few moments to enjoy the ride. I looked down mostly, fascinated by the miniature buildings and the grand scale. Mr. Rogers then started teaching me how to turn, and we were soon whooshing left and right. He told me to pull one cable down beneath his knee and we began to twirl in sharp horizontal loops. I guess he felt that I was doing OK, because he let me navigate toward a church. We'd be landing somewhere nearby. I loved the feeling of controlling our descent, maneuvering us toward the ground. I removed my goggles and took it all in. Only at 1000 feet to go did Mr. Rogers regain the controls. The speed had become a tangible thing now. My bones would hit the ground one way or the other.
Mr. Rogers didn't curse, but I could tell he wasn't happy with the speed and angle of our final approach. Something about the wind. We were falling toward a field at a sharp pitch, heading directly for a fence topped with barbed wire. He yelled, "Kick your feet up!" I figured we'd land hard. I thought about speed, time, and direction. I was sure we'd plow into that fence. I wasn't frightened, though, just aware. My job was to kick my feet up; Mr. Rogers' job was to land us. One second, maybe two, and the canopy flared above our heads. We hit the ground and began to slide feet-first toward the fence, unearthing a plume of dust. There was nothing to do but to wait it out. I wondered if we'd get tangled in the barbed wire, how much it would hurt. Then, without so much as a flex of muscle, we stopped - maybe six feet before the fence. My heart was rattling. We didn't get a scratch.
And that was it. I stood up and Mr. Rogers congratulated me on being a good student. We shook hands and I turned to find Jenny. She was thrilled but a little shaky. Her descent had been a little rough on her stomach. We hugged gently. The mood was buoyant as our little group collected the gear and climbed into a tiny yellow bus. Once more we were squeezed in tight for the 20 minute drive back to Hollister. My videographer showed me photos and footage of the flight; I was grateful for his work. But almost immediately the moment seemed to grow abstract. I knew that Jenny and I had jumped out of an airplane - we'd just done it! - but seeing it all on those tiny screens made the whole experience seem almost artificial. I felt the dust on my pants and the icky pallor in my mouth. That was real enough.
We returned to the airport to get unhooked. Walking through the set-up area, it was fun being on the other side of this moment, enjoying the cocky feeling of strolling back from a jump. I thanked Mr. Rogers for his patience and expertise, and left a reasonable tip. I mean, really, I'd put my life in this guy's hands. Jenny and I then shared lunch at the nearby Ding-A-Ling Cafe while we waited for our videos to be completed. I ate a hamburger and contemplated the rest of our day, how we'd go home to look through our photos and maybe later see that new movie, The Social Network. Everything on the ground seemed smaller than it did before. And now for the big question: Will we do it again?
At this point I'd say, we probably will. Jenny loved skydiving, and I've got to admit that I'd like to try once more, if only for the opportunity to be more "present." All day I dwelled too much on minutiae and not enough on the feeling of being there. Moreover during the flight I tended to look downward too much, staring at the details of the ground. Next time I'd focus more on the horizon. And I'd like to arch my back more. And should relax my arms more… Ooops - there's that instructor over my shoulder again. Maybe the coolest part of going back, ultimately of getting certified, is the possibility of jumping alone. Oh, to feel that abyss of reality rushing toward me, with nothing but faith, equipment, and training to keep me safe. It's an expensive hobby, skydiving. It's also a hardcore way to die. But a life in the air (at least on weekends) would be a remarkable thing. We've gone once - and that's the hard part.
Yeah, we'll do it again.
(Special thanks to Skydive Hollister for the photographs and raw footage.)