Monday, September 08, 2003

My wife had been wanting to skydive, and over the past year there was a tentative plan to do it. This past weekend (for her birthday) she took the plunge - with myself, and our friends Tiffeny and Andy joining her. Andy is well acquainted with the madness that is skydiving as he himself has done over 75 jumps. As newbies, Tiffeny, my wife and I waited around the field where the jumps are performed and watched others take their jumps. With a sharp trained eye you can see the tiny black specks of people plummet at tremendous speeds towards the Earth. And then like fireworks, their parachutes open, displaying brilliantly colorful canopies. The grace of each jumper gliding peacefully amidst the sky was inspiring to watch and as they came in for landing, each touchdown varied in speed, style, direction, and form.

We suited up and became acquainted with our tandem partners, who in essence were the professionals running the tourist ride we were about to take. Our harnesses involved a complicated process of strapping and buckling which actually supplied a sense of reassurance. I suppose one usually gains a measure of security when one is strapped or buckled to a safety device, but in this case it was necessary to forget that the safety device would be jumping out of the plane as well. No matter, there was really no time to ponder such things since almost immediately we were boarding the twin prop plane that would be taking us up to 11,000 feet.

The plane ride was uneventful and yet very eventful. The ride to the required altitude was smooth and the views extending towards all directions were limitless. There was hardly a cloud in the sky. There was not a lot of talking amongst the jumpers other than efforts by our tandem partners to reassure us newbies. I sat in silence as I looked towards the sliding door in one side of the fuselage that would be our exit into the atmosphere. A look down at my altimeter confirmed that we had arrived at 11,000 feet and final preparations and last minute adjustments were made to the straps and buckles that joined jumper to their parachute pack - the device ultimately responsible for ensuring life over death. The scene in some sense resembled movies depicting D-Day where parachutists in the airborne corps shared a moment of understanding that they were about to undertake something extraordinary. In everyone's face, by their glances and their expressions, an unspoken conversation was happening. Yes, this is insane. You will indeed throw yourself out of a moving airplane flying at significant altitudes. You will place your life and existence into a situation that will for a moment make questionable whether or not that life and existence shall continue. And you have CHOSEN to do this. For the moment in that plane there was a unique sense of camaraderie shared by seasoned jumper and newbie alike. This sense helped keep the nerves in check to some extent. The pilot had positioned the plane within the proper drop zone and in turn the sliding door was opened, revealing a broad horizon and the atmospheric expanse. Our friend Andy positioned himself by the exit and waited for the final signal from the pilot that the time to jump was now. A few seconds later, the green "Go" light flickered on.

Your ability to gauge speed and depth is severely handicapped in that situation. I saw Andy jump and within seconds he was a mere speck hurtling down and away. The roar of the wind and the prop engines was deafening. The next to go was our friend Tiffeny, her tandem partner, and another jumper who would film her first jump. It was methodical and fast. Each tumbled out the exit and away into an unknown fate. My time had come and because of the nature of the tandem harness I had to crouch and squat over to the edge of the exit as my tandem partner positioned us for our jump. We rocked back and forth and on the count of three we leapt. Or I should say my tandem partner leapt and I sort of leaned out of the plane. This hardly mattered as momentum and gravity took over and exerted their effect on my freefall journey. I'd like to be able to relate this part of it all to something familiar and predictable. But it is very difficult. I will say though that it is not like a roller coaster or an amusement park ride. You don't get any gut churning feelings or effects. In fact, you hardly feel any sensations at all. You can sense no forces acting on your body. You cannot feel your weight. The only thing you can feel is the velocity of wind that screams past your ears. I felt paralyzed. Locked in the arch that I was instructed to make. Staring with intensity at the ground below. It was beautiful and yet freakily unknown - an endless carpet where forests looked like heads of broccoli. It was impossible to make out distinct individual shapes that could somehow provide a sense of scale and dimension. The lack of recognizable information in some sense shut down the brain - since it was virtually useless at trying to explain the novelty of the experience. I didn't notice any adrenaline rush, or rise in heartrate, or feelings of fear. Things were just too unfamiliar and unique and no other feelings could displace the sense of total awe that one has while freefalling for a distance of a mile.

I uttered my first sounds after the parachute had been deployed. There is a chaotic moment when the speed at which you are traveling abruptly goes from 100+ MPH to almost a standstill. It is after this moment that you become cognizant of your weight again. Feeling the tug of the parachute overhead and knowing that it was holding me and slowly bringing me back to Earth was very reassuring. It was from this moment that I can say that the experience turned enjoyable. Not that the freefall portion was frightening or awful, it's just that it is hard to wrap your head around it and fully understand it or explain it. As you parachute down, you can take your time and soak in the surroundings, make out the details of the land below. See the forests and the farms, the rivers, houses, and backyard swimming pools. The setting sun cast a warmth over the scenery. The skyscrapers of Boston were seen in the distance. My tandem partner took control of the steering for the landing approach. The field at the airport below looked like Astroturf as we neared. On command I lifted my legs up as high as I could and we came in towards the ground at a shallow angle, swooping in as we gently skidded across the grass. The canopy came to a rest behind us, signaling that the ride was over. I turned around and saw my wife make her landing almost right next to me - her tandem partner having elected to do a standing up landing that requires that you run a bit forward the moment your feet hit the ground. Needless to say, the expression on her face was priceless. A very Happy Birthday indeed.


Post a Comment

<< Home