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JUMP! Tandem Skydiving 1999



“Here’s some things you might be interested in,” German told me as he handed me several sheets of paper stapled together at the corner.  “They are the sort of things you like to do.”

What he handed me was a schedule of events sponsored by the gym he goes to, outdoor adventures of one sort or another, hiking trips, canoeing trips, karate, etc.  They looked interesting, they looked fun, and I thought I might take up one or the other - but wasn’t real committed one way or another.... until I looked a bit further down the list.  Sky-diving.         

Sky-diving.  I have dreamed about it since college - making plans with one of my college mates to go and take the lessons and jump out of the plane ( plans that never came to fruition for one reason or another) - and since I had been trying to think of something to do this year that I had not ever done before, I thought this would be fantastic.            

I took the small sheaf of papers home and read and re-read them several times over.  It was a bit expensive for my meager salary, but it just seemed too good an opportunity to let pass by.  A few days later, I made my way to the gym and signed on the dotted line.  I asked the attendants at the counter if there was any special equipment I needed to bring with me, if there was a particular way I needed to dress, etc., but they were hopelessly ignorant about it all - giving me instead the name and number of someone who was supposed to know.            

I spent several days trying to get hold of him, and when I eventually did get him on the phone, all he said was wear long pants that were fairly loose and comfortable and maybe a long sleeve shirt because it was a bit chilly up in the air.  Other than that, he said, just come ready for a rush.           

I was ready for that rush.  Although the day of the jump was a couple of weeks away, I was so excited about it that the thought of it would occupy many minutes of each day prior to the jump.  It even invaded my dreams.  I would dream of falling, of flying, of all the terrible possibilities that would or might happen.  I thought of crashing to the ground, of being carried away by the winds, of landing incorrectly and breaking my legs, of having the greatest rush in my life.  I would often invent a scenario in which I would become so frightened that they could not get me out of the plan, other thoughts of being a fearless, daring star at it all, I imagined myself fainting in the air, of parachutes not opening - if there was a potential problem, or an imagined potential problem - it came to my mind one time or another.  It was so very exciting.  I couldn’t wait.

Finally the day arrived, the day before my 13 anniversary of ordination in fact, (and since I was going to say the morning mass on my anniversary date, I was already preparing for a sermon based on my experience - but I couldn’t force the readings of the day to fit sky-diving, and believe me I tried) and I was up bright and early.  We were to meet at the gym at 9:00 AM.  The original blurb announced the day as being 9-4.  This led me to assume that the jump place was not too far away, that we would do what we had to do, and I would be back in time for dinner with the friend who turned me on to the idea in the first place.  I went for a jog that morning, thinking very little about the run, only the thought that just a few hours from then, I would be dropping to the ground from 14000 feet above the earth.  I was excited!            

It was a hot day.  Even at 5 AM it was already almost 75 degrees and muggy.  It was hard to put on a pair of jeans, and decided to throw the long sleeve shirt into my back-pack instead of on my body... it was just too hot.            

I had agreed to car-pool with others from the gym.  Just the week before, I was in an accident with an 18-wheeler (he drove his truck too close to the side of my pick-up, causing a rather ugly gash along the drivers side of my truck, jamming the door, breaking off the mirror, knocking off part of the bumper, and breaking the rack and pinion) that sent the truck to the repair shop.  So, I arrived at the gym and was partnered up with a couple of other guys and we took off.            

The driver was from Denmark, he was a reporter for a Copenhagen newspaper.  The other passenger was a tax lawyer.  We were in the Danes’ car and traveling by the direction sheet given him by the gym.  It was not until we were in his car that he mentioned that the place we were going to was about 2 hours away, and that he had no air-conditioning in his car.  Gadfrey!            

As the day had worn on, so had the heat, and it was miserably hot in his car - despite the windows down and the sun roof open.  The air that blew through the car was like sitting in the stream of a huge blow-dryer.  Just sitting in the back seat I became drenched in my sweat.  If I had had any sense I would have worn shorts to the place and changed into my long pants prior to the jump.             

Well, the nice thing is that if we were to be done by 4, and it was a 2 hour drive there, then surely we would be up in the air and out of the plane in a fairly reasonable amount of time.  That was the one consolation to bearing up with the trip.         

The drive, despite the heat, had some pleasantries.  We traveled through rural Maryland and into Delaware.  The directions were fairly clear and simple, the conversation was interesting and free-flowing, and we arrived in good time.
Where we arrived was a small country airport.  Literally cut out of the corn fields - a dirt runway, a few single propped planes, a few two prop planes that seemed to be the ones out of which we would jump, and a number of wooden buildings and sheds built along the edge of the “strip”, the opposite side of the strip was a big open field in the middle of which was a circular sand pit - I guessed that that was the spot that we were to aim for when we landed.
As we arrived, we were ushered into the office of one of the buildings.  There we were instructed to watch a video about what it was we were getting ourselves into.  It was at that point that I discovered what was meant by “tandem sky-diving”.  I had assumed, and was told by some others, that it meant we would be given a couple of hours of lessons at “jump school” and then make our jump with a professional jumping with us to make sure we opened the chute on time and all that.  What I discovered, via the film, that what was meant was that we would be strapped to the front of a professional, who would direct the jump and sort of take care of everything from behind us.  Oh well, it was not quite the image I had conjured, but jumping out of a plane 2.5 miles up from the ground was still jumping out of a plane.  I found out that a “solo” jump (with an instructor jumping with us.... as in my imagination) would have been possible had we signed up for it, arrived at 8 in the morning, and gone through the 2-3 hour of lessons.  I stored that information away for later.  This still had plenty of excitement to it.
After watching the video, we were then directed to a long table where we were given about 4 different forms to fill out and sign.  All sorts of “hold harmless” agreements, forms saying we understood the danger, the possibilities of death or injury, etc,, etc. 
After we filled out all the forms we were then directed to the other end of the field to wait our turn.  And wait we did.  There were about 30 of us from the gym there.  There were also customers from other places, and there were those who were very experienced and were there to be taken up and allowed to jump. 
There was only one plane that they used for this jump, and so it meant a lot of waiting.  They took about 6 of us up at a time - which meant 12 people in the plane - and if any of the customers had paid for photos and video, that added the cameraman per customer to the plane.  I think the plane could hold about 15 or 16.  Well, how long could it take to fly up in the air and then dump a load of bodies?  It took about ½ hour each load.  And after every second load the plane needed to re-fuel.  It turned out to be a rather long day.
The field, because it was farm land, was bereft of trees.  The wooden buildings were well used, and so we had to wait outside, in the heat, without shade.  There was one small covered area, with a few benches underneath, intended for those who were preparing for the next plane-load.  The heat wore on.  By noon it was well into the 90's and it was humid, and there was no escaping the heat.  I, of course, was the only one of our group in jeans.  Apparently the others never bothered to call and ask about what to wear... and were better off because of it.
The first couple of hours of waiting were not too painful.  It was fun to watch the instructors go through the routine of what was going to happen in the plane.  They told them how to hold their bodies, what signals would be given, how their feet should be, how, once they were in the plane they would be attached together and how they would check the veracity of the straps before leaving the plane.  They were very careful about giving these instructions, how the body was to be held, etc., at least in the first few hours.   It was a lot of fun, the first few hours to watch them board the plane, the various looks of exhilaration, fear or excitement on the faces of the customers, to watch them fall from the sky, land easily on the ground, and the excited glow on their faces as they returned to the waiting area.  At least, it was fun the first few hours.
I waited for my turn, and waited, and waited.  Finally I was named to a group - the next group - but then I was bumped to the group after that, and then the one after that (this bumping was all based on the weight of the group going up, as well as the number of people - which was made more or less depending on the number in the group who were going to be filmed).
Throughout this waiting, the initial excitement of the group was slowly giving way to “let’s just get this over - let’s get this going so we can return to our cars and get out of the heat”.  Some became rather crabby and I believe that by 3:00 or so, several people gave up altogether and went back home.  Finally, it was my turn again, and this time I wasn’t going to be bumped.  They called my name and told me to report to the equipment area to be suited up for my jump.  It was 5:00.
I got to the equipment area and my partner (“guide”) met me there, the smell of a quickly eaten peanut butter sandwich still on his breath, to fit me into the harness.  That was a rather interesting experience in itself.  The straps of the harness ran started at the shoulders, crossed in the middle of my back, and then came up between my legs, crossed again at my chest and were buckled together at the shoulders.  But, because of how the harness fit, the main instruction other than to stand up straight, was to grab my crotch and hold it out and out of the way of the straps.  The tightness of the straps were great incentive not to let anything between my legs get caught in the straps, but after being all hooked into the harness, the crotch area continued to puff out in a rather showy way.  And all this time I thought that the other guys were just trying to show off or something.  The nature of the beast caused the beast to unnaturally displayed. 
After getting into the harness, I was then fitted with a rather silly looking, tight fitting thick cap, with a pair of plastic, close fitting goggles attached by a bit of strap.  This cap kept the air out of the ears, and I was a bit nervous about being able to hear anything while wearing it, but noise seemed to pass flawlessly through the material.  We tested the fit of the goggles and when all that was done, my guide instructed me to wait for him at the covered area.
I anticipated my guide coming with me to the area to give me all the instructions that I had watched the other jumpers receiving prior to their boarding the plane.  In reality, since about 2 or 3 o’clock, these instructions had become more perfunctory, and were being given with less detail or care... except for a few of the guides who were very adamant about instructing very carefully each of their jumpers.  I had assumed that the instructors were giving more of their instructions in the shade of the equipment room, and that was why I was seeing less of it in the waiting area... but I guess that that was not the case.  My guide did not follow me to the waiting area.. Maybe he went back for the rest of that sandwich or something.  Instead, I was joined by my guide just as my group was being instructed to board. 
I had signed up to get myself filmed.  My videographer joined me a few minutes before my guide.  He took some pre-flight shots, asked me if I was excited, etc.  He then joined me and my guide as we boarded the plane.  I was a bit disappointed to hear the cameraman ask my guide to make it quick as he had to get back and get re-equipped for the next group.  I told my guide to just take his time... as I was to discover, he wasn’t paying attention to me.
We were the first ones on the plane.  It was a plane without any seats other than the pilots seat.  Even the co-pilot’s seat was removed, and since we were first on board, my guide and I sat in the space where the co-pilot would have sat.  They were packing a lot of us in there, so we took our place on the floor of the plane, my guide behind me, his legs bent and spread wide enough for me to sit between his legs, and the other passengers all took their place in between the legs of the person behind them... sort of like a huge, airborne bob-sled type of seating.
There were three videographers aboard the plane, they sat on an equipment box towards the back of the plane, trying to get us to mug for the camera, each of them trying to film around each other in order to make sure and get shots of their particular customer.  It was sort of funny to watch them maneuver around one another pointing their cameras at their particular person.  The camera equipment was really sort of interesting.  It consisted of a small super-8 camera mounted to the top of a helmet, and a regular, 35mm camera mounted to the front of the helmet.  These cameras were attached to cables that allowed the videographer to snap pictures and start the camera from buttons in the front of their harnesses.  The pre-flight and in-flight pictures were taken with the guys holding their helmets and pointing the various lenses at us.  They would put on these altered helmets prior to leaving the plane.
I still had had no instructions from my guide.  I was rather thankful that I had paid attention to the others back on the ground.  I really assumed that he would give me the instructions as we made our way up to the proper altitude.  He actually said very little.  About half way up - he spoke - and instructed me as to what he was doing as he coupled his harness to the links on the back of my harness.  We were joined together at four points.  One at the back of each of my shoulders and then on either side of the lower back.  It was as though he was leaning right up against me.  I was about 4 inches taller than him and wondered how the heck we would get to the door of the plane in that position.  If I were to crawl on my knees, I felt sure that I would lift him from the ground.  He pulled the straps tight, drawing our two bodies closer and tighter to each other, and only after we were joined did he begin to tell me what I was to do.
They had rolled up the clear plastic “door” of the plane about half way up - allowing the cold and very refreshing air to bathe us over and dry all the sweat that had accumulated on the ground.  It was like sitting in a fridge... and all of us seemed to appreciate it.  Of course, with the door open there was a rush of wind, but it was still surprisingly easy to hear the instructions.  Basically, at his signal, we would get on our knees and make our way to the door.  At the door, I was to keep to the right, so the videographer could join us on the other side.  I was to hang my knees over the edge and hold on to the sides of the door so as not to go out before my time.  He would then, in effect, push me out when it was time.  As soon as I felt the push I was to cross my arms in front of my chest and hold them there until I was patted on the head, when I would then extend my arms, bent at the elbow, out from my sides.... sort of the typical superman pose, only with bent elbows - as though I were surrendering to being under arrest.  At the same time, I was to kick back my feet and try to kick my guide in the butt, my legs held together and in between his, trying to put the soles of my feet on the cheeks of his butt.  I would hold that pose until the chute opened, and, he said, he would give me further instructions from there.
We were the first ones on the plane, and so we were last ones out.  I paid very little attention to those who preceded me.  With goggles in place, I was more interested in making my way to the door.  Making my way, on my knees toward the door, with this other person attached to my back.  Trying to coordinate my movements with his, without having to resort to actually crawling to the door on hands and knees.  I kept my eyes on the door and the view outside that door.  We were in a rather light cloud, so the view was rather “foggy” and soft, but there was clearly farmland far down below as well as lakes and buildings, etc.  The view from that height was incredible!
Finally we made it to the door.  My videographer was waiting for us there.  Instead of occupying part of the door, he actually stepped out and held on to door, all but his feet and the fingers of one hand hanging outside the plane.  I made my way to the edge of the door, hung my knees out, looked at the videographer when he called my name.  He took one shot and then proceeded to jump, at that same instant my guide pushed me out.  What followed after that moment was both surreal, exciting, and a lot of fun.  It is also all rather hazy in a foggy-memory kind of way- a rush of impressions, feelings, impressions all rushing at me and through me at the same time.  I remember looking outside the door, seeing the land spread out before me, the contours of the fields, the checkerboard effect of the fields, being able to discern the highways that dissected the ground below.  I remember feeling the pressure from my guide, letting go of the side of the door and crossing my arms in the proper stance, arching my back, holding my head back to keep the proper arch, my feet, held together trying to kick his butt.  I recall the tug of the pants pulling against my body as tight straps and pulled-tight pants material yanked against my body parts as I stretched my legs up and behind me. 
We rolled and twisted, we fell.  The wind was rushing around us, even through the helmet I could feel the air passing by my head, pulling the skin of my face and arms, neck and mouth back.  As we were falling I kept my eyes on everything around me.  There was no real sense of fear or trepidation as much as fascination and thrill.  I was falling!  I was falling from 2.5 miles up in the air, passing through clouds, able to see far, far away.  My face and mouth were being stretched back by the wind passing me by at 1000 feet per minute, but they were being further stretched by the biggest grin I have ever had.  This was great!  Suddenly the tap on the head that allowed me to uncross my arms, and suddenly the videographer was in front of me, he did not seem to be falling as much as he was flying, able to circle around me and the guide, keeping up with us, asking me to mug for the camera, to wave, to hold my thumbs up... it was incredible that we could be falling so far and so fast and that he was able to be in so much control - like some big, wingless bird.
Finally, the altimeter that had been strapped to my wrist showed 6000 feet, that meant we had free-fallen 8000 feet - 800 floors, and it was now time to pull the rip-cord.  That was my guides job.  I heard the chute open, I felt the furl of it opening behind and above us, and then the very slight tug as the chute opened and caught the air, pulling us slightly up.  It was an interesting visual effect as the videographer took a final picture and then seemed to simply fall very fast away from us.  Of course it was a combination of his continued free fall and our slight rise that heightened the effect of his separation from us, but it was a very strange effect as well.  To watch another human being fall away, plunge to the ground, and no concern at all on his face.  (These professionals opened their chutes at a different altitude).
Once the chute opened and we began to float to the ground, the entire effect took a different turn.  All of a sudden it was completely silent, the rushing air was now silenced.  The pull of gravity and the wind was gone.... we were floating in the air, passing through another, very thin cloud, and the sensory input was slowed as well.  Now it was possible to seriously look around, to see the cars, the notice the boats in the water, to appreciate the clouds coming and going.  My guide now had me take the control straps of the great single wing that was keeping us from falling and instructed me as to some basic control maneuvers (of course, he had his own hands in a set of loops above my own - they didn’t want to give full control to the passenger - and with good reason).  He had me pull down on one side or the other, causing us to go left or right, slowing our fall and speeding it up, and then, just for fun, we did a series of cork-screws that spun us around and around, first in one direction, just up to the point of dizziness, and then in the other.  I was so thrilled, I was laughing out loud..... almost manic with the thrill and joy and fun of it all.  The only comment from the guide was “you like that don’t you?”  YOU BET!
It was interesting to watch the ground get closer and closer, and yet, at the same time, still seem to be so very far away, before I knew it, my guide was instructing me what we would do as we landed, but it felt like that was still quite a bit of time away.... but it wasn’t.  It was absolutely surprising, almost startling that we were at the ground... it seemed like we still had a ways to go, but before I knew it he was telling me to pull up my feet and then to slowly put them down again, and before I knew what was happening I was walking on the ground.  It was very much like stepping down from a moderate sized step.  My feet touched, we walked in the direction of our touchdown, and we were done.  I was so amazed by it all, that I failed to hear him tell me to let go of the steering straps, and the wind caught the sheet and started to pull us back a bit, but I let go, the “catchers” grabbed the chute, and we were walking along solid ground, moving across the field, as though we hadn’t been airborne just seconds before.  As I said, it was a rather surreal event.  We were met on the ground by the videographer, he snapped a few more shots, asked how I liked it, and then ran off to get another chute and re-load his cameras for the next plane-load.
I walked with my guide, helping him to carry his chute back to the equipment room, and had no words to express what I had gone through.  It was then that I realized that we had been the first ones to land... I guess he really did hurry it up for the sake of the photographer - a quick “damn it” ran through my head, but it was immediately set aside in favor of savoring the thrill of the last 14 minutes spent making my way from “up there” to back “down here.”  What a head-rush, what a thrill, and all I could say was “what would it take to make a solo jump.”
He explained it to me, and I am anticipating making that jump in August or September.  Once back to the buildings, the equipment off, the front of my pants back to normal, I made a phone call to my friend to let him know I probably would not make it for dinner, as it was already almost 6 and the two guys I was riding with had yet to jump. 
I was presented with my certificate of having made the jump, after about 20 minutes the videographer showed up with my 10 minute video and a roll of film, and then it was more waiting.   A little easier now that I had done, now that I knew what my traveling partners were going through.  But, at the same time, a little harder as I could hardly wait to get back and tell my house-mates about the experience.  It was another 1.5 hours before my companions made their jumps, got their own films and we were able to leave.  It was a two hour drive (with a stop for supper) that seemed to fly by.  Although I had sort of expected a lot of talking about the experience we had all just had, we talked a bit about it, but each of us were lost in our own thoughts, our own experience, our own re-living of the event.  It was incredible!  One of the guides had said that this stuff could get addictive.  I believe him.  I can hardly wait to go again!  Next - bungee jumping.