A friend of mine asked what was going through my mind as I jumped out of a plane. I answered, and this entry is an extended version of that answer.
I was curious to see if I’d feel like I was about to faint again: When Judson, a former Peace Corps volunteer and fellow Germanophile, asked if I would like to join him and a small group to go skydiving, I agreed. It would be the second time I’d ever jumped from a plane.
In the meantime between talking about it and heading to the airfield, I ran into health problems which quickly started to eat up my savings. I considered backing out, but I had already emotionally committed myself, so I made my reservation. The night before the jump I went to a bar and saw two magic 8 balls at the cash register. Why the hell not? I thought. I asked, “Will I die tomorrow skydiving?” and consulted the 8 balls.
“You can count on it.”
“It is decidedly so.”
Well fuck both of you, I thought and went back to see the group I was with.
The day of the jump, I woke up feeling very calm. I had done this before. I don’t really have a crippling fear of heights. I don’t get motion sick. I wore confidence like comfortable clothing, while in the air I could feel electricity of anticipation humming faintly.
I met Judson and friend Desdemona of his who was joining us to jump. Judson’s mother was also along to watch. But it turned out it would be a small group: everyone else had either backed out or had lost interest.
Judson and Desdemona both had some shopping to do on the way there, so we made a stop at an outlet mall in San Marcos. I tagged along, unsuccessfully looked for a bookstore, and was disappointed to discover that the Pottery Barn is not an arts supply store.
Our small group went to a burger joint to get lunch. I munched on some fries but then realized I had no appetite. I doubted I would get motion sick but now did not seem like the time to tempt anything.
That afternoon, while making our way to the airfield, most of what we did was answer questions for Desdemona, who was the only first-time jumper of the three of us going. She wanted an outlet and distraction from a recent tragedy in her life and felt a jolt of adrenaline sounded like a hell of an idea. I was not too focused on what was ahead and felt happy to listen to her and answer any questions I could.
The first time I had gone skydiving in Colorado, where I was surprised to learn that people would do this more than once a day. Once a skydiver is certified to jump on their own, they can go as long as you can pay the pilots to take them up. This time around I watched the experienced skydivers walk around relaxed and with a confidence that I admired, wondering how many times they had already been jumping today. I was still feeling calm, but the electricity was hummed louder and I could feel my nerves started to make their presence known.
“Why is there a crashed airplane out front?” Desdemona asked several people working there, referring to the stripped body of a plane angled into the ground with a welcome sign attached to it. I could not tell if she was joking or legitimately concerned.
We didn’t have to wait long before our group was called up.
“Hey! Are you Tristan?” I turned and saw a guy wearing a purple jump suit, a bunch of tattoos and a huge grin.
“I'm Panda! I'm going to be your instructor today! Go pee and get back here!”
Reality started to sink in a bit.
I went to the rest room and then met him to suit up. Panda, who looked like no panda at all, helped me into my jumpsuit and went over the procedures for safely exiting the plane.
“Your first job: Can you have fun?”
“Yes!” I guess, I thought, not feeling too outgoing and already feeling guilty about it. I didn’t want him to think I’d be a wet blanket.
“That’s the most important thing,” Panda said before talking about how to position myself while we were in free fall.
“I'm going to strap you in with four hooks, even though any one of these hooks could hold a car.” He said it so nonchalantly I had to replay it in my head to process what exactly he meant. Throughout the whole process of getting suited up my adrenaline was starting to kick in, and I wondered why some people crave adrenaline rushes all the time. To me it felt all tingly, like how I felt before running in track. Panda was very enthusiastic and looked like he was right at home, and it was hard not to feel at ease around him.
After all getting onto my jumpsuit up and with my harness on, I waited for him to ask me, but he never did. I almost let the question go, thinking, I'll ask on my third jump, and then immediately asked anyway: “Can I pull the rip cord?”
Panda paused and looked at me. “Do you want to?” he said in a tone where I could not tell if he admired me for asking or if he was sorry he had heard me ask.
“Yes.” Is that the right answer? Do I get some cred?
“Alright!” he replied with another jovial smile. He explained where the cord would be, pointed out a pack on the wall with a cord next hanging from it. “Just pull six inches out on that thing that looks like a golf ball. This will be the signal.” He waved his hand in front of my face, and then said he would be on it in case I was to wound up to pull it myself.
We made small talk. Panda told me was from Boston and also that he had 3000 jumps under his belt. I hold him I translated Spanish. Again his tone changed and we could have been chatting at a house party. He asked me for advice on learning Spanish because he and his girlfriend had recently decided to get fluent in it. “Should I get Rosetta Stone?”
“Absolutely not.” It felt good to be in my element before most literally stepping out of it.
A small Cessna plane roared down the runway and stopped near us and we boarded through its little sliding door while the engines were still running. The assistants’ speed at loading us up was intimidating and made me want to withdraw into my shell.
The plane was so small that for a second it was easy to think it was our own private little craft hired out just for our group, despite the few solo skydivers already crammed in. The interior was rough, with just a bench to straddle and bumper stickers about the skydiving life decorating the wall. I got in and crouched down in front of Panda and behind Judson and his instructor. I noticed an altimeter attached to the instructor’s wrist. The needle was safely at zero and somehow this obvious fact was reassuring to me.
Oh Christ, I thought. I'm actually about to do this. I can still back out if I really want to. They can’t force me to go.
I let these thoughts have their say and then tuned them out. Time to enjoy.
As the plane started to take off one of the experienced jumpers yelled out “Hey, one of you guys up front want to be the door monkey?” Some dude squeezed by us and lay down in the foot space by the plastic door, placed his foot up on the wall of the plane, and cozied right down.
Through the small windows I saw the plane leave the runway and the ground started to sink away. The electricity was humming loudly now and my stomach flipped a bit. It wasn’t terror, but the adrenaline was well past kicking in and I was glad I had eaten so little. I was riding this thing out, playing it cool. Panda started to talk to me, going through our safety checks. I noticed the sun glint off of the altimeter strapped to the wrist of instructor crouching in front of me. The needle was climbing.
By now, everyone was started to get excited. The professional jumpers started high-fiving each other. One of the solo jumpers moved to the back of the plane.
“This guy is gonna jump at 5,000 feet and open his chute right away. We are gonna go higher than him,” Panda yell at me over the plane’s roaring.
The solo jumper sat next to the door monkey and got also made himself comfortable.
I took some deep, slow breaths through my nose and fiddled with my goggles. I noticed Judson’s instructor had ear plugs in and simultaneously thought, That’s kind of un-badass and also God, I wish I had remembered to bring those. At some unseen signal the solo jumper got moved to the door and heaved it open. Wind rushed into the plane and suddenly things felt more primal. In a machine there is a relationship to man. But the wind seemed to me like it was reminding me of where exactly we were about to go. The jumper lay down next to the open door and waited for a bit, looking as natural as if he were laying on a couch at home. Then he turned up to us, gave a wolfish grin, flashed the Hang Ten! gesture, appeared to lean back and then just get sucked out of the open door. There and gone. The door monkey closed the door and we continued on higher above the few clouds in the otherwise clear blue Texas sky.
There was little to say and it was almost impossible to hear anyways, so I did a bit of mindfulness meditating, letting my nerves go through me and appreciating how it felt. Panda went through his hook ups strapping me in and pounding off every connection point on my shoulders and hips while he counted. “You are locked in!” he shouted. I was too excited to be excited, but I knew that later the enthusiasm would come, like an aftertaste.
We reached our altitude.
The lights over the door flickered and the door monkey hit the switch. Once again wind rushed in.
You’ve done this before. Don’t chicken out. As a game, see if you can avoid screaming this time.
Judson slid down the bench to and waddled over to the door with his instructor fastened tightly to his back, put his arms on his shoulder straps as we had all been instructed, and put his feet over the side out the door. He yelled something that sounded like “Cowabunga!” over the screaming wind and his instructor pushed out of the plane.
I still had a few seconds before I was up. My survival instincts started to kick in and lap up ever second before Panda gleefully yelled out, “Ok, you ready for this?!” I screamed hollered out a “Hell yes, let’s kick its ass,” or something else that would have immediately sounded stupid to me had I been in any state of mind to be very self-conscious.
My mind started to overload, racing with its second-guesses and anticipations.
We started to slide down the bench and my mind slowed down, digesting every second and my survival instinct started to rebel against me.
Just move forward, bit by bit.
I went into automatic mode and focused on the movements in front of me, one by one, not focusing on the anything other than one second ahead of me. We crawled over to the door and I sat down to hang my feet out of the plane.
I can still back out. I'm not going to. But you can. Fuck THAT! I'm doing this!
I looked two miles down.
This is so unnatural.
Everything rational inside of me is fighting what I am doing. I have no control now but my body is screaming for something to control.
I grab my shoulder harnesses just so. My arms want to fight and grab for the door and cling and refuse to budge, like how a how a cat would cling spread eagle if it was stretched over a sink over a sink of water (Note: No, I have never done that to a cat, so don’t ask!).
It’s not to late to back out! I can’t believe I'm doing this, this is so unhealthy.
I lean back onto Panda’s shoulder like he told me to.
Maybe something will happen. Maybe the plane will break and --
The floor fucking disappears. Everything is gone, replaced by blustery wind and the roar of air. Even the plane out of earshot.
Freefalling. A have no fucking idea which was is even up. We are tumbling and I give an involuntary scream that starts as terror and then feels triumphant.
I am going to enjoy this shit out of this!
And it’s not hard. This is primal. We go on down and I look around checking out the clouds from above, looking briefly for Judson or Desdemona but nothing is visible except the blue sky and the brown horizon. We do nothing fancy, no rolls or flips or headstands, although any of that would have been great. There is a family of clouds hundreds of feet below us. We sideswipe the wisps of one of them and then it is gone like it was never even there. I realize I have to shut my mouth because it is so windblown I can’t even swallow.
But in the rush of it there is something that is also very calm. And for something so extreme it feels natural. I don’t know if it feels natural to only certain people who live for this, but I suspect not because when you are at the mercy of the world’s elements, you are reminded you are really part of it. The world’s deadly side is also a side that welcomes you in, like a yin and yang. It’s a romantic thought, and one that comes after contemplating my jump, but I wonder if people who live on the edge also need a bit of hopeless romanticism in their personalities to really appreciate the lifestyle they have.
Panda waves his hands in front of my face and I am disappointed that it is time to pull the cord. I'm having too much fun exploring the sky. But by God I don’t want to lose my chance to try this, too. So I reach down to the cable with the golf ball on it and tug, hoping that my adrenaline doesn’t rip the goddamn thing right out of his pack. But it takes very little effort and suddenly the chute opens with an explosion above us. We jerk abruptly like being belted in a vehicle that has made an unexpected jolting stop at full speed. I don’t even think to look up. I could not say what color the fabric is. It opened, and that is enough.
Panda asks me how I'm doing, and all the nervousness I had in the plane is filtering out of me. The enthusiasm has already been taking over. I'm great, I say, and it’s true. And least, I think so. Everything has gone so fast I'm still catching up mentally. Panda starts pointing out landmarks over an almost empty that fades off in every direction. I have no idea which direction is which. He asks me if I want to fly this thing.
Why, yes. Yes, I do.
He gives me some very basic instructions on how to fly the chute (a rectangular one that allows you to glide, not the round military style parachutes that drop you like a bag of hammers). I yank on one of the handles and we go into a spin. My head feels like it is being crushed I get nervous that we are going to flip but we never do. The blood comes back down from my head. He points out the landing spot.
“Alright, we are half a mile up,” Panda alerts me.
I am used to measuring distances in running, and to me it looks like we are still two miles up.
“Wanna spin left this time?” he asks
Sure do! I yank the handle again and we do exactly the same thing. Again my head feels the pressure from all the blood rushing to it.
Then we slow down and Panda takes over and says he is going to make our approach in for landing, explaining wind direction and other details that are too much for my brain to absorb at the moment.
We steer one down to the patches of grass and I recall how Desdemona’s instructor said he got caught in one of the cracks in the dirt last year and ended up with a broken leg. Panda tells me to lift my legs so he can touch down first. I get them into the air as high as I can and ignore the brief discomfort.
And then we touch down with a thud. “Fuck!” I holler as my tailbone hits down first. Nothing broken, and not a bad landing, but I have literally landed on my ass. If anything though, it's funny, and facts being facts, I am alive and unharmed. I had no doubt in Panda, but still, I am alive. I only wish everything had lasted longer.
Panda asks me how I'm doing and I am quite fine. I sit still for a moment to see if nausea or lightheadedness seizes me the way it did five years previously when I jumped. But nothing sneaks up. I get to my feet, woozy from the adrenaline but otherwise quite stable. Panda unhooks me and gives me a high-five.
“You’re a natural!,” he says with that huge grin of his.
Excellent, I think. I am already looking forward to going again.
Judson and Desdemona land safely, although Desdemona looks a lot like how I did when I first jumped: stunned and weak at the knees, so Judson and I walk her back to the sitting area patio where she could get some water and while she process her experience. Judson’s mom greets us in the sitting area and shows us some of the videos that she has taken of our landings.
Afterwards, we stripped our jump suits off and each got an envelope to prove we had successfully gone skydiving. Panda suggested I hang it prominently in my bathroom, since that is a location everyone will eventually have to go.
We climbed into Judson’s car and suddenly it was like any other Sunday afternoon again. We passed the decorative plane sticking out of the ground and headed back to Austin, talking about how it felt and if we would go again. Judson definitely wants to. I do, too. Again and again. Desdemona still sounds wind-blasted and said she can take it or leave it, but who knows. I felt exactly the same way after my first jump.
But now something inside of me felt different. I never considered myself a thrill seeker, but rather more of an explorer. Yet, there certainly is an intense side to my life. It doesn’t have to be expressed through extreme sports, but balance is important for everyone to find in their life.
What I noticed though was not how intense the solo and professional were, but to for want of a better expression, how down-to-earth and warm everyone was. Professionalism and playfulness abounded amongst the few experienced jumpers that I spoke with.
The rest of the day felt very quiet and calm. I didn’t want to go speeding down the road with my hair on fire. Instead, things had a subtle vibration to them, like music was playing that only I could hear.
I hope this message finds you well and for you to have, as Panda wished me, “Blue skies!”