Sunday, June 10, 2012

Free Falling Almost Comes with a Heavy Price

So, um, Noah had an airplane, too?
After two cancelled dates due to inclement weather (heavy winds one weekend and rain the next), I was finally heading to Noah's Ark Airport (WTF?) to skydive. It has been something I have wanted to do for as long as I can remember.

One of the first things I heard when I started the sign-in process was that the jumps could be halted any minute if the winds became a greater concern. Admittedly, the thought of another cancellation seemed agonizing. How many times can you pump yourself up for something only to be disappointed?
The thing was, though, I was still pumped up, completely excited and not even remotely worried. You see, I’d gone on every roller coaster, every amusement park ride, tried ziplining... heck, my brother and I once attempted our own brand of “parachuting” hanging onto each end of a giant blue tarp and jumping off the roof of our house on a particularly windy day. We chose the side with the steep-dropping driveway so we could be in the air a good 20 feet up or more.  
That was all loads of fun, but I was ready for something more. Through all these adventures, I had never been one to get a queasy stomach or feel a nervous pinch right before the thrills started. But, I knew skydiving would be a different animal.
I was concerned that the drooping feeling of my stomach falling out from under me as I fell to the earth might overtake me so I planned perfectly to counteract the threat of potentially losing my lunch. I simply would not have one. I ate an early light breakfast and knew I would be starved by the time I landed, but then I could promptly go eat a big, celebratory meal.
Problem was, it took all day to finally jump. 
Things did not start off on the right foot, either. Upon arrival, I was taken to a trailer to watch a five-minute video on the “risk assessment of skydiving.” The dull colors of the image and the faded fashion of the narrator’s polyester suit told me it was probably produced in the 1970s or early 1980s. He bore a long, shaggy, ZZ Top-style beard and looked more like an extra from Deliverance than the inventor of the tandem skydiving process and technology that was to be employed this day. Aesthetically, he did not inspire much confidence.
His words were even worse. He proceeded to deliver a lengthy list of all the ways that you could easily die while skydiving. There is no such thing as a perfect parachute, a perfect pilot, a perfect airplane, a perfect skydiving instructor, etc. Basically, any one factor could prove faulty and the result would surely be a terrible, serious accident or, more likely, an interesting death. So, because there are approximately one million ways to die while tandem skydiving, everybody present had to sign a waiver that we would never, ever sue any of the makers of any of the equipment, the plane, or the company we were skydiving with, no matter what. 
And, if we did sue for some strange reason, we’d pay for all the court costs for both sides.
This was not the most comforting opening video to have people watch. 
My head was, in fact, bigger than the plane.
After that, the head honcho of the company stressed the importance of complying to every order we were given and he added that nothing frightened him more than people who weren’t scared (since they usually did stupid things). 

No problem there. I was scared enough at that point. Then, just to sprinkle a bit more fear on, he kept muttering that the winds were perilously close to the “unsafe” zone. Already, many jumps had been pushed back that day in the interest of safety and the winds were right at that border between “OK” and “What the Hell do you think you’re doing?”
Again, comforting.
So, my 2 p.m. jump time was pushed back for an hour. Then another. Meanwhile, I watched a pleasant video of a woman who had skydived with the company and it looked like a fun, easy five minutes of her life. So, I relaxed. I had watched all the videos and now I just had to wait my turn and hope the weather would hold.
By 4 p.m. my stomach was growling, badly. I still didn’t want to eat only to have it come up on the way down. (We were taught that if you must lose your lunch, you are to do so by lifting your shirt collar and putting your face in it, using it as an air sickness bag.) There was no way I was going to let that even POSSIBLY happen.
The jump time continued to be pushed back. The wind was up to 30 m.p.h. and higher at times. Since there was nothing to eat at the place, I had a lunch consisting of six peppermint Altoids. I cut back on the water, too. I only had a few cups all day, partly because the only bathroom was a porta-potty, and partly because I didn’t want a full bladder when I jumped.
By 6 p.m. I was dying. My body was telling me this was not acceptable. I discovered that they sold soda and snack crackers so I enjoyed half a Pepsi and six pepper jack cheese crackers in a futile attempt to silence my stomach, but keep it virtually empty.
Finally, at 7 p.m., we were told to harness up quickly as it was finally time to go and we were losing daylight. 
Harness? Check. Instructions? Not so much.
All day I had watched jumpers who were given instructions while they suited up so it didn’t seem odd to me that, as my instructor tightened my harness, he only gave me a few comments on the landing part of it. 

Basically, the tandem jumper must lift his feet up with his knees tucked as he pulls down on the handles until they reach his waist, then he continues with his hands until they reach behind his back. This creates an updrift right before you hit ground and makes for a smooth, soft landing (by theory). Piece of cake.
Since I paid for the video option of the experience, my instructor attached a small camera to his wrist and started asking me questions. Things happened so quickly that I don’t remember what I was asked or how I responded. (I’ll watch the tape later and grimace, I’m sure.) Before I knew it, we were told to rush to the plane as they were concerned about the setting sun (another load of jumpers still to go). So, within minutes from being hooked up with the harness, I was on the cramped, small plane, ready to take off. I didn't even have time to say goodbye to my wife despite the hundreds of ways I could possibly die in the next twenty minutes.
It was then that two extremely disturbing thoughts penetrated my mind.
First of all, I realized that I was a bit tired and not as mentally sharp as normal, most likely due to the insufficient dietary regime for the past eight hours. I was very disappointed in myself for my brilliant plan of not having anything in my stomach or bladder to lose during the jump because it also meant feeling weak and tired from dehydration and starvation.
After waiting all day, it was suddenly go, go, GO!
So, that was anything but comforting. 

Then, another thought struck me with a deep, primal fear: I never really received any instructions (though I was there all freakin’ day) and I was not remotely prepared for what I was supposed to do (except for the landing). I figured I should mention this before we take off. I started to, but was cut off by my skydiving instructor who filmed a quick pre-take-off interview for my stupid video. By the time I answered the question, the plane had started and we were speeding down the tiny-ass runway.
Oh shit to the highest conceivable order!
So, I quickly mentioned that I didn’t know what I was supposed to do UP UNTIL THE LANDING. He was behind me, so I could not see his face, which was probably better for both of us.
“Didn’t you watch the tape?” he asked nervously.
“What fucking tape?” my mind screamed.
“I watched the one with the crazy beard guy talking about how easy it is to die while doing this and the one with the lady jumping and talking about how awesome everything is. Nothing instructional,” I shouted, over the roar of the engines.
“Really?” was all he said.
Really? Really? Fucking really? This was not comforting. Not one damn bit. We were nowhere near the vicinity of somewhere remotely near the edge of anything resembling comfortable.
Fuck me!
Now, I just felt stupid. I probably should have made sure I received proper instructions, but had spent most of the last two hours thinking about how hungry I was and how I was going to make sure to be good and famished while I jumped out of a plane at over 10,000 feet up. I only had myself to blame.
So, my instructor proceeded to hastily describe to me what to expect... what he would do and what I would need to do, even as we quickly climbed higher and higher. First his wrist device showed us at 1,000 feet, then 2,000 feet, then 3,000... all the while, he quickly relayed to me everything I would be responsible for and I frantically tried to commit it to memory knowing I was minutes away from doing it.
Somehow, I remained relatively calm through all of this. At this point, it occurred to me my life depended on this information, literally, and I listened intently figuring that, at the very least, I am a smart guy and I will be all right. But, I kept asking him to repeat things as I had trouble remembering. For some reason, this did not strike me as odd. Of course, the rising altitude was not helping matters.
He told me when we jumped I would have to assume the “banana arch” position. I would crane my neck back, protrude my chest and stomach out and kick my feet together back towards his butt behind me, all the while holding on to the harness straps on my chest. In short, I would act as the “fuselage” and he would act as the wings and steering in this equation. 
No problem. 
I hope I don't hit a bird...
I did that much almost perfectly. However, the second we leaned out of the airplane and proceeded to breathe in the light air and feel the wind whip us at impossibly fast (and deafening) speeds, I saw my first glimpse of the Kansan landscape almost two miles up. That's when my IQ immediately dropped 70 points, maybe more. My memory also seemed to fall out of the airplane with me.
Keep in mind, I was told later we traveled through the air at about 134 m.p.h. when we jumped from about 10,300 feet. We proceeded to free fall for the next 31 seconds, which seemed like about seven hours to me as I literally had a million thoughts bounce around my head in that span. It went something like this.
Oh shit! Oh fuck! Look at that! That’s fucking incredible! That’s absolutely amazing. The ground is so far away and I am falling terribly fast towards it. This is not natural. This is not REMOTELY NATURAL. Why do people deliberately do this? Oh, right. Because it’s amazing! Fucking awesome.
Let me interrupt for a second. I wish I could say my thoughts were fluid and poetic and worth reading, but, frankly, I was a magnified mental mess at this point.
Are those trees? Where are we landing? It’s so fucking green. Fuselage position, fuselage position, or is it banana posture? I don’t really remember. I think it was both. Are my feet high enough behind me? Neck is back, good good. Holy fuck, look at that view! I hope I don't hit a bird.
That all occurred literally in about the first two or three seconds. It was about that time when a wave of complete nausea and disorientation completely overwhelmed me. 

I suddenly felt unbelievably weak and a tingling sensation invaded my body from head to toe. I was pretty much brain dead, in hypnotic awe, and suddenly felt as if I contracted an intense head and stomach flu during the middle of the most amazing and exhausting marathon sex session imaginable... and somehow I managed to drink a 12-pack of beer sometime in the middle. I was high, confused, devastated and in rapture all at the same time.

I was in ecstasy. I was sick and dizzy. I was insanely weak and tired. I was trying to remember how to think. I was wondering if I was actually dreaming the experience. And my eyes were absorbing every scenic detail below me as the ground seemed to approach dangerously fast. It was beyond surreal. 

In fact, in retrospect, part of me wonders if I was experiencing vertigo even though I’ve never had any problems with heights and actually love the thrill I get when I am high up. Or, it could simply be my body was extremely weak and fatigued from not eating, which, combined with the high altitude (and low oxygen levels) and the intensity of the experience, made things extremely difficult. I don’t know. At this point, I don’t care because (SPOILER ALERT).... I survived the experience.
Mind you, all of this was happening within the first five seconds of jumping out. In all honesty, I would have completely panicked if I had the energy, but I was just too damn tired. My first coherent thought (after the initial jumbled explosion) was: This is going to be a lot harder than I thought.
When I spoke to my brother on the phone after, I described it like this. Imagine you are fighting Muhammad Ali in his prime. You step into the ring in the first round and the first thing he does is smash you with a haymaker that rattles you harder than you have ever been rattled in your entire life and you feel like you can’t help but drop to your knees. Except you can’t drop to your knees. If you do, the fight will be over. So, instead, you have to find a way to make it to the last round even though you already feel completely defeated.
Free falling, but not Tom Petty style.
This metaphor is perfect for how I felt. 

I was ready to pass out. I am at a loss to explain how I didn’t. I’ve never felt so much of a need to just give up and lose consciousness, but knowing you are strapped to another man whose life depends on yours almost as much as yours depends on him scared me more than anything. The truth is, with our combined weights, the instructor was simply not strong enough to perform certain maneuvers, especially the landing one. Passing out would be about the worst thing I could ever do, yet I felt on the verge of doing so for the entire jump.
In the meantime, I was numbly terrified and in sweet, sweet bliss at the same time. The experience was absolutely, positively, utterly indescribable.
Back to the free fall. I had to concentrate harder than I have ever had to before, knowing full well that both my brain and body were desperately working to sabotage my efforts to not create a nice big hole in the ground below. Those 30 seconds were insane. Nothing at all like Tom Petty’s Free Falling song. 
Then, the parachute deployed and it felt like going from 130 m.p.h. to like 20 m.p.h. in half a second. C-R-A-Z-Y.
At this point, I was told to hold the handles tightly with my arms stretched up as high as I could... but I COULD NOT PULL DOWN on the handles. This is not easy to do, especially when your arms feel as if they weigh 400 pounds a piece and you are dizzier than you have ever been in your entire life -- including the times as a kid that I would spin in circles in my room during the entire “I’m Henry the Eighth I Am” song before I would bounce off the walls and floors and laugh hysterically.
My instructor tried to coach me through everything and I tried to listen, but I also kept wanting to relax my sore, tired arms. We both knew the danger that presented. If I let go of the handles, that would certainly screw us completely. So, I held on.
Next, we tried to practice our landing maneuvers. This is when things got really ugly. My brain was not cooperating. I tried holding my arms all the way up (not pulling down on the handles until his say-so), then I bent my knees and lifted my legs. I was so tired that it felt like I was doing the 500th sit-up in an endless workout. I reached the right point and he signaled me to pull down on the handles, which I did, but only to my shoulders for some strange reason. I forgot to pull them all the way down to my waist. Meanwhile, my arms felt like two wet spaghetti noodles trying to support the weight of everything that has ever existed.
The first two attempts were miserable failures and this greatly discouraged my tandem partner. He began slamming his right hand on my shoulder a few times in a fruitless attempt to communicate to me what I needed to do. Again, I felt like giving up. He might as well have been a Nobel prize-winning scientist trying to explain Schrodinger’s cat and quantum mechanics to a box of tissues.
Right as I started to ask him “What am I supposed to do?” it hit me. Right. I have to pull the stupid handles down further. Got it. 
He was quite nervous because we were supposed to have achieved a couple of upswings already, but instead we kept plummeting down to the ground faster and faster with no prospect of a proper landing. Finally, we tried again and I did it right. Then, we repeated. However, the practice took what little energy I had left and basically pistol-whipped it to death.
The work part was over. Now we were supposed to just breathe in the atmosphere and enjoy the view. I still felt as if I would pass out any second. We spun around a few times. I pulled on one handle so we would turn sharply in the air. It was very cool, but I couldn’t believe how fatigued I was. Somehow, I helped to steer us where we needed to go as he barked out the orders (a bit frantically, sure, but who can blame him).
At that point I remember thinking the experience was absolutely nothing like I had expected. It was still profoundly wonderful... easily the most thrilling thing I have ever done by far... and I mean fucking far. But it was so much harder than I imagined it could be. 
At any rate, I was shocked at how fast the ground kept approaching. I thought it would feel like a slow, gradual fall... that is what it looks like from the ground, after all. But you drop fast, even with the chute deployed.
When we did the landing maneuver for real this time it was perfect. We both landed on our feet despite some nasty wind gusts. I feel this is most impressive because as soon as I was unstrapped from the chute, I hunched over and grabbed my knees trying to breathe and not collapse. 
How on earth am I still alive?
Barb, watching all of this, assumed my back had snapped in two. The truth is, the pressure and the exertion on my back muscles during this whole process was so severe that my back was the most relaxed it had been in 13 years. But, now on the ground, with the massive strain (and the adrenaline of trying to stay alive) over, I was even more exhausted. 
It took me a few moments to recover and walk back to everybody. I was completely high, and, as it turned out, I still feel that way the next morning, over 12 hours later.
It’s mostly a blur to me, albeit a very pleasant one. I am not exaggerating when I say I think that was probably the closest I had ever been to dying... and that counts the time I had an inflamed appendix for half a year before the doctors discovered why I was having horrible stomach pain and sickness AND the time a huge, heavy tree branch fell on the car with me in it.
Regardless, it was by far the best birthday gift I have ever received. It was more thrilling than every ride at Universal Studios Orlando (my favorite theme park) COMBINED.
However, when most people ask: “Would you do it again?” I have to respond honestly: “No. I don’t see how I would.” The truth is, once is enough. I am not sure I could survive another attempt, even if I ate and drank properly beforehand.
Although, it would be tempting simply because, after I became reunited with terra firma, I enjoyed the best tall glass of Boulevard Wheat and pound of spare ribs ever. Food and beverage always taste better following a long fast, but free falling adds an extent of flavor to all things that I never thought possible.