What I’ll probably remember most is the cursing.
I let the curses fly faster than a peregrine falcon.
I wasn’t falling quite as fast as those falcons swoop, as they top 200 miles per hour. I was free-falling a mere 120mph from 14,500 feet high, a least until Jim (whose name I thought was Travis) pulled the parachute cord.
Before I could process what I was seeing, and before I could tell my brain that, no, my body wasn’t being ripped to shreds and was in fact perfectly intact, all I could do was curse. Loudly. Repeatedly. Vigorously.
Parents traveling in planes around the tri-state area were covering their kids’ ears.
Last year, I wanted to celebrate my 40th birthday by jumping out of a plane. The weather turned too windy though, so I had to head back home. I didn’t give up on the idea but waited another year to do it. Two days after my 41st birthday last week, the weather cooperated, and I headed out to NJ to jump with Skydive Sussex.
They offer the highest altitude for jumping in the Northeast – a detail I didn’t realize until a fourth-time jumper, Sullivan, mentioned it before the flight. About two-thirds of that was a free-fall for a minute, followed by about a 5,000-foot more leisurely descent with the parachute.
It’s an odd choice for a birthday present. To commemorate being alive, you do something death-defying.
While you wait for your turn to jump, if you go solo, you’re left with nothing; you’re supposed to leave your phone and any other possessions in your car. All I had was the fresh air, the views of people dropping out of it, and the occasional whiff of cigarette smoke. I passed a bit of time playing cornhole with Sullivan, who’s about half my age and made me feel like a centenarian.
Skydiving is a study in contrast. There’s the adrenaline of getting on the plane, like you’re in “Top Gun.” And then it’s this peaceful ride up. You have some time to think, to soak in the view, to appreciate how beautiful New Jersey can be. You can find this moment of Zen as you gradually approach the target altitude.
And then, all of that is ripped away. The hatch opens. Someone jumps out of it. Then another. And then some guy named Jim or Travis who has you strapped in tightly to him is rapidly scooting you forward and pushing you out of a plane.
He tells you to smile for the camera, as you, of course, had to book the videographer, Derek. Derek wants you to smile, and you are not sure how many of your organs are still in your body at that moment. But sure, what the @%&!, smile for the camera. And what the @%(! is happening to your ears?
Then the peace again. You enjoy the view.
And then you pray to whatever deity you ever thought maybe could be the Real Deal that you don’t break your legs when you land.
Then you’re on the ground, and the world looks so different. It feels different.
That’s probably because your vestibular system has no clue what it ever did to you that made you unleash such vengeance upon it.
I wasn’t always inclined to take such risks.
Before I jumped, I thought back to that time during a college spring break trip to Cancun when I wouldn’t go on some ride because I had to sign my life away before doing so.
I never liked roller coasters either. The first time I went on a roller coaster was soon after I graduated college. I was joining a group of middle school kids from my hometown as a chaperone to Rye Playland. The trip was scheduled for the weekend after September 11, and to the organizers’ credit, they knew the kids needed a release and kept the original plans. There was barely anyone else at the park that day, so our group basically had it to ourselves. My contingent of seventh-graders kept riding the Dragon Coaster over and over. Given what I had just seen in Manhattan five days earlier, roller coasters seemed pretty tame. I may not love those rides, but that day, I stopped fearing them.
Flying up on the plane, admiring the view, I thought about what it meant to be a “chicken.” Chickens are unfairly maligned. Practically everyone eats chickens – Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews. Sure, there are many millions of vegetarians, but if you’re a chicken and you see a primate walking around on two legs, the smartest thing you can do is run or fly however fast you can and be absolutely anywhere else. The vast majority of us humans eat chickens, and then we add insult to injury by calling anyone who experiences that all too natural moment of fear a chicken. That is just cruel. If chickens have a chicken-language word for another chicken who’s the meanest S.O.B. in the coop, I hope they call that other chicken a human. “Hey, stop humaning out and taking all the best twigs for your nest!” Maybe then, there’d be a little bit of chicken justice.
That’s what was going through my mind before that ripped-apart sensation in the open air.
So now, I’m back on the ground. I plan on staying here for quite a while. I’m not in a rush to be a repeat jumper like Sullivan, or a hobbyist-turned-instructor like Jim Travis, or a mid-air videographer like Derek who is trying to get people to smile as they feel that disemboweling sensation for the first time. If there was a friend who was itching to go though, I’d do it. Granted, if I didn’t want to and they called me a chicken, I’d consider it a compliment.
Thanks, Jim Travis for keeping me alive, and Derek for forcing me to smile, and the whole Skydive Sussex crew in the office, on the ground, and in the air for one hell of an operation they run.
It’s good to be back on Earth, still a bit dazed, and full of disbelief that it ever happened. I learned how far I could fall, how stunning the view looked from three miles up, and how fast and furiously I could let those f-bombs fly.
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