Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Some days have passed since my last post. The more perceptive among you might even call it a month. The Christmas season is almost upon us. I can tell because people in my neighborhood are trying to signal passing space aliens with their yard decorations. There are a lot of lights. I think I saw Mothra circling one particularly impressive display featuring some glowing Jesi. That's understandable, since Mothra has always been known to favor glowing messiahs.

So what has been happening in this long month of radio silence? I turned 34 in November, that's one thing. While it's true that birthday wishes may be a little late, it's never wrong to try to get in my good books.

The birthday was a memorable one. The wifely friend and I had a great dinner, drove to the not-terribly scenic Altamont area. Oh, and we fell two miles in one minute.

How that happened was that the night before my birthday, feeling fine and glowing like a million candle-power Jesus from birthday scotch, the wifely friend informed me that we were going skydiving. Now, this wasn't entirely unexpected, as I had mentioned in a sort of vague way that I had always wanted to try it. I'm not known for my EXTREMEosity in general, but I just felt like I should do something that involved being harnessed to another man and pushed from an airplane.

So we woke up early the next day, after a mostly restful slumber, and drove out into the boondocks. We checked in at the hangar, where a smiling woman told us we should go sit on the nagahide sofas and watch a terribly important video which would tell us why we were basically fools for doing this, and not to come limping back to them when we ended up, broken and bleeding, in the fields of Altamont. Really, if something goes wrong when you're skydiving, you're not going to be doing a lot of suing, or a lot of anything, so I don't know why you sign all those waivers. Unless one of the myriad forms they gave us was a solemn oath not to return to the hangar in an amorphous, non-corporeal state, and haunt the bejeezus out of the place.

The video was a guy who resembled a young Uncle Jesse from the Dukes of Hazzard sitting behind a desk and mumbling for half an hour. It was pretty noisy in the hangar, and I couldn't hear a word of what the guy was saying. But I figured it's pretty straightforward: This is really dangerous, what with the jumping out of a plane and all, but you probably knew that.

The day was quite foggy, so we ended up sitting around in the hangar for about an hour and a half. The hangar was full of skydiving guys. I don't know where these guys came from, but it was pretty clear that they were into skydiving in a big way. They were all standing around, watching Revenge of the Sith on a projection teevee, and every once in a while wandering to the doors of the hangar and grumbling. They couldn't wait to get up there.

I think a lot of them got into it for the clothes.

I thought parachute pants was just a term for ugly pants, but there really are skydiving pants. Kind of baggy nylon pants. One guy had en-fuego flamejob pants and a matching hat. Another guy had a jumpsuit with little batwings that unfurled when he raised his arms. They didn't mix much with us, as we lounged on a sofa, asking each other every two minutes "So, are you scared?"

I'm not going to tell you I wasn't scared. Mostly, though, I just wanted to get up there and jump.

And after an hour and a half, Anakin had turned into a Sith Lord, and the sky cleared. We shuffled out to the plane with our instructors, to whom we would soon be strapped, and boarded the very, very little plane. In a skydiving plane, there are two benches, lengthwise, in the cabin of the plane. You sit basically on the lap of your tandem jump instructor (hence the witty No Farting sticker on the wall of the plane). On the way up, something suddenly occurred to me: I'm in a plane, 10,000 feet off the ground, and the door is open.

The door is open!

When I'm on a normal flight, I often get thoughts like "I wonder what would happen if the door opened right now?" I always figured all the passengers would be sucked out to their certain demise. But no, it's just cold. And rather unnerving, of course. But we weren't stopping at 10,000 feet. No, we were going up to 14,000 feet.

And soon we were there.

I was first to go out the door...or rather, I went before the wifely friend. A bunch of the skydiving devotees who had come up for a dive went barelling out before us. These guys just can't wait to get out that door. I imagine when they fly on commuter flights, it's all they can do to keep themselves from running to the emergency door and launching themselves out.

The guy strapped to my back was a little shorter than me, which made the waddling dynamic probably very humorous as we wobbled to the door, which I will again remind you, was open. I had been given instructions when we were on the ground, along the lines of "lean your head back on my shoulder after we jump. Then we'll freefall for a minute or so. Make sure you wave to the camera." We had opted to get a DVD of our jump, to ensure that if we survived, we'd be able not only to bore people with the story aurally, but visually as well.

Then I was at the door, my toes outside the plane, wondering in a distracted sort of way why the instructor gets a helmet and I don't. It turns out, incidentally, that it's so, if he hits his head on the wing of the plane on the way out, he doesn't get knocked out and pull you 14,000 feet to certain death. There is no way for the jumper to release the chute, you see. That suddenly occurred to me as I felt the thin air buffeting me.

The instructor pulled my head back, so the video guy could capture my expression, which , in retrospect, was one full of despair and second thoughts. Then, I stuck my tongue out to say "Hey. No big deal, man. I'm extreme! ...Can we just go back in the nice plane and shut the door and--"

And my instructor began to rock me back and forth. One...Two...

Three! He pushed me out of the plane, and we were falling.

At least, I think we were falling. There's about zero sensation of falling, when you are free falling from almost three miles up. You're so high up, you could be rising, falling, going sideways. It's hard to tell. There's a few seconds there where you're accelerating exceedingly fast. Then, you reach "terminal velocity" and just stay at that speed.

My head was not on my instructor's shoulder. It was craned forward, looking down at the brown fields miles below. My mouth was open, in an expression that can only be described as AAAAAAA! Looking at the video now, I can see my face doing that great flapping thing that you see in astronaut movies, my open mouth filling with air.

It's hard to breathe in free fall. Well, maybe that's not the best way to describe it. there are two factors: One, your brain is totally overloaded by the fact that you are not standing on anything, that the ground is just unbelievably not there, and is in fact way, way down there, and you're seeing a pretty incredible view beginning to get larger, but slower than you'd think. Two, air is pushing into your mouth and nose very rapidly, so you're really inhaling the whole time. Exhaling is the hard bit. You have to work a little bit, and push the air out.

And I found myself going Woooooo! as we spun circles and continued our fall. Just like those turds you see on extreme sports shows. It's inevitable. The wifely friend, in the video, gives the double-peace sign, Nixon-style, for a good three thousand feet. She has no idea why.

I opted for the secret devil signs so popular at early eighties Motley Crue shows. Again, I have no idea why.

And then, after nine thousand feet of free fall, my instructor tapped my shoulders and released the chute, taking us from 125 miles per hour to 10 miles an hour in about a second. I was a rag doll. And we drifted down, looking at what view we could see on this somewhat cloudy day. I could see Oakland in the far distance, and the San Francisco Bay.

My instructor said "OK, I'm just going to loosen the harness a little bit here."

I froze. For just a fleeting second, the thought crossed my mind: "He's going to kill me. He probably does this all the time. He's going to kill me and kidnap my wife and live in Buenos Aires." And he loosened the harness, and I dropped just a little bit, and he didn't kill me. My testicles were very grateful for the loosening of the harness, by the way. That thing was tight.

He said "Now this is how you steer the chute. You pull on this strap to go to the right." He pulled the strap and we lurched sickeningly down in a spiral to the right.

My stomach quailed.

"And this strap to go to the left." Another spiral.

"Woooaaggggg!" I said, profoundly. this spiralling was making me very nauseated, which is kind of funny, since jumping out of the plane didn't bother me much. But it's the change from wafting gently down, to spiralling and picking up speed as you spin.

I've always had a problem with the spinning. I have gotten ill on the Teacups at Disneyland. Anything that spins you and makes you aware of a migration spineward in the internal organ region is not, well, my cup of tea.

"Can we not do that please?" I said, but I don't think he heard me.

"You try it now!" he said. And I did, spiralling and almost, but not quite, vomiting on him.

And then we were down. The ground came rushing up, and I grabbed my instructor and hugged him. A hug that expressed these things: thanks for not killing me there, you know with the harness thing; and that was the coolest damn thing ever.

And it was the coolest thing ever. If you've thought about jumping from a plane, preferably with a parachute and a sensible and non-suicidal individual strapped to your back, I am here to tell you that you should do it.

Unless you die. Then, you probably shouldn't have.


Blog Archive