Tuesday, May 22, 2012

I went skydiving once. Once.

I don't have time to read many blogs, but one I always catch is written by Peter Shankman, a public relations/marketing/social media guru who is pretty well known in my industry. Peter is a nut, but more importantly he knows his stuff, which is the only reason I read his posts.

Peter is also a bundle of energy and is always doing fun/wild things, from running marathons to jumping out of planes.

Especially jumping out of planes. It seems that whenever he has a spare moment, Peter can be found at some small airport with a parachute strapped to his back. Recently he made six jumps in one day. Six.

That's probably six more than most of us have made in a lifetime, the reason being that most of us have the good sense not to abandon a perfectly functioning airplane if we can help it. Plus, skydiving is an expensive hobby.

Every time I see that Peter is heading somewhere to make a few jumps, three things pop into my head:

(1) Is he crazy?
(2) He must not have any kids.
(3) Are we sure he's not crazy?

Where does he get the discretionary income? And where does he get the guts? It boggles my mind.

Interestingly, I jumped out of a plane one time. Just the one time. There will not be a second time.

Not because I didn't enjoy it. I actually did. But because I really feel like you're playing with karmic fire if you continually hurl yourself out of an airplane with only a properly packed chute (hopefully) keeping you from splattering all over the ground.

My skydiving career spanned one day in June 1991. This was the summer before Terry and I were married, and I dubbed it my "Summer of Achievement." I ended up working a lot of hours at the Plain Dealer newspaper that summer, though, so I really only had two notable achievements: One was doing the Pedal to the Point bike tour (156 miles in just over 24 hours), and the other was jumping out of a plane.

I went to a place called Canton Air Sports in lovely Canton, Ohio. Canton is an hour away from where I live, but they offered the best price of any of the skydiving companies I found in the Yellow Pages (this, you understand, was pre-Internet). So I drove the hour to Canton, forked over something like $180, and in return they gave me six hours of instruction and one jump.

I don't remember much about the six hours of instruction. I know we spent 45 minutes standing on a little chair and jumping off, just so we could learn the proper way to land. As it turns out, you don't do what your instincts tell you to do, which is to brace yourself and try to land standing up. Instead, you immediately drop to the ground and roll, which saves you the inconvenience of possibly breaking your ankles. Who knew?

There were only two of us in class that day: me and an older guy whose name escapes me. But he was clearly insane. Like Peter Shankman insane. He and I not only made our first jumps, he went on to jump twice more that same day, I believe. He couldn't get enough of it.

I was content with just the one jump. When it came time to take to the sky, they outfitted us in manly, attractive jumpsuits. Well, at least Insane Guy's jumpsuit was manly and attractive. Mine was manly in that it made me look like a mechanic, but it wasn't especially attractive. It was dark brown and made of a denim-like material. And they gave me a bright yellow helmet to wear with it. Color-wise, it was as if they had plucked me straight from the roster of the 1978 San Diego Padres.

It's like when you're not very good at horseback riding and the stable guys give you the worst horse possible. (As Seinfeld said in a comedy routine, they see novices coming and start looking around saying, "Is Glue Stick back yet? How about Almost Dead, is he saddled up?") Same thing here. It was obvious I was never going to be a repeat customer, so they gave me the worst of all possible jumpsuits.

Nowadays when people skydive for the first time, it's usually in a tandem jump with a seasoned instructor. But not me. Not in 1991. Not at Canton Air Sports. No sir, back in my day we jumped solo. And we liked it!

Really, they did make us jump alone. We didn't actually open our own chutes, though. There was a static line attached to our packs that would allow us to free fall for several seconds before yanking open the chute. Or at least that was what was supposed to happen. We also had reserve chutes and were taught how to use them, assuming we would have sufficient control of our faculties to remember this training while we fell at 120 MPH through open air.

Anyway, Insane Guy, the instructor, a couple of other people affiliated with the school, and I all packed into this little Cessna and took off from the grass runway at Canton Air Sports. For whatever reason, I was going to be the first one out of the door, so they put me right next to it.

Only there was no door. Seriously, there was a doorWAY, but no actual door. And no seats in the plane, either. It was just an open cabin area where everyone knelt. That certainly helped my nerves, let me tell you!

The plane climbed to something like 3,500 feet, which isn't very high as far as planes go but is extremely high when six inches to your right is an open doorway and nothing at all between you and God's green earth.

It was also interesting to me that we didn't just jump out of the plane. Oh no. Instead, they had us climb out onto a little (and I mean little) step mounted on the side of the plane, grab on to the wing strut, take our feet off the step, and then hang there in midair until the instructor told us it was OK to let go. Really! We had to hang on for our lives for a few seconds, and then he would say "Look up!", at which point we were to look at a black dot on the underside of the wing and let go.

I did all of this successfully, and when I let go it immediately felt like I was barreling down the largest roller coaster hill in history. I don't know how long that static line was, but it felt like I was falling for a long, long time. What little life I had lived to that point flashed in front of my eyes.

After you let go of the wing strut, you're supposed to count to six and then look up to see if your parachute has successfully deployed. I started counting to six, and right around the time I got to four, I felt a tugging on my shoulders suggesting that my fall was being arrested. And sure enough, when I got to six and looked up, there was a beautiful, billowing parachute above me. I was (probably) going to live!

The rest of it was just pure fun. There are steering toggles attached to the chute that you grab in order to guide yourself. There's also a one-way radio tucked into the arm of your jumpsuit, and they start sending you instructions from the ground, like "make a 90-degree turn to the left." I did exactly what they told me and had an absolute ball.

At one point, the voice in my radio  I never did find out exactly who he was  told me to pull both toggles simultaneously. Which I did, and immediately disliked. Pulling both toggles causes you to fall much faster. Having already cheated death seconds earlier, I wasn't in the mood to try again. I let go of the toggles in a hurry.

There was a 20-feet, gravel-filled circle on the ground that was supposed to be our targeted landing area. I came down just shy of it and landed pretty softly, though I did remember to fall to the ground and roll a couple of times to absorb the blow. That $180 worth of training was good for something!

My dad was there to greet me once I came down. He was always fascinated with skydiving, and I could tell he was relieved and amazed that I had successfully done it. He asked me if I wanted to do it again, and I told him, "not for a million dollars."

And I meant it, too.

A couple of weeks later, I received a VHS tape in the mail. There was a small camera mounted on the jump plane's wing strut, and the tape contained video of all of that weekend's skydivers as they took their jumps. One by one, people in much better-looking jumpsuits than mine came out onto the step, grabbed the wing strut, let go and quickly fell away with whoops of joy and broad smiles on their face.

That was pretty much true for all of the jumpers except for one me. In my portion of the video, you see a guy enter the frame wearing hideous brown denim and a beat-up old yellow crash helmet. The guy gingerly grabs the wing strut, lets go, and immediately shuts his eyes tight in fear. There is no whoop of joy, only a small whimper of terror.

I still have that VHS tape. If I ever get the urge to skydive again, I'm going to break it out and watch my jump, just to remind myself that I clearly was not made for life in the daredevil fast lane.

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