Fall Guy

Some of us around the office got an early jump on our summer thrills when we hurtled earthward from a plane from about 14,000 feet. Not being patient people, we opted for tandem jumps where all the instruction we needed was to watch a video and sign a bajillion forms, all of which pretty much said that neither we, nor anybody we'd ever heard of, would hold anybody responsible for anything that might or might not happen even if it was due to malfunction, malfeasance or neglect. Watch TV and sign our lives away? Sure. We could do that.Somewhere midway through the instructional video, theory became reality. When I got out of bed that morning I knew that I was going to jump out of a plane and plummet several hundred feet before a parachute opened. I knew this was going to happenÉtheoretically, like we all know that we're going to die someday but don't really believe it. But somewhere in the middle of that 20-minute video, I became a believerÉAs the moment for the jump approaches, time becomes more and more meaningless. There is no past, there is no future. There is only a present in which preparations must be made: Harnesses need to be checked and worn, goggles to protect glasses, simple drills on how to leave the plane and how to land.People are talking but unless they have useful information about the dive, they aren't saying anything. Distractions disappear; it's become very peaceful.My vision gets better and worse. On the one hand, my peripheral vision expands and I have a heightened sensitivity to color and light. If I focus my attention on any one thing, I can see an enthralling amount of detail (a wall map doesn't just have streets, it had a finger smear and frayed edges and is going a little yellow in places). On the other hand, it's difficult to keep more than one object in focus at once: A room full of people needs to be examined, one at a time, to be seen as anything more than obstacles and babbling color smears.When we finally start toward the plane that takes us to diving elevation, my body can hardly contain itself. In spite of my fear of heights, I rush down the walkway with a skip in my step.I'm riding the adrenaline train and it's fast-tracking through my brain. On the plane ride up, my jump master, Tony Osterberg, and I are crammed into the plane with three co-jumpers (Bradley, Doug and Jeanne), their tandem-jump masters and a bunch of experienced divers who are going solo. There are two columns of us sitting on the floor with our legs spread around the person in front of us; it seems an oddly intimate arrangement for a group of strangers. The intimacy gets even more intense when Tony cinches himself to me so tightly that I can feel every contour of his body pressed against my back.The tension mounts as we near altitude, the plane groaning and droning its way to 14,000 feet. The experienced jumpers talk, yell to make themselves heard above the roar of the plane. Tony gives me last minute notes. Gallows' humor from the person next to me. My own forced laughter. It's getting very noisy.And then the door is open and air rushes into the plane. Almost immediately the solo jumpers begin disappearing through the door. PoofÉpoofÉpoofÉand then my friends duckwalk down the aisle and drop from sight and I'm on my knees and then I'm waddling forward, moving toward the light beyond the opened door and the wind is buffeting my face and fuck! there ain't nothin' outside that door andÉ"JUMP!"Hands tucked into my harness straps to keep them from affecting our descent, I arch my back and the full force of the 85mph winds slap me across the face and I'm falling, and falling, and falling. And without the airplane's engine noise, the sound of wind rushing past me is positively silent. At first I try to mesmerize the fear by telling myself that this will all be over soon, this will all be over soon, but that's not working, so I drown the terror by yelling and cheering. They said not to open your mouth because you're falling at 120mph and your mouth dries out very quickly but I don't care, I'm making a fearless noise unto the world. In the midst of the screaming, another thought asserts itself: pay attention, this is probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The fear is starting to subside. And, all in all, it is pretty amazing: We started our dive in a greyish blue sky, but now we're in the middle of a cloud and it's white all around us; I can feel the moisture stinging my cheeks. As we break through the cloud, the whole beautiful, beautiful Monterey Bay opens up to view. It's both reassuring and frightening to see the whole world rushing into view.And then Tony opens the chute, and it feels like we're being jerked upward as we abruptly begin a more leisurely descent toward the landing field. Unfortunately, when the chute opens, the harness straps, which go down around your butt and up around your thighs become so tightly wedged into my crotch that I'm unable to slip into a more comfortable sitting position. I spend the remainder of the ride with 200 pounds of myself perched on very sensitive anatomy. It is not pleasant.After a couple of carousel-like spins on the 'chute we swoop in for a landing, legs up, out, down, run. We're down. We're on the ground. And the one coherent thought I can express to people is, "I flew, I flew..."All in all, for me, the skydiving experience peaked around the time we broke through the clouds, it was a point at which the terror and my control over the terror had reached a balancing point. The total time in free fall is a mere 60 seconds, although, while you're falling, it could be any length of time from two seconds to eternity. The ride down under 'chute, in addition to being painful, was anti-climactic. (I went hot-air ballooning as a passenger once and wondered what the big deal was, you're just floating around in the sky-being under the 'chute with an instructor was a lot like that.)Although I don't anticipate jumping again (at least until the next time) there are, obviously, people who pursue skydiving as a vocation and as an avocation.Donna Pearsall, works for Skydive Monterey Bay as a "manifester," keeping track of who and what's aboard each plane. She's also made dozens of jumps on her own."I do it, 'cause I got hooked," says Pearsall. "The adrenaline rush is good enough that you want to do it over and over. Some people don't feel the same; it's an individual thing."Each jump is different. You learn something new. You can do more each jump; you get more confidenceÉIt's more like flying."With her experience, she's also able to put my first jump into perspective. "On your first jump you don't remember that much because you have such an adrenaline rush," she says. "Once I'm out, I have total recall of what happened. I've been told after about a hundred jumps you don't even get that nervous jumping out of the plane. And some of the things that you get nervous now about you don't even think about anymore." Not even whether or not the 'chute is going to open?"There is that, yeah," admits Pearsall. "There's a little bit of apprehension waiting to make sure it all goes all right."

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