A Good Day to Die!
Nearly everything I’ve ever done has scared me. Going on a job interview. Calling that hot chick for a date. Signing on the crooked line for a mortgage. At eight years old Dad came home and said he had signed my brother and me up for baseball at the park, and I remember thinking, “I wish you hadn’t done that, I don’t know how to play baseball.” So where’d I get the stones to reach down, take one in each hand, man up, and jump out of an airplane? Was it the midlife crisis of a gray-whiskered fifty-six-year-old? The frustration of shaving the featureless face of a wuss? The boredom brought on by the mundaneries of a white bread, middle class, suburban life? Having no classes to teach this summer I had settled into an uninspiring routine. Oatmeal for breakfast. Check my e-mail. Mow the yard, mulch the flowerbeds, whack the weeds. Pick up my dry cleaning. Grab some groceries. Have lunch. Water seal my deck. Replace my car’s headlight bulb. Clean out the garage. Eat supper. Watch TV. Yawn, yawn. Every day the same old thing – breathe, breathe, breathe.
The Lakota tribes of the 1800s entered battle with a scream. “Hoka hey!” they’d shout. [translation: “It’s a good day to die!”] Actually, that’s bad strategy for victory. As General George Patton once noted, nobody won a war by dieing for his country, they did it by making the other poor bastard die for his. The essence of ‘hoka hey’, as I understand it, is that now is a great time to take life to its extreme. I wasn’t within three counties of that. You needed a telescope to see the extreme from my place. To get there push would have to come to shove.
Years ago in another city a friend and I often talked about taking the once-a-month Saturday sky diving class at the local airport, but always had a convenient excuse. “I’d love to, Doug, but I have to work this weekend.” “Sorry, Jer, I signed my son and myself up for a golf outing.” I’m sure we both kept an excuse polished up in case one was needed. But now I had nobody to bluff but myself. I hadn’t told anyone I was planning to do it because intending to do something sometimes seems like enough. At least then you can fool yourself into thinking you got close. Before leaving home, I washed my dishes and vacuumed my carpets. If push did come to shove, shove came to drop, and drop came to splat, I didn’t want to leave my family too much of a mess to clean up. On my desk I left my obituary and my will, in case I died, and my living will, in case I didn’t.
After viewing a video presentation on the futility of filing a lawsuit in the event of a mishap and then signing away my rights to do so, I suited up and went through jump training. Pre-jump orientation involved a ten minute overview of technique, spoken as matter-of-fact as a lesson in fly fishing. “You’re gonna step out of the plane onto this ledge.” I am, huh? “Just hold on to your harness. Don’t grab the door ’cause it’ll close. Don’t grab anything on the front panel ’cause you’ll turn the plane off.” No need to say that twice. “Grab onto your harness and curl forward. When we clear the plane arch your back. I’ll tap your shoulder, and then let go of the harness and hold your arms out. You’re flying. Then relax. Gravity will do the rest.” I was familiar with ground level gravity, but I figured it worked much harder at 9,500 feet.
Saying we boarded the plane makes it sound like we were heading off on a vacation. What we did was became luggage. I’d never been in a plane this small – one seat for the pilot with an empty tail behind him to squat in. The pilot pulled the door shut, spun the propeller, and up we climbed. I wasn’t sure whether or not it was fear that I was feeling, but it was surely uncertainty, acknowledging to myself that maybe this wasn’t a good idea after all, but we were about to find out. I may never do this again, I thought, but I’m committed to doing it now. I had heard that different people handle the moments before jumping one of two ways. One type of person gets overly chatty; the other grows stone cold silent. I tried to reach a comfortable medium. “So we jump at 9,500 feet, right?” “Yep. We’re at about 2,000 now.” Already the world I knew was in miniature. “Chute pull is at 5,000?” “Yep, we’ll fall for about a minute.” “How cold is it up here?” “You lose about 1 degree for every thousand feet, so it’ll be nice, in the mid to upper 60s.” “And I go on your momentum, yeah?” “Yep, when I go we both go. Until then just relax.” At about 9,000 feet I crouched to let the jump master hook to my harness. He tightened my goggles to my face, and we waited. Five of us, a pilot and two jump pairs, crammed in. It was so uncomfortable I was eager to leave. That may have been part of the plan. And I certainly wasn’t going to back out now, especially since the plane before mine had belched out two twenty-something females. When we reached altitude the big moment came. The pilot slowed the plane and flung open the door, letting the wind rush in and creating my pathway into the realm birds call home. The first pair, a jump master and a guy whose experienced girlfriend bought him a jump for his birthday (now that’s love), went first. When the plane emptied of them I and my partner inched forward on our knees, my hands clutching my harness. Stepping through the open doorway I set my right foot on the step, then the left, slowly inching them out to the ledge’s limit, my partner, linked to me like Siamese twins, following right behind. The jump master did his version of one-two-three, shouting in my ear above the roar of rushing wind “Here – we – go-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o.” and out we tumbled, the wind rushing past my ears. Never having done this before I wasn’t sure whether all was going well or not. I felt as if we were tumbling head over heels, or at least spinning like a wheel. “Arch your back! Arch your back!” was all I could think, hoping that if something was going wrong that would correct it. Everything must have been according to plan because I soon felt the tap on my shoulders. Arms out, flying, remembering what I was told: “Enjoy the scenery. Look around at the sky, not at the ground rushing up at you.” After a full minute of free fall I felt a big tug and heard a big whoosh, and I realized that our canopy had opened. All of a sudden everything, my mind included, went quiet, peaceful, and still. I remarked silent it was up there. My jump master said, “Nice, huh? See the Cleveland skyline?” There it was, down below me, looking like Dorothy’s image of the Emerald City. I thought, “From here, shouldn’t I also be able to see the Toronto skyline?” I enjoyed my vantage point looking down at the little ponds and streams that are hidden at ground level, the winding dirt roads and the well-laid-out farmer’s fields. “You wanta steer?” “Sure!” “Pull on this rope to go left …” “No, I want you to steer, I thought you meant do I want to travel around the sky.” I feared that if I grabbed the reins I’d put us into an unrecoverable spin, like an inexperienced driver on icy pavement. I now regret being such a wimp. We floated softly to the landing field, rolled gently to our butts, gathered up or gear, and walked in.
For a long time, tops on my list of things to do before I died was jump from an airplane, but beyond doing it, I wanted to become the kind of person who would do it. In the fall, when the leaves are in full color, I have to do it again. I was so focused on technique that I missed much of the experience. But I did learn from it. Now, when the tendency to shy away from doing something grips me I remind myself, “Dude, get a grip, you jumped out of a freakin’ airplane!” The sky’s no longer the limit. For you either. Face your fear. Ask for that raise. Start that business. Call her. Stretch your envelop. As I once read on a skydiver’s T-shirt, if you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.