Monday, November 14, 2005

Learning to Fly

My whole life, all I wanted to do was jump out of an airplane. Maybe it
stems from the mystique of my grandfather, who was with the 101st Airborne,
or my uncle, who was in the 82nd Airborne. To me both of these people were
men in the highest esteem. Both had endured the right of passage that is
Airborne school. As a child, not unlike other children, I was obsessed with
all things military. I loved watching war movies and on some level, I saw
my uncle and grandfather as heroes; both had parachuted into foreign
countries during battle. Short of joining the Army, jumping out of
airplanes was one way I could come closer to emulating them. Maybe it is
something genetic that made us all want to do this, but I knew that one day
I would take steps to make that happen.

Somehow, when I was fifteen I found I discovered that it was
possible to take skydiving classes at sixteen with parental permission. My
uncle wanted to try skydiving as opposed to military style parachuting. By
sheer perseverance, I was able to convince my aunt and uncle that I was
serious about wanting to do it. Since my uncle was interested as well, he
decided that it would make a good birthday present. I was finally going to
achieve my dream.

The 82nd Airborne had a program on post for people who wanted to do
"civilian skydiving," as they called it. A club provided training,
trainers, equipment, and locations at which to jump. This was a time before
tandem jumping was popular so I had to take a week's worth of classes were
required before going up the first time. We even had to learn how to pack
our own parachutes. One of the training simulations the class involved
hanging in a harness suspended from the ceiling and pulling the rip cord.
The first person is always the butt of a joke. I was this first person. I
got into the harness just thinking that it was a realistic simulation of
pulling the cord. So, there I was, hung about 3 feet off the ground about
to experience what I would soon learn was called hanging agony. The
instructor tells me to go through ripcord pull procedures and wham! I am no
longer three feet in the air, I am now only a foot in the air and my face is
as white as a ghost, but it got red fast. Al the military people knew what
was coming because they do it in jump school. It was a good laugh for
everybody including myself. The rest of the class went smoothly. We passed
our written and practical exams, and there was nothing left but to climb
into the plane.

The next weekend we headed to Raeford Drop Zone. This is a pretty well
known place; the Golden Knights actually train there. People are lined up
everywhere talking to each other in flashy custom jump suits with matching
jump caps about the newest gear and the daily grind of their jobs. I felt
their eyes upon me and my club drawn, two sizes too big, used Army flight
suit and hockey helmet. Everyone seemed to know everyone else and seemed to
look down their noses at our beginner class. We looked around in awe of
everything around us. The large field that served as a drop zone had a pit
of gravel forming a bull's-eye in the center. The drop zone was bordered
with about twenty lanes for repacking parachutes, the clubhouse, a house,
some trees, the highway, and an airstrip with what seemed like very small
planes to me.

Growing up, I watched all kinds of movies with skydiving in them, and in
every one of them, the plane was huge and the people jumped out. In front
of us was a C-182. The C stood for Cessna, and the 182 was definitely not
the seating capacity. There was one seat and that was for the pilot, there
was room for one person to sit on the floor next to the pilot, one behind
the pilot, one in the tail of the aircraft, and the jumpmaster between us
all. Outside the door was a twelve-inch metal bar. This bar would serve as
the step as we would ease ourselves out of the plane and onto the wing
strut. At this point we would hang until given the command to let go. This
method allowed for plenty of chicken out opportunities. There was no taking
a few deep breaths and making that bold leap.

We went over everything one more time and practiced our PLFs (parachute
landing falls) before loading up on the plane. They slotted me as second
for some reason. If you ever have to do anything scary, the middle is the
best place to be. There is someone doing it right before you do, and
someone that has to do it right after you. This lets you know that it can
be done and that someone will see you, if you chicken out. As the plane
started up, the adrenaline started to drip into my blood stream. It sat at
that consistent drip, keeping me wide-awake and alert. As we climbed in
altitude I started to question my sanity, and then it happened. The door
opened! "Whoosh!," the wind rushed in and my heart exploded with the
adrenaline that was now flowing like a river through my body. The
temperature was fifteen degrees lower all of a sudden and the air pressure
had dropped. I could not hear anything other than the whining of the
engines and the rushing of the wind. They threw out the tape to gage the
wind and determine the best place to drop us. I watched as the first person
shimmied out of the door, let go, and disappeared below us. It was then my
turn. The river of adrenaline then turned into class five rapids. The
jumpmaster told me to get in the door. I sat there as he hooked up my
static line to a D-hook in the floor. He screamed in my ear to get out on
the wing. Slowly my feet swing out the door and shakingly found the step.
This step seemed a lot smaller now that I was trying to position myself on
it from three thousand feet. Finally, I got my feet situated, reached out,
and grabbed the strut. I slid my hands out past the red tape that marked us
clear from the step. I let go with my feet and weightlessly hung there. I
looked back to the jumpmaster who was thrusting his finger in my face. This
was the sign to let go, but I did not need to know this because the gesture
alone scared my grip off the plane. The first thing I did was look down,
ignoring everything taught to me in class, and then before I could do
anything else, "Wham!," my parachute opened and I had a canopy over my head.
The class five rapids emptied into a serene quiet lake.

The ride down in wide-open space, just floating, was amazing. Just like a
bird, I was flying and there was nothing in between the sky and me. As I was
approaching the landing area, the trees directly in front of the landing
area, approached even faster. I made a quick decision and decided to chance
landing myself over landing in the trees. It was a hard landing that I did
not feel because of the adrenaline. I pulled in my chute and walked back
into the staging area. The word that came to my mouth is the same word that
came to everyone's mouth: Awesome! Everyone found this word and I was no
different. The experience itself cannot be described otherwise.

I have made a total of seven jumps since that October day in 1993. Every
time the door opened, so did the floodgates, as adrenaline poured into my
heart. I guess you never truly feel more alive than when you are closest to
death. I know I have not. That day I grew. Maybe, I grew in the eyes of
my grandfather and uncle. Maybe they saw me as more of a man, but I truly
grew inside of myself. I did this on my own. I fulfilled my dream. I knew
then that I was capable of doing anything. I came of age that day not by
having my heroes look at me differently, but by becoming a different person
to look at.

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