Free Fallin' with Haagen-Dazs

Saturday, July 28, 2001

I can say now, with unerring certainty, that Skydiving is not for sissy's.

For years I've been saying that I want to go sky diving, not coming close to understanding what it actually meant to jump out of an airplane at 14,000 feet. Recently, while staying with relatives in Florida the moment presented itself. My great uncle told me of his jump four years ago (when he was 67). That's remarkable. Hearing his story psyched me up to do it. He knew of a place not far away. I signed up over the phone and drove out to a little airport in Zepherhills, Florida, for the jump.

The registration office and sky diving "pro shop" had all of the trappings of any other speed junky sport. It could've passed for a surf shop or a snowboard/ski shop. It had that "fuckin' A dude" feel to it. They handed me a legal waiver with about fifteen places to sign away my rights. I barely glanced it over as I initialed here and there. What was the point of reading through it with a fine toothed comb? If something goes wrong free-falling at a terminal speed of 120 mph, there probably wouldn't be much need to debate the finer legal points of our agreement.


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When I handed it back to the lady at the registration desk, she said with surprise, "Wow, that was fast". Oh crap, I thought, I've probably over-looked some critical clause (e.g. Does the Client wish to save $5 by waiving his/her rights to a chute that is guaranteed to open? If so, please initial here _______ ). Only in America.

Since I was jumping tandem, I'd be strapped to a trained instructor who probably wants to survive the jump as much as I do. That's good enough for me. My instructor introduced himself as "Haagen-Dazs."

"I've done this 3,802 times. We're going to jump from 14,000 feet today. This is the rip cord. It deploys the chute. If I haven't pulled it at 5,000 feet, you need to pull it. The weather should be clearing up soon and we'll go."

Okay. I studied Haagen-Dazs for signs of depression, recent drug use, suicidal tendencies and/or narcolepsy while he gave me the instructions. Basically, I was supposed to arch my back and push my stomach toward the earth, letting my arms and legs reach back toward the sky. This would create a center of gravity that would pull us toward the ground with the all-important parachute pointing toward the sky. Without this center of gravity, he explained, when he pulled the rip cord, the chute would open beneath us and get tangled around us. A wave of dizziness swept over me when he uttered this sentence. The chute can get "tangled around us" if I didn’t happen to position myself right. Shit. He asked me if I understood. I hesitated for several seconds making sure I heard what he said. Stomach out. Back arched. Arms, legs back. Center of gravity. Chute opens. We live. Yes, I understood.

With that we were off to the plane. "Watch out for the propellers" he said to me staring forward as we near the craft. "They're sharp and will kill you." Was that dry humor or literal fatalism? "Yeah, thanks for the tip" I said, starting to feel woozy about this whole thing. Another wave of vertigo.

With a roar, the plane began its ascent to 14,000 feet. It would take about ten minutes. We were about ten jumpers deep in the plane. There were no seats. We sat in between each others' legs on the floor. I tried to support myself until my abs could no longer hold me up and then eventually leaned back into Haagen-Dazs.

"Sorry" I said. It felt weird to lay back on someone I didn't know. And yet I was willing to entrust my life to him. You gotta love homophobia.

"No worries. This is how we do it. Sky-diving is a friendly sport." I looked around me. All of the other experienced jumpers were leaning back on each other, telling jokes and laughing. At 10,000 feet, someone leaned over and threw open the door. Light and cold wind rushed in. From where I was sitting I could see out the door. Holy shit, I thought. How on earth am I going out that door? I was feeling dizzy and weak.

"Okay, we're going to stand up now" he screamed into my ear over the roar of the engine. We stood as tall as the plane would let us stand and waited. I started thinking that I didn't really need to do this. We waited hunched over for several minutes while the plane climbed the last few thousand feet. And then with no warning or signal, the divers in front of us began hurling themselves out of the open door. Inside I was panicking. Seeing people jump out of the plane was just not right. I mean, I knew full well that skydiving involved jumping out of a plane. And yet to see these people just hopping out into thin air was unbelievable.

Four jumpers ahead of us. Gone. Three. Gone. Two. Gone. We're up. We shuffled toward the door. The wind was very cold. I don't usually get sea sick or car sick, or plane sick for that matter, but when I looked out the door at 14,000 feet I just about lost it in every way that a human being can and should lose it when faced with imminent (and avoidable) death. If my brainstem had not disconnected as it did from my central nervous system, I might have acted with instinctive brute force on any number of the impulses I had running through my mind, such as:

1. Kill Haagen-Dazs, the pilot and the remaining jumpers and take control of the aircraft.
2. Begin waling like a lost school girl and beg for my mommy.
3. Curl up into a ball at the front of the plane and beat my head into the metal siding.

But since I had lost complete control of my body and was physically strapped to Haagen-Dazs I could muster no resistance when our turn came to jump and he screamed into my ear over the roar of the wind and engine, "Ready, Set, Goooooooooooooooo!"

The evil fear of death did not leave me until a few seconds into the free fall. I finally opened my eyes and looked down. The ground was so far away. I started laughing spontaneously at the fact that I was flying through the air at 120 mph. "Aaaaaaaahhahahahhhaaarrrrrrrrgggg!!!!" We both screamed for joy. If I was going to die, there was still plenty of time and the free fall is about the coolest feeling in the world. Besides, at that point, I'm committed. What else am I going to do? The question of "Do I trust Haagen-Dazs with my life" had already been answered. I might as well open my eyes and take in the expansive horizon I'm flying over.

After a minute of free fall he tapped me on the shoulder to get my attention and held up his altimeter showing 5,000 feet. We fell 11,000 feet in 60 seconds. He gave me the 'thumbs up' as he said he would during pre-jump instructions. I gave him my thumbs up as if it meant anything. He pulled the cord. The chute opened. It felt as if we came close to a complete stop. The rest of the ride down was very nice. I had forgotten all about death and was taking in the scenery and sensation of falling gently to the earth. When we landed and got the chute off, I turned around to Haagen-Dazs and give him a huge, double high five.

"Holy shit! That was the most AMAZING experience of my life!" My throat was already sore from screaming most of the way down.

Haagen-Dazs smiled at me and said, "Fuckin' A, dude."

Looking back on it, the worst part was the last three minutes as the plane ascended from 10,000 to 14,000 feet because there was still the chance to turn around. Neither alternative is good. You either chicken out and risk personal humiliation and taunting from supportive friends, or you violate the central mandate that every sane fiber in your body is screaming at you: don't jump out of the $%#@% plane you *&^%$# idiot! It's called the self-preservation instinct, and violating it is what makes sky diving the coolest and scariest experience of your life.


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