пятница, 28 октября 2016 г.

Skydiving! Some Fears Are Definitely Worth Facing

The alarm was set for six … as if that was necessary. I was awake long before, in fact, I’m not too sure I even slept. Today is the day I’m going to face a bad fear – which by my definition is simply a fear I want to overcome – a fear of skydiving. With a two hour drive ahead of us, Michele and I were on our way by seven am. The forecast is hot and sunny. When I enrolled us online the parachute school offered two choices of jumping; solo or tandem. I checked off solo which indicted that we would be in parachute school from about nine until three, and if weather permitted we would immediately board a plane and do our first jump. The parachute school was located about an hour north of Toronto right in the heart of farm country. We arrived just before nine. We turned onto a long gravel driveway that snaked through a grassy field that was littered with dozens of tiny, rusted-out planes. The main office was a tall wooden barn. It had two sliding doors that were pulled open revealing a small white and yellow prop plane. I don’t know squat about planes, but this one looked like it had enjoyed its best days long before I was born. Michele and I walked past the plane into the back where a young woman, holding a couple of clipboards, greeted us. After I gave her our names she smiled broadly and said that she had been expecting us, but before we got started it would be necessary for us to watch a short movie and sign a couple of waivers. She led us to another section of the barn that had a couple of dusty couches, a pot-belly stove and a tiny TV. She handed us each a clipboard and began to put a series of large X’s next to certain signature lines and instructed us not to sign anything beside the X’s until she could witness our signatures. She then suggested we sit down, get comfortable and watch the movie. She pushed the tape into the VCR and left. The TV screen began with a couple of credits and then switched to some guy with a two-foot long grey beard sitting at a desk. He perfectly fit my visual imagination of either a demented dictator or a serial killer. In a monotone voice he began by telling us that what we were about to do was completely our decision and that if we were killed or maimed … which should not be entirely unexpected … it was our fault and that neither we, nor our heirs, whether born or not, would ever consider legal action against anyone in the parachute school … and on and on it went. As Michele and I watched this shaggy guy drone on about the dangers and insane personal risks of skydiving, we flipped through the pages of legal waivers. We had to place our initials after every sentence and at one point we had to duplicate a paragraph in our own hand writing that said we were of sound mind and body and that we knew full well that this was highly dangerous and could result in permanent injury, or death, and that regardless of any fault or negligence on the part of the parachute school we would never instigate legal action … At this point Michele asked me if I was okay. When I gave her my best, “I’m fine, why do you ask?” she just shrugged and suggested the fact that I was as white as a sheet and I was unconsciously bouncing my leg up and down were just two of the things that prompted her question. At this point a group of guys entered the barn and were loudly speculating about the slim chances of getting to jump by the late afternoon. One of them said that the afternoon winds were going to pick up which made the likelihood of a late jump seem fairly remote. “Damn,” I said to Michele. “There’s no way I’m sitting through class all day long only to be told we have to come all the way back for our actual jump. Perhaps we should forget this whole idea,” I suggested. Michele calmly urged me to fill out the waivers and see what happens. I mumbled my displeasure as we both began to sign our names in all the required places that didn’t have an X marked beside it. We brought the clipboards to the greeting lady and she studiously witnessed Michele, and then me, sign our names beside the X's a total of seven times. With all claims against any and all injury signed away, it was time to hand over the credit card. By now I was feeling like I’d been had. This entire operation looked like something out of a bad skit and I was about to fork over $700 so these “shady” folks could legally, and negligently, push me out of an airplane and I couldn’t do a damned thing about it. With the paperwork finished Michele and I ventured into the back yard to look up and see some guy about a thousand feet in the air, and dressed like Spider Man, flipping end over end and falling at a frightening speed. To my eye I thought I was witnessing a jump gone terribly wrong. When he was about five-hundred feet above the ground it appeared that he had lost all control. His descent was so fast he could never survive the impending impact. His parachute was fully open but it looked as though it must have just opened moments earlier and was too late to slow his fall. He was about to hit the ground at a terrifying speed. Incredibly about fifty feet before crashing he suddenly went completely horizontal. Magically the speed of his descent totally vaporized and he touched down as gently as if he were stepping onto rice paper. All I could do was shake my head and marvel at the extraordinary skill this guy had shown. By now I was getting a little anxious. There were about ten people standing around out back and perhaps another ten or so in the barn and nobody seemed to really know what was going on … least of all me! Stupidly I turned to Michele and asked her when our classes were about to start. At that point I caught myself and mumbled that I was going back inside to find out what was going on. Right about then I noticed a middle aged man wearing a parachute tee-shirt holding a clip board. I walked over to him and asked him if he knew anything about our class and whether or not we would be jumping that day. “Oh, I wouldn’t know anything about that,” he said. “Go in and ask Debbie, she coordinates all that.” I found Debbie inside and asked her if she might be kind enough to tell me what Michele and I should do next. She flashed a lovely smile and said that Garth was probably ready for us and that we would be going up in about ten or fifteen minutes. Okay. I instantly got the picture. There was no parachute class for us. We were jumping tandem whether we liked it or not, and based on what I had just witnessed, this seemed like a fortuitous turn of events. I felt a giant rush of relief. I sauntered out back to find Michele, and trying my best to sound disappointed, I said that there wasn’t going to be any classes for us. Unfortunately they must have screwed up and mistakenly assumed that we wanted to jump with an instructor. Michele visibly brightened with the news. We walked back into the barn to be greeted by Garth, a middle-aged man with a broad, ingratiating smile. “You must be Richard and Michele,” he said holding out his hand. “We’re going to have an absolute blast. Are you ready for this?” I grinned and nodded in the affirmative as he instructed me to step into the harness. Garth began strapping me in and saying that there was only two things I had to do; “When you jump out of the plane grab these shoulder straps and arch your body backwards. “Like this?” I asked as I bent over looking at my feet. “No, not quite,” he said patiently, “bend your body the other way. Look, Just tilt your head back and you’ll be fine.” He paused and looked at me for a moment and then said with finality; “You’re going to jump with Jeff, I’m going to jump with Michele." Hmm, I guess I couldn’t blame him. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to jump with me either. Garth continued strapping me in and when he finished he loosened everything off just a bit so I could waddle down the road to the plane. The whole harness affair wasn’t too bad except for the loops that went around my crotch were pulled so tight it made me think of an adult in a Jolly-Jumper. With Michele and I harnessed up Garth walked us down the gravel road past the rows of rusted out planes. I have to admit that the moment we found out we weren’t jumping solo most of my anxiety vanished. As we walked we peppered Garth with questions. He told us he jumps between eight and fifteen times a day which I found to be enormously comforting. “Here it is,” said Garth, pointing to the white and yellow plane we had first seen in the barn upon our arrival. “The regular plane’s being serviced,” he said, “so we’re going to use this one. It’s a little small so when we get in we all have to tuck in behind the pilot or we won’t get off the ground.” I kept reminding myself that no matter how nutty this whole affair appeared, this thing had to be safe or Garth wouldn’t be going along for the ride either. Garth unlatched the plane’s door and suggested we take a look inside. Holy crap was it small. It appeared to be about the size of a forty-five gallon oil drum. The inside consisted of nothing but tin walls, a pilot’s chair from an old Volkswagen, and a hell of a lot of duct tape that appeared to be holding the vital pieces together. I stole a look at Garth to see if he was going to say something like, “I gotcha,” but he never did. This was indeed the unit that was going to take us up. Right about then my jumping partner Jeff road up on a bicycle. He had just finished his first jump of the day and was suited and ready to go again. He introduced himself, checked all my straps and fittings and suggested we get going. Michele decided that I would jump first, so after the pilot was situated, we all squeezed in. Jeff had to lean against the cockpit and I had to sit between his outstretched legs. If I straightened up and craned my neck I could just manage to see out the window. Michele and Garth had to kneel and push forward as far as they could to help the plane get air born. The plane droned to life and slowly it crawled across the field to the area that everyone must have agreed would be the runway. The pilot revved the engine and immediately we began to bump and bounce across the field. As the pilot throttled the engine to its max the tiny plane shuddered and shook as we sluggishly gained speed. With great effort we gradually left the ground below and began the long arduous climb. I was sitting between Jeff’s legs and facing the back of the plane. Michele and Garth were kneeling and facing the front. It was so cramped I couldn’t even turn to look at Jeff, but it was comforting to hear Michele shout at me that Jeff appeared to be sleeping. If he could be that relaxed, I thought, then what could there be to worry about? Our plane droned and strained as it clawed its way skyward. We climbed for about twenty-five minutes before we reached our targeted altitude. Our plane was not outfitted with mufflers so the only way we could communicate was to either shout or use hand signals. From this altitude the landscape looked like a green, yellow, and brown checkerboard. I couldn’t help but wonder how these guys knew where we were because from this height any landmark smaller than a good-sized lake was all but invisible. With our plane in the targeted position, the pilot shouted that it was time to get ready. Jeff must have woken up on cue because he immediately began to shout instructions in my ear. “Get on your knees and pull these two straps forward as hard as you can!” I did so. “I’m going to open the door so be prepared for a rush of cold air.” Various parts of my body began to tighten. I couldn’t see what Jeff was doing but I could hear him pulling on the latch, and then bang on the metal door and finally, as a last resort, he started to curse it. No luck. He pulled and tugged for at least another minute before he asked the pilot to give it a try. Since Jeff and I were now tightly strapped together, and kneeling on the floor, we had to inch our way toward the rear of the plane so the pilot could try his hand fumbling with the latch. As soon as he did the plane lurched to my left and threw me against the door. Another minute of cursing and wrenching proved fruitless. At this point Jeff screamed in my ear that he was going to unstrap himself from me so that he could get a better grip on the latch. This was not what I wanted to hear. I had the distinct feeling that the moment he freed the latch the door would fly open and suck me out. Just then a rush of cold air filled the cabin and I stole a glance downward. I was now officially and unequivocally scared! I could feel Jeff buckling his harness back onto mine and once again he shouted for me to pull the two straps that would squeeze us together. “Go to the door and stick your legs out,” he shouted. Easier said than done. I could no longer feel my legs since they had been folded under my weight for the last few minutes and the circulation had been completely cut off while Jeff and the pilot had been fighting with the latch. Using all my strength to get up on my knees I painfully inched my way to the open door and stuck out my legs. “One, two, three, spaghetti!” was the last thing I heard before I felt myself summersault into the icy void. What a rush! I went from a relatively stable position on the platform of the plane to somersaulting into space at two hundred miles an hour in mere seconds. The instantaneous speed was like being body slammed by a giant pillow. As we plunged to the earth I felt Jeff kick my leg which was my reminder to curl my legs back and arch my body. With the correct free-fall position attained, and the confirmation that I didn’t exit the plane alone, I actually began to enjoy myself. I could feel my cheeks rippling like a flag in a stiff wind. The sight was spectacular, and although we were traveling at such speed, we were so high I couldn’t see that the ground was getting any closer. We free fell for about forty-five seconds before I felt a massive pull as the chute opened. At that moment I wished I had passed on the morning’s coffee and toast. The entire harness squeezed me so tight I could only imagine that it would be similar to the constriction applied by a giant anaconda. With each exhale the whole harness seemed to squeeze tighter and tighter. After the thrilling speed of free-fall, it now felt like we were hanging stationary in mid air. Everything grew calm and quite. The contracting harness seemed to stabilize to a point of just extreme discomfort, and I could breath again and begin to absorb the incredible experience. Surprisingly enough, Jeff and I could talk without shouting. He said we were now falling about ten to fifteen miles an hour as he pointed out the Toronto skyline far into the distance. While we gently fell to earth he told me to reach up and grab the two loops of rope he was handing me. After gripping them securely he suggested I pull on the right one and then on the left one, and with each gentle pull we rocked back and forth in huge arcs that swung us from vertical to horizontal and back to vertical. At that point I spotted Michele and Garth about a quarter of a mile away and a lot closer to earth than we were. I could see Garth and Michele swinging wildly back and forth as if hooked onto a giant pendulum, and then they began to spin and spiral straight downwards in what appeared to be an uncontrolled descent. I immediately lost sight of them. “Are they okay?” I screamed to Jeff. He ignored my question and took back control of the parachute's guide ropes. Then he began to give me instructions on our landing. By now the barns and trees were quickly approaching. “When we get close to the ground,” Jeff instructed, “I want you to straighten your legs and keep them out in front of you.” “That’s it?” I asked. “That’s it.” he said. It was reassuring to know the landing instructions were simple and straightforward since it looked like we were only about twenty seconds away which left precious little time for tactical discussion. As we approached the barn I could see Michele and Garth were already posing for pictures. For the last hundred feet of our descent we circled the barn once and then we suddenly dropped almost straight downward. At the last moment Jeff expertly pulled on the chute’s guides, which miraculously shifted our flight from straight down to a horizontal glide just above the ground. Then ever so smoothly we skidded across the top of the grass and came to a gentle stop. What a blast. My mind was instantly flooded with an avalanche of thoughts. Jeff unhooked us, walked around, gave me a big hug and asked, “Well, what do you think?” I couldn’t even talk. I just stood there grinning like the village idiot. It had been the experience of a lifetime. “What a ^%$@# thrill!” was all I could think. I ran over to Michele, gave her a big hug. Neither of us could talk. We just stood there, arm in arm, grinning widely. I could tell she was feeling the exact same thing. Somehow words weren’t necessary. We just stood in front of the photographer and grinned. The thrill of the very first jump is the myriad of wildly fluctuating experiences that converge in such a short time. From the mild anxiety of the long slow climb into the heavens, to the punch of instantaneous speeds of two hundred miles an hour, to the hard pull of an opening chute - that reassuringly signals you’ll live another day - to swinging back and forth like an out of control pendulum at two thousand feet, viewing the earth from the incredible heights of twelve thousand feet, to seeing the ground suddenly rise to meet you as you rapidly approach five-hundred feet, then a hundred, then fifty and then to a gentle landing in the soft grass. The emotions, the physical extremes, the fierce changes in temperature, free falling from miles in the air, to gently touching down, is all much more than the conscious mind can fully absorb. Luckily the subconscious mind doesn’t miss a trick, and for the rest of the day our subconscious minds continually fed us more and more of that incredible experience. I stopped counting after Michele said for the sixty-third time that jumping out of that plane was the greatest thrill of her life. I’d have to concur. What an indescribable rush! We were home by two in the afternoon. We opened a bottle of champagne (it was our fifteenth anniversary), jumped in our pool, and relived the experience … over and over. "When were you the most scared?" Michele inquired. "That's easy," I replied, "When I was filling out the legal waivers." “Would you go again?” she questioned. “Absolutely!” “How about you, would you go again?” I asked. Michele didn’t answer, she just took a sip of champagne and gave me a look that said; in a heartbeat.

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