Monday, December 19, 2016

Flashback: Fear and Adventure: A Skydiving Story

Sabine NWR - Wetland Walk, Louisiana. June 2015.

I originally wrote this post in May 2015: Fear and Adventure: A Skydive Story

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Fear and Adventure: A Skydive Story

Starting with an Important Birthday Milestone years ago, I decided to create an adventure for each of my future birthdays. The criterion for choosing the adventure was that it had to challenge me emotionally, mentally or physically.

One year, I was pondering on what my birthday adventure should be. In this particular year, three choices came to mind, all of them very challenging. One was to go out dancing. Another was to participate in a gestalt therapy exercise, which entailed the exploration and release of great emotion, culminating perhaps in that proverbial primal scream of pent-up feelings. The third option was to jump out of a plane at 10,000 feet. After considering these options over a number of weeks, I decided that of all three choices, jumping out of a plane was the least frightening.

I didn’t really want to do this by myself, so I invited family members and friends to join me. Many said, yeah, that sounds cool! Maybe I'll do it! As the time for the jump loomed closer, however, those who’d expressed interest dropped out, until at the end, no one intended to go with me - not even to watch.

One of the things I've learned about life is that if I really want to do something, I’ve got to be willing to do it alone. Otherwise, I may never get to do it.

Truman Building parking lot. Jefferson City, Missouri. Decembe 2006.

I decided to do a tandem jump, where I’d jump while connected to an experienced skydiver.

I drove alone to the airport and upon my arrival, started a series of bathroom trips every five minutes. I also watched a short video that provided a bare-bones review of what it would be like to jump and that I’d need to pull up my knees upon landing so the instructor with whom I’d be connected by a strap could hit the ground first, as he’d be immediately behind me. The video also noted how dangerous the sport was, that I could die or become paralyzed or suffer any myriad number of other bad things. After watching the video, it was time for me to read and sign the consent form,which again told me in HUGE PRINT that I could die or suffer serious injury and I waived all liability from the jump school, the airport, the instructor, the airplane, the fuel supplier, the road construction crew, and the guy who mowed the lawn. If I were going to die through this exercise, it was going to be by my own free will. I signed the papers.

The next step was a five-minute “training” in which someone had a small group of us show him that we could jump off a picnic table bench while bending our knees and holding on to them. I passed this with flying colors.

The next step was to get into a jump suit. Now, at this point I was feeling no fear. Some nervousness, certainly, as evidenced by my frequent bathroom trips. But I was feeling no fear because my brain had checked out. It was waiting in the parking lot in my car, refusing to have anything to do with this ridiculous enterprise.

So anyway, it was now time for the jumpsuit. Let me tell you about this suit. It was bright pink and it was Spandex. You know how Spandex is, right? It fits you like a second skin. It shows everything. It reveals every flaw. I was not a svelte woman.

I put the suit on. I was so relieved that it fit! I was feeling OK. I walked around a bit, getting the feel of it.

I walked in front of a full-length mirror.

I gasped. The sight of myself in this Spandex suit was so preposterously preposterous I had no other words to describe it. I JUMPED out of the view of the mirror.

From then on, I stayed out of range of any mirrors, and convinced myself that if I could not see myself then no one else could either, like a toddler who believes that she's invisible when she covers her head with a cloth.

The next step was to get me into a harness. This was a leather contraption with wide straps that went between my legs and around my thighs, with a brace up my back, and then straps that went around my shoulders and upper arms. It was pulled VERY tight. The result was that it affected my ability to walk with my legs together or lift my legs, and my back was pulled so straight with the brace, I could hardly bend over. Therefore, that entire five-minute exercise of jumping off the picnic bench in a tuck was utterly pointless. I could barely walk.

Ah, but too late. It was time to board the plane. I walked to the plane just like one of those science-fiction robots from cheesy sci-fi movies in the 1950s.

And then I saw I’d have to climb two or three steps to get into the plane. Oh my God. Carefully and awkwardly I somehow managed to do this. The next challenge was to bend over as I moved to the front end of the plane because the ceiling, of course, was low. The plane was outfitted with two benches along each side of the plane, and everyone straddled a bench, one person tucked in front of the other, like a roll of Lifesavers. My instructor went in before me, straddled the bench, and I straddled the bench in front of him. It was REALLY hard to be bent into a sitting position with the harness on. I was like a stuffed animal with legs that are permanently outstretched, and when you try to sit it on its butt, it keeps tipping over onto its back. My body kept wanting to fall backward, into the instructor, and I grasped for something to hold to keep my balance. I found the tiniest ridge above the window to clutch, but the instructor yelped a little bit and said not to hold onto that, as it could pop the window out.

Somehow I negotiated an uneasy balance until it was time for me and the instructor to get up in preparation for the jump. We would be the last ones to go. As I walked toward the plane door, I concentrated on bending over sufficiently so the instructor - much taller than I – could use some of the space over my head to bend over himself so he wouldn’t hit his head on the ceiling. I focused completely on taking one robot step after another while trying to bend down.

I arrived at the open door and I could see down into the depths of sky and land so many feet below me, and I was suddenly appalled. Not because I was about to hurl myself from this tiny plane into the empty sky. (Remember, my brain had washed its hands of the whole affair.)

No, I was appalled because between the airplane floor and the open doorway was the tiniest little lip of a ridge. Maybe a half an inch tall. And I knew that somehow I would have to lift my foot that infinitesimal height, while bent over in this harness, and stand on the lip before I could jump. I didn’t know if I could do it.

Somehow I did and thus FELL out of the plane.

Baby bird, Jefferson City, Missouri. June 2007.

They don’t really tell you how to land until you’re in the air and falling. Therefore, as we plummeted to the earth, the instructor told me, “OK, now we’re going to practice how to land. What you’ll need to do is practice pulling your knees up and grasping them so my feet can hit the ground first.” Now remember, I had lost most of my flexibility due to the harness. So here was the instructor asking me not only to pull my knees up, but to bend over to grasp my knees – and to do this all the while I’m plunging to the earth.

But it seemed pretty important, so I tried it. I pulled my knees up, or thought I did, but there was barely any discernible movement. The instructor observed this, and said, “Well, we’ve still got plenty of time to practice this, so let’s try it again.”

I did, and again there was only the tiniest of movements. And the instructor said, “Well, we’ve got some time still, but that’s not quite going to do it. Let’s try another way. Why don’t you do this: Stretch your legs straight out in front of you and hold them up straight.”

So I tried it, and asked, “Is that enough?”

“Well, no, but let’s just try it again. Next time, hold your legs out straight and hold onto the seams of your jumpsuit to help keep them up. ” I tried it, and asked, “Is this enough?”

“Uh, no .......... but we’ll figure something out by the time we get to the ground. Just try to do the best you can.”

And I said, “OK!”

In the end, I basically landed on my stomach. It didn’t hurt. It worked out OK. As a matter of fact, I laughed. Relief. Embarrassment. The absurdity of it all.  Or all of the above, I don't know.

Here's what I do know: In order to jump out of that plane, I had to give up control and trust that it was going to be alright. If I was going to practice living my life to the fullest, I had to be willing to do something I wanted to do by myself, without waiting for someone to do it with me. I had to be willing to look really stupid. I had to risk embarrassment.

Something I'll always remember is that the instructor never treated me with anything other than the greatest respect and kindness. He was professional and calm at all times, and he played a big part in the positiveness of my experience.

It took weeks before I fully appreciated what I did – before my brain was willing to talk to me about it, so to speak. One night in bed, just as I was about to fall asleep, I relived my experience of falling out of the plane – no! - VOLUNTARILY jumping out of this plane 10,000 feet in the air – and it was only THEN that I felt fear. WHAT HAD I BEEN THINKING!?!?!?

Long-tailed bird, Gorgora, Ethiopia. January 2011.

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