Watching Fight Club last Sunday, I was knocked down by the striking resemblance of extreme sports to the way the characters sought not worldly goods but the feeling of being alive. As humans, I don’t think we can deny our hunger for scaring or impressing ourselves with new and worthwhile things. One of my greatest fears and passions is the sky. It’s why I’m drawn to it, it scares me and it will likely consume me one day, but to live without it would be worse than death. In 1999, I had one of my earliest encounters with the thin medium that dominates many of my past and future goals. My one-day crash course in psychology and physics began at dawn 1 month after Fight Club debuted, in Sierra Vista, Arizona.
We were packed into Reeves’s car early in the morning and talking trash like 18 year-old soldiers always do. The sun rose on our right as we flew up the highway at over 90 miles per hour. I adjusted my feet again around the snack-cake wrappers and noticed a bottle of ripped-fuel in the floor. A by-product of the night-shift at the US Army Intelligence School. One jelly-bean shaped cloud moved imperceptibly across the sky. I was on top of the world. In one more hour we would climb aboard a small Cessna airplane and climb thousands of feet into the sky. Reaching 11’000 feet we would join the ranks of many who had thrown their cumbersome, uninitiated bodies into the blue sky. I was in for a serious ride.
I was already dating Pamela, my wife-to-be, and trying to devise a plan that would keep me out of Korea. You see Korea, for a junior enlisted man, was a one-year, unaccompanied (no family) tour and I wanted nothing more than to finish training, get married, and get our life underway. To help ensure an assignment in the U.S., I would need to volunteer for the airborne and hope to be based with the 82nd Airborne Division in North Carolina. A few of my best friends shared my thoughts on investigating this skydiving thing and the rest, well, most of them went to Korea.
The Allure of Jumping
We jumped that fateful day and it changed me. I didn’t wake up the next day and quit my job and move to the drop-zone like many do after their first jump. It actually took awhile for me to realize I had started something I would never get out of my system. The entire process of jumping separates you from life and all the rules it entails. There is a sense of reverence around a parachute, possibly relating to the fact that a new rig can cost well over $5,000 but more so because of the trust you must build with your equipment from the beginning. The device is designed to save your life, the end. Every buckle, string, piece of fabric, and grommet on the rig has been tested and works together to open a portal designed to give you a way back into the world of rules.
Every jumper I have ever met has been unique. I know a retired Colonel that drives around in an RV from drop-zone to drop-zone just to hang out and jump. My first instructor was a Russian Special Forces Commando with bullet holes to prove it. Engineering consultants, business majors, and crazy local teenagers all show up for the fun. No matter who you are with, when everyone is all geared up and climbing to altitude, the sense of camaraderie is worth the day. Skydiving has a way of purging humans of our predispositions. In the plane, we are all naked humans. (Sometimes literally) There can be quite a bit of raw fear in the air despite all the high fives. Jokes and smiles go back and forth on the climb and at least one person makes a picture with their tongue sticking out.
When the pilot levels off and starts the jump run, the door opens and the thin, cold air rushes inside the cabin. Facial expressions tell all. It’s time. Mouths are dry, heart-rates are climbing, secret handshakes are wrapped up. Everyone stands and begins to move to the rear of the plane. The senses are overloaded as you approach the door. You are in a perfectly stable little room and all is calm, you are looking out the giant open hole in the plane and that hole is your world. It’s all you are thinking of. I reach behind me to check the activation handle one last time as I watch those friends I just laughed with get swallowed by the sky. Fear is drowned out by actions now. Everyone in front of me had disappeared and it’s my turn in the door. Right hand, right foot… I am sure at this point that many have died without ever feeling this much mind-numbing adrenaline. Left hand, left foot…You grasp the sides of the plane and hold on tightly. It is your minds last chance to avoid risk but it’s too late...Knees outside into the wind. The decision has been made. Look forward, rock up, down.. Your body is in motion. ARCH! You leap out into the open sky. You die.
It is extraordinary. Unless your parachute opens, you are dead and the knowledge of facing that fear is transcending. The wind rushes around until you accelerate to terminal velocity. You did it. There is nothing else like it in the world. In those few seconds racing toward earth, you are not in this world. You are exempt from all the rules, you are exempt from authority, it’s your time. Time stolen back from the monotony of daily life and memories burned into your brain. You are alive.