“We don’t beat the Reaper by living longer. We beat the Reaper by living well.” -Randy Pausch (1960-2008), The Last Lecture at Carnegie Mellon
Welcome to “The Farm”
I turned the truck off and opened my door to the sound of my son screaming “It’s Meemaw, it’s meemaw!” Moments later Martha opened the door and was greeted by possibly her biggest fan in the world. My four year old son, Rabian. But the tension was high. Before the day was over, Rabian and everyone else in the world would look at Martha in a different way.
We left the vehicles and crossed a small field where a man was squatting in the grass. He was playing with a bouncing, brown puppy.
“Is that your dog?,” my friend Jeremy asked him.
“Yep.” He replied.
“How old is she?” Asked Jeremy.
“Just a few weeks old.” replied the man with tattoos all the way up his neck, piercings in his ears, and the steady look and quiet firm voice of a guy that had just woke up or just finished killing three people and stuffing them into a suitcase. That’s what I love about this place. Everybody is bizarre so nobody is really that strange.
Behind him the iconic hanger that is the nerve center for Skydive the Farm was slowly coming to life. Within minutes of our arrival several other jumpers would show up with that look of confused terror. The look that says, “I’m here…. but I’m probably not supposed to be.”
There were four in our gang and we spent several minutes signing waivers that seemed more detailed than closing on a property. There was an announcement over the PA, “1st Load is Martha, Jeremy, Jasen, and Bradley. This is the 15 minute call.” My next thought was surely the same one that many have when the marching orders come, where’s the toilet!? I can’t be the only one this happens to…
With disaster averted I found Martha and asked what had made her decide to do this today?
She said, ”Well, I’ve always wanted to go hang-gliding but since I’d have to run off a mountain to start the hang-glider, I’m not sure what would happen if I stopped running. Maybe I would trip the instructor and that would be more dangerous. “
“So, instead you decided to skydive?” I asked.
“Yep, pretty much. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity.”
Smiles all around.
The Ride to the Top
Thirty minutes later I was sitting behind my 57 year old mother-in-law on a narrow bench inside a turbine powered Cessna Caravan. The plane began a loud roar as we pulled out onto the narrow paved runway and began the short takeoff-roll. One of the old timers began to yell,” I hope this works!” “I hope this works!” A few people laughed, others glanced around checking facial expressions to see if it was a joke.
On the climb up I really took in just how lucky we were to be here together. Out of all the hundreds of friends I invited. These four were “the ones.” These were the ones I was looking for all along. There is a very specific character trait that someone needs in order to conquer themselves to this point. But, these four came despite the fear. They got up early and showed up for life today and I am on top of the world just being in their company.
“Seven Thousand,” someone yelled out loud. My instructor reminded me to adjust my glasses and I tightened the strap again. It was cold and I was shivering. I wondered if my instructor could feel it. I’m not very nervous this time I thought while staring out the window watching the sun start it’s arc across the clear morning sky. After thinking about it for a minute, I admitted to myself that it might not just be the cold air. It had been over two years since I had jumped. At any rate, this is where I wanted to be. If you don’t wake up once in a while scared and wondering how you got yourself into something, you’re doing it all wrong.
My instructor tightened my harness for the 15th time. I didn’t mind. There’s something reassuring about a tight harness. I could tell his mind was in the game. A series of knuckle bumps circulated around the plane. It didn’t matter if it was your first time or your 5,000th jump, everyone joined in the celebration of the moment. There is a very deep connection with people when you take that kind of risk together. It’s a very mortal connection. What I imagine our ancestors shared when they faced life and death every day. Everything external was unimportant. The situation demanded complete awareness and attention. It was electric.
Time to Fly
The pilot yelled, ”Door!” and one of the experienced guys got up and slid the door to the full open position. The crisp thin air rushes inside the plane and the wind roared. The plane began to vibrate just a little bit more. The door was the last physical barrier to the open sky. On my left, my friend Jasen was wearing his serious face. No doubt wondering how he got here. I get his attention and he cracks a smile. He is going to love this, I think to myself. This is awesome. I looked up at Jeremy and he was smiling so big people were having to move out of his way. I wasn’t sure if he was with us or still thinking about the puppy. It was clear that he was having a great time. Martha was talking to the video camera. (Watch the video below.) The pilot yelled something again and although I don’t remember what it was, I knew what it meant, it was time to skydive.
There’s one event that burns itself into your memory. Watching the first jumper move into the door and then….two things happen all at once:
1) The wind makes a very distinct pitch change when confronted by two human bodies getting out into the river of air keeping the plane in the sky.
2) The airplane jerks momentarily as if trying to understand how 450 pounds of cargo just vanished from inside.
For those who are seeing it for the first time or (even the 35th) it is what law enforcement would call “a clue” that you have signed up for something incredible. From the inside of the plane these two things come together to create a sobering state of emotion. It alternates rapidly from fear to excitement. It’s like when you’re a kid looking into your dark closet waiting for the blue-horned monster with red eyes. Not only does the monster show up, but you watch it eat your friend and then stare at you. I’ve heard some grown men make strange sounds when they first see someone leave through a hole in the side of the airplane. It’s the real deal.
One by one I watched my friends and then my mother-in-law get up and walk into their monster filled closet to deal with the beast. I was fueled by their courage. When everyone else had gone, Garret, my instructor, and I moved into the door. “Let’s go have some fun,” he said. I smiled, grabbed the handles on my harness and we dove out into the sky. Like always, the free-fall was sensory overload. We stabilized after a few seconds and I dipped a shoulder to make a small turn. I was tasked with opening our parachute so I watched the altitude like a hawk. At seven thousand feet I locked onto my altimeter with my eyes and at six thousand feet I reached back and pulled a small orange golf-ball handle that started our opening sequence.
Once our parachute was open, we made some turns, practiced a landing and then things got quiet. I looked down at my old, orange shoes. They were just hanging there. The tall pine trees, the miniature cars and our families on the ground were blurry in the background 2000 feet below. “This is the place,” I thought. “These are my people.”
On the drop zone I could see my wife wearing our daughter in her orange Boba wrap and my son shading his eyes with his hand trying desperately to see past the sun and find me. We were flying fast when we came in to land. I thought we were about to crash land but Garrett’ timed it just right and we made a soft landing in the grass. Our big, orange and blue parachute collapsed into the grass beside us. Whew. That was intense.
On the Dropzone
I stood and looked around the drop-zone. I saw Jasen and Jeremy standing and talking and gesturing excitedly. Still scanning I found Martha in the distance wearing her red jumpsuit. I couldn’t see her face but her whole body was smiling. I’ve always looked up to her for many reasons. She is the peacemaker, the one who doesn’t judge, the one who knows what you need before you do. She is, without a doubt, my son’s favorite toy. But last Saturday, she was Martha the Brave. Martha the Skydiver. She conquered a fear many never dream of. I watched my children’s grandmother and my great friend for nearly 20 years stand up and jump out of an airplane at 11,000 feet and we both left that drop-zone changed because of it.
I was humbled by the friends that traveled so far to be there this weekend. For the ones that didn’t make it, we missed you. For the one’s that did make it; it was a day that we won’t soon forget.
It was a day that we happened to the world.
Here’s the video!
This event was epic. I want more and I want you to be there. I need ideas on creative challenges that you have done with friends so we can organize our next event. Let me know what your thinking in the comments below! Thank you for dropping in. I appreciate you!
Happen to the World,