Before I start this journey, let me say that I have always booked my airline seats in the exit aisle for the legroom. But NO ONE TELLS YOU what you will feel, standing on the ledge of a hole in an airplane and then jumping out of it. Well, now I do.
A few months ago, my wonderful and adrenalin-starved friend Hannah asked if I would skydive with her. She’d done it once, loved it, and found few (no) takers to accompany her for round two. Being the amazing friend and open-minded extrovert that I am, I responded with a well-thought-out, “lol, sure!”
That was a few months ago.
Right now, I am sitting in the lap of a skydiving instructor named Jon, who’s barely old enough to grow a beard, and wearing capris and pink, torn-up Chuck Taylors with the shoelaces questionably tied tight enough to survive a short trip, let alone the gusts of hurdling 120+ mph towards the earth.
“What the fuck is wrong with me?” I think.
The plane starts its ascent.
I shit myself.
Oh, it’s just the landing gear, never mind.
Jon gives me a thumbs-up as if, somehow, in all his years of training, it has ever improved this situation.
It’s a hopeless gesture, but hey, out of the two of us, at least half of us are calm.
Let me rewind by one hour to paint a picture of Jon before we jump back into this plane.
I walked into the hangar at West Tennessee Skydiving and was greeted by a blue carpet and lots of people in jumpsuits. “Ahhh, I get it. That’s why they’re called jumpsuits,” I thought to myself. God, I’m smart.
About seven men and women are packing parachutes into backpacks. One of them is packing a chute at a blistering pace; THE ONE THING that, while I’m not an expert, you probably shouldn’t rush.
This guy has torn-up pink shoes with permanent marker doodles on them. This guy had capris on.
This guy has “L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattooed across his knuckles.
He is currently body-slamming the shit out of his chute into a bag.
If Point Break were a person, this would be him. This, is Jon.
The grey-haired guy veteran next to him says, “You pack too fast, kid.”
“Well,” I say out loud inside my head, “Just dont get paired up with that guy, and you’ll be fine.”
Instructor assignments are called out.
I. Fucking. Get. Jon.
As Jon is helping me suit up, I remind myself that instructors have TONS of jump experience and training before they’re trusted to take another person through a tandem jump. Many of these people have HUNDREDS, if not THOUSANDS, of jumps under their belt.
::NERVES WAKE UP::
“You’ll be fine; this is nothing for them, Jeff. Follow directions, and you’ll have a burger, a boring drive back home, and work on Monday after you land. Just chill.”
Rather than a pamphlet in the style of a children’s book titled “My First Spiral Towards Death,” the group receives the lecture on how to survive the impending phenomenon. Tom, our Senior Instructor? (also younger than me.) states, “Right after leaving the plane, the instructor releases a small stability chute out; they’ll check for safety and tap you on the shoulders; now you’re good to put your hands out and enjoy the freefall and the rest of the ride!”
“Okay, that’s my safe mark,” I think. “Once I get that tap, the jump is safe.”
I turn and tell Jon, “Jon, I was told, If I get nervous, just to ask how many jumps you’ve done, and I’d feel better. But you know, I’m not going to do that. Instead, I planned on getting up in the air and saying, “I FORGOT TO TELL YOU!” right before we jumped as a prank.”
Jon laughs and reassures me with a saying I’m sure today’s young people understand.
“Time to load!” blares across the loudspeaker, and then we’re on the plane, getting into what I describe as our upright fetal positions on the floor.
The twin-engine plane BRRRRs to life, taxis to the runway, and takes off. I’m holding onto a tiny rope on the wall for dear life against the thrust of, as I was told, the world’s fastest jump plane as we ascend to 14,500ft at blistering speed.
Jon and I are in the back of the plane next to the plexiglass door/flap of plastic that’s separating us from a spiral to certain death. We’re the first to go. Jon shows me his altimeter is at 7,000 ft.
I look at the altimeter. I look at the ground getting smaller.
“OMG, this is happening.”
:: NERVES DECLARE WAR ON JEFF’S BRAIN::
I talk myself down.
“Hundreds of jumps, Jeff. Thousands of Jumps, Jeff. Just a walk in the park.”
“Put your goggles on!” Jon signals by tapping my goggles and then my temples.
The nerves come back up. “Thousands of jumps, Jeff. TENS of thousands of jumps, Jeff.”
I can’t take it.
I turn and yell back to Jon.
“JON, HOW MANY JUMPS HAVE YOU DONE?!”
Jon leans forward and, with audible joy and sincerity, yells, “THIRTY-THREE!!”
“WHAT THE FUCK, JON!?”
“OH! THIRTY-THREE TANDEMS, I’VE DONE FIVE HUNDRED.”
Jon, if you ever read this, know that any shame I had prior to that moment for shitting my pants while strapped to you was no longer in my emotional vocabulary.
“AM I STRAPPED INTO YOU?!” I yell to Jon.
Jon tugs on all the points where we become one via a harness to reassure me.
It does not help.
Without a warning plane goes nose-up and cuts the throttle. We all become weightless like astronauts. I’m told to stand, and I’d like to say my legs extended just like my brain asked, but Jon hoisted me up like the 185lb baby that I am.
It’s at this time I realize that the tightened straps connecting Jon, and I don’t feel nearly as tight anymore. They feel ALARMINGLY LESS TIGHT.
As Jon is walking me to the open jump door, I yell back. “HUMMPHADAH HMMMAH DDADDAA!!!?” Which, in my head, meant, “Hey, Jon, these straps seem to have become just a tad loose, my friend. Would you mind checking those, good buddy?”
Whatever gestures I made while attempting to make this statement probably looked like the typical anxiety attack these guys must see every day.
Jon, without any trouble, interpreted this as “Hey Jon, ole’ chap. I’ve become so claustrophobic in this plane and wish to end this feeling so much that I would do literally anything but remain in it any longer, even if it meant jumping out without being asked if I still want to do this.”
Jon, I, and our stellar communication skills are now leaning at the edge of the hole in the fuselage that was once a door.
Then, a hand comes out in front of me.
It’s Jon. Counting all the way to one, then hurdling himself and me toward the planet in complete free fall.
You know that “stomach going to your butt feeling” you get when you go down the first hill on a roller coaster? It’s kinda like that. But while spinning and with no seatbelt, or car, or track, or planet.
It’s more subtle, though. After a couple of seconds, we’re at max speed.
“Where is my tap?”
I should get the safe signal via shoulder tap by now.
A few more seconds go by…
Our camera guy flies in from the left at a million mph and turns to give me two thumbs up.
“What is it with you guys and thinking your appendages will make me smile?”
He wants me to do something for the camera. My mind responds with, “WHERE THE FUK IS MY TAP?”
The first response I can muster is to show both middle fingers to the cameraman.
After that, Jon spins us. I want to barf, but am too scared.
We do some Circe De Soleil Stuff, and it hits me.
I’m not panicking, just completely unsure of what will happen in the next moment. No scrolling, no commercial break, or Excel sheet to send in an email, and no rest stop somewhere between Memphis and Little Rock.
I’m completely and utterly present, somewhere between 6000 and 7000ft in the sky.
There may really be no tomorrow, and there may be no five minutes from now. I’m just here. I’m just now.
Jon opens the chute, and we slow down HARD.
The fall becomes a float.
The only sound is the chute flapping quietly above us.
In the calmest voice, Jon says, “Peaceful, huh?”
It’s complete peace.
I take a minute to soak it all in and put it into words.
I can’t. There’s too much serenity, too big a vastness, and feeling unbelievably small to put into words to type here.
“Just think, we’re IN the clouds,” Jon says.
The clouds aren’t big like when you see them from a plane window. They’re more. They’re gargantuan. I’ve never seen them up close without a a man-made barrier separating us.
Among the clouds, I’m the smallest I’ve ever been.
“And all our friends are up here with us.” Jon says.
I look up and see the others, including Hannah’s chute circling above us silently. I’m not alone in feeling this bliss. We’re all so tiny, but together.
I. Am. Unable to stop smiling.
I feel the wind brush the face hair I missed with my trimmer that morning. There’s no distraction, no sensation that doesn’t belong. Just wind, the cold of the the breeze spaced with the Sun’s heat, just the popping of my ears on the way down.
I wonder if this is what monks spend a lifetime trying to accomplish.
“Hey, want to do a spiral?!” Jon asks.
“Yeah man, Fuck me up!” I yell back.
The first spiral is way cool.
The second spiral is WAY NOT COOL, but Jon pulls us up, and we float for the second time.
Is when I find words for whats happening.
I saw the plane below us prepping to land. Power lines running for endless miles. Cars on far-off roads. And the horizon that went nowhere.
“All of the problems I’ve been defining my life by are down there, on that rock.”
“But I’m not.”
I’m just Jeff in the clouds.
…With the crotch of a guy named Jon strapped to my back. No story is without its physical realities.
At 60 mph, we approach the field next to the airstrip.
I tuck my knees and kick straight out.
Jon and I slid to a stop in our “upright fetal positions” just as we left.
But between the both of us, at least half of us aren’t the same.
I bought another ticket. I’ll be going again this summer if you want to see what this feels like. I can tell you, but the words are just words. Holler.