Thursday, February 28, 2013

Banana In The Sky

A few months ago, a friend suggested that we should go sky diving together. At the time, I had responded with a resounding: “No way!” adding, “I like to think I’m a little kinder to myself than that. There is just no good reason to subject myself to the inevitable terror of jumping out of an airplane… except maybe if the airplane is about to crash.” I don’t actually recall ever coming up with a GOOD reason for it, and the plane I’d been sitting in for the last twenty minutes did not seem to be in any imminent danger of going down, yet there I found myself last Sunday, wind blasting in my face as I peered down from the open hatch of an airplane at the beautiful fields of California’s central Valley 13,000 feet below me, poised to jump.

An hour earlier when my friend and I pulled up to The Parachute Center, an old tin hangar in front of a small air strip a couple of miles off of highway 5 near Lodi, CA, I felt a single flutter in my stomach before an unexpected calm settled over me. “Do you think I should bring my jacket?” my friend asked me casually as we got out of his car. “I’m pretty sure they’ll give us a jump suit or something to wear” I told him. Then, after surveying my surroundings, I added, “but it couldn’t hurt to bring it just in case I’m wrong.”

We made our way past the beat up living room furniture that was strewn about under an awning on the back side of the building, wove our way around the half dozen or so scruffy dogs roaming around and strode up to a dusty old counter set in the corner of the vast open room that served as the base of operations for the sky diving facility. “We’d like sky dive” my companion announced to a kindly gray haired man who stood behind the counter.

 “Ok, which video and photo package would you like?” the man asked, casually handing us a paper with a list of the options we could choose from if we wanted to hire a videographer to jump along with us. Despite my having told my friend several times that I did not wish to be videoed or photographed that day (due to the unctuous cold sore that had decided to erupt from my face a couple days earlier), he told the man that we BOTH wanted the video package, handing over his credit card before I could protest.  The gentleman behind the counter ran my friend’s card then handed us each a release of liability waiver and a “boarding pass”: a neon pink post-it note with a number and a letter scribbled on it.

“You can get a clipboard and pen by that TV over there, so you can sign off on the waiver while you watch the safety video and wait for your diving instructor to call your boarding number”, the man behind the counter explained before turning his attention to the group who’d assembled behind us.

I couldn’t help but laugh to myself as I grabbed a clipboard and plunked down in a dingy red movie theatre seat in front of the TV that sat near the left wall of the room. I’m not sure exactly what I had expected signing up for sky diving to be like, but the exchange that had just transpired was startlingly casual considering what it actually was we were about to do. There were no questions about existing health conditions. No warnings about possible injuries or death. We just placed an order for two tickets to jump out of a plane with a side of two videographers as if we were picking up fast food, they took my friends money and shuffled us off so they could take the next order. No big deal.

I barely skimmed through the waiver and only half paid attention to the video about how not liable this sky diving company would be if I died as I blindly initialed my form. About the time the video was starting to get informative, talking about the actual protocol for jumping, I heard my boarding pass number being called.  Even as I rose from my seat and strode through the doorway to meet my “sky diving instructor”, to whom I would soon be strapped ass-to-crotch while plummeting through the sky, I felt calm. I seem to have developed the ability, in the last few months, to go emotionally numb when I find myself in situations that are extremely stressful, so rather than being excited or terrified, I just accepted the situation with objective curiosity.  

My instructor was a tall stout thirtyish looking guy with unkempt brown hair, a face full of stubble and a wild look in his eyes.  He introduced himself, and I believe he said his name was Mike, but as I beheld this crazy looking guy, in whose hands I was entrusting my life, I still didn’t FEEL nervous, but I couldn’t help but WONDER to myself at that point, if I wasn’t doing something really stupid. I was so caught up in that thought that five minutes after we’d made each others acquaintance, I couldn’t remember if his name was actually Mike or if I just thought he looked like it should be. He, on the other hand, latched onto my name and had addressed me by it several times by the time I figured out that I wasn’t sure what the hell he’d told me to call him, so to save myself from potential awkwardness of asking him to repeat it, I decided not address him by name for the rest of our time together.

Might or might not be Mike, told me I’d want to zip up my jacket all the way and empty my pockets (apparently I would not be provided with a jump suit after all). He then took me over to a harness and told me where to put each of my feet as he pulled the straps around me, all the while joking about how poorly he’d done on the harnessing lesson in his parachute instructor training school. “Yeah, I got a D in this part of the course” he explained, nudging one of the straps off my shoulder and exclaiming “oops! That’s not very tight is it?” before gingerly setting the strap back on my shoulder without tightening it and then moving on to cinching up the nylon straps near my crotch.

 While might or might not be Mike was working on that, my videographer came running into the room stopping right in front of me. He enthusiastically introduced himself as Tommy before inquiring: “Hey what’s your name and what are you doing here today?” I fired back as energetically as I could muster: “I’m Jillian and I’m here to sky dive!”
“Really, why would you want to do a thing like that?” Tommy jibbed.
I laughed and fessed up: “my friend goaded me into it.”
“What friend? Are they here?” he asked
“yup, that Indian guy over there” I said, indicating my sky diving companion who was being harnessed up a few feet away.
Tommy raced over to my friend and then disappeared to get some footage of the plane.

Might or might not be Mike seemed to be done with my harness at that point, and though I had figured he’d been joking about the shoulder straps, he still hadn’t tightened them yet, so I decided I’d rather come off as obnoxiously lacking in faith in him than have my shoulder harness obnoxiously come off of me and leave me to plummet to my death. “You know, you never tightened that shoulder strap, don’t you need to do that?”  I reminded him. Another instructor appeared at that moment and mockingly chastised might or might not be Mike for using one of the old retired harnesses again. My instructor shrugged and replied: “shucks. I’m always doing that. Oh well!” The two instructors had a hearty laugh, to which I added my own nervous laughter, while silently wishing they’d at least toss me a tiny bit of UNsarcastic reassurance.
“Come on, let’s talk about what I need you to do when we jump” my instructor said leading me over to a small poster, taped to the outside of a metal cabinet which depicted a banana above a picture of a person who was apparently assuming the shape of a banana. “Ok so when we jump out of the plane and we’re free falling,  you should bend your legs back and make your body look like a banana so that you don’t interfere with my steering or opening the chute or anything” my instructor explained as he cocked his head towards the banana/ person poster. Then he added: “Oh and Tommy, is going to jump right before us to video you, so after we’ve cleared the plane you can wave at the camera or blow kisses or do swimming arms or whatever. It’ll make the video better.”

“Ok. I can handle that” I said as I glanced at the picture of the banana shaped person, politely, waiting for might or might not be Mike to live up to his title and offer me some more INSTRUCTION as to what else I needed to do to make this parachute jump go down safely. However, as he stood next to me, idly looking around at all the other folks in the room, it became pretty clear that this was the extent of tutelage I was going to receive that day.

I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised that my lesson on sky diving had been so simple and concise, after all, jumping out of a plane is a completely ridiculous thing to do in the first place, so it stands to reason that the instructions could be reduced to the simple maxim: one should be a banana shaped person when one jumps out of an airplane, but one should also be vivacious and entertaining if one has purchased a video package. Simple. Easy to remember. Even if you panicked, you just needed to visualize the bright yellow banana picture from the poster and look at the videographer prompting you to mimic his own lively gestures and you’d know all that you needed to.

I looked over and saw the friend I’d come with holding a pair of goggles, so I asked my instructor if I should have a pair of those as well. “Oh yeah” he said. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to be funny or if he’d actually forgotten the minor detail of protecting my eyes (and more importantly my glasses) from the wind that would soon by blasting me in the face.  I didn’t have too much time to worry about it though because as might or might not be Mike was adjusting the straps of my goggles, a man stuck his head through the door leading to the airstrip and announced, “The Plane’s almost ready!”

“Nervous?” Might or might not Mike asked, as he grabbed me by the front of the harness to hurry me outside. “Nope” I said blandly as I matched his pace and headed out into the late afternoon sunshine.

A plane taxied towards us on the small runway of the airfield behind the hangar building. A man ran out to the plane with a small staircase which he set down next to the aircraft. My instructor once again took me by the harness and began striding towards the plane. Warning as we approached:  “watch your head because the metal bar at the top of the door isn’t actually as cushy and fun to head butt as it looks”. I crouched as we bounded up the stairs and stepped onto the plane. We were the first ones aboard. Two long benches that ran parallel to each other stretched from the hatch where we’d entered to the back wall of the aircraft.

Might or might not be Mike sat against the wall of the plane straddling both the bench and me. Tommy, my videographer sat in front of me. In the close quarters of the airplane, I noticed for the first time that my videographer was quite a nice looking kid. The pickup line enthusiast in me thought for a split second that I should mention to him later how much I’d enjoyed going for a ride with him between my legs, but Tommy was technically working and it was the middle of the afternoon at an airstrip, not the middle of the night in a bar, so I decided that it wasn’t a suitable time or place for such a line.

As the other sky divers, instructors and videographers began to file into the plane, I got a happy cozy feeling. I liked being nestled so close to my sky diving companions. (I guess I’d been craving the comfort of human closeness more than I realized). As everyone was settling into the plane, my instructor clipped his harness onto mine. “We were going to be on the plane for about 20 minutes before we get to our desired altitude” He explained, adding: “I’ll start tightening up your harness in about 15 minutes and go over what I need you to do.”

My friend and his instructor were the last ones on the plane and within seconds of taking their seats, the plane lurched forward. It wasn’t like being on a commercial flight where you taxi the runway and wait until it’s your turn to go. There was no ceremony or propriety like that. The second the hatch was closed we were off. No one checked seat belts (there were none). No one talked about safety (we were jumping out of a plane, so clearly we were not the kind of folks who worried about that). We were going sky diving, we were obviously thrill seekers who craved speed, so I’m sure they felt they needn’t bother with mundane trivialities like a safety lecture… Or maybe that was what the video I hadn’t really watched was about.
After a minute or so we were soaring up above the farms that surrounded the airfield. Tommy did an impromptu interview with me as we coursed up to our desired altitude. “Everything’s starting to look pretty small down there, are you sure this is a good idea?” He asked. “Yup” I said… and then immediately wished I’d said something cleverer like I actually NEVER thought this was a good idea. But, maybe it’s  better that I was immortalized in my video as being the type of person to give of a single word of enthusiastic excitement as opposed to a sentence of dour wit.

As I looked out the window at the fields and houses below, I was startled to feel might or might not be Mike ratcheting my harness behind me.  The 15 minutes had passed much quicker than I’d realized. “Tight enough?” He asked when he was finished. I wriggled around testing the harness before declaring “It could be tighter”. He cranked it a bit tighter and asked again. I told him again to tighten it a bit more. I still wasn’t over the loose harness jokes he’d been cracking down in the hangar, so I wanted to be damn sure nothing was going to slide off my shoulder now.

By the time I felt sufficiently strapped in, I looked up and saw that my friend and his instructor were standing in front of the (now open) hatch door. A moment later, they sprung forward and I watched them fall out of view.  My instructor rose, pulling me up with him and we slowly followed the other jumpers down the aisle as they made their way one by one out of the plane’s hatch and back down towards the airfield we’d taken off from twenty minutes earlier.  

When it was my turn to stand in front of the hatch, the only thing I had a chance to think was:“golly we’re high up” and “gee it’s windy out there” before might or might not be Mike plunged out of the plane, taking me along with him. As I hurtled towards the earth, my life in the hands of a man who less than an hour earlier had told me jokingly (I’d hoped) that he’d gotten a “D” in the part of the course where they teach you how to harness in your sky diving “pupils”, all of the fear and panic that I hadn’t been feeling up until that point suddenly struck me square in the gut.

The sky diving mantra was forgotten. The rapidly approaching world below me was all I was thinking about as I flailed about in a most un-banana like fashion. When I felt my instructor wrap his legs around mine to still me, it jarred the sense back into me and I suddenly remembered that I was not going to die and I was supposed to do something cool for my video. I tried to waive at Tommy, who was energetically blowing kissy faces at me, but it was very hard to move with the wind rushing around me. Then I tried to “swim”, but again, that was something easier said than done. Even breathing was difficult with the force of the air in my face.

It was cold and loud during the free fall. After a couple seconds, I was no longer “breathing” but was hopelessly gulping air down like water.  As I got increasingly concerned about the amount of air I was not swallowing, I started to slip back to panic mode. Then suddenly, it was quite. I could breathe. The chute had opened. My feet were below me.  My jacket inflated with a poof, like Alice’s dress in the cartoon version of Alice in Wonderland (when she’s falling down the rabbit hole) and I immediately started giggling. I was so overcome with relief and tickled by the ridiculousness of the situation. I was just  dangling thousands of feet above the world strapped to might or might not be Mike’s chest.  The whole thing was absurd. I loved it!

I was suddenly an inquisitive preschooler. “Were those people on our plane too?” I asked, pointing to some parachutes way off in the distance. When might or might not be Mike confirmed that they were, I wanted to know how they got all the way over there. “same way we got here” he said. I looked down and asked, “Is that our plane” indicating an aircraft zooming away below our feet. “Yeah, good eye.” My instructor praised me before changing the subject, “do you want to steer the parachute?” he asked?

Hell yeah I did. He told me to grab the chord looped around his right hand and pull down. I did and we spun in a tight circle. I giggled. Then he had me pull the left side, spiraling us in the other direction. I was giddy. It was pure delight to spin around thousands of miles above the earth, wind in my face and feet dangling below me. I still could not get over it… we were just there… just hanging around in the middle of the sky, playing with our parachute.  

I was disappointed when my instructor said: “We’re going to be landing in less than a minute, so when we get close to the ground, just lift your legs up and we’ll land on our butts.” I wasn’t ready to come back down to earth, so there was a hint of reluctance in my voice as I replied: “Ok, I can do that”. A few seconds later, I kicked my legs up and we skidded to a stop in the grass behind the airplane hangar. I lay there grinning, as Tommy ran over with the camera and asked “What was your favorite part?” I’d forgotten about him so I was taken off guard. “The part after the freefall I said” after thinking for a moment. “Really?” he said with genuine surprise, offering me his hand and pulling me to my feet. Three months ago, I never would have thought I’d be disappointed to be back on the ground after having just jumped out of an airplane, but there I stood last Sunday afternoon, looking up at the heavens longingly, already dreaming of my next chance to be a banana in the sky.

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