For Real, I Did That
You can guess, just by looking at me, that I can eat a breathtaking amount of food when I am unleashed on a Chinese buffet. You would be right. You can also guess that I have put together some pretty impressive lap times on every version of Mario Kart, played two entire seasons of middle school basketball with only one basket, and transposed and memorized the lyrics to the Ewok song at the end of Return of the Jedi. Those are easy observations. Sherlock, you are not.
But there are a few surprises hidden under this balding, white-dude exterior. For example, I skydived one time. Really. Here's a video. And an article I wrote about the experience for Volume One. So there.
Photo by Nick Meyer
Several weeks ago, I, like any responsible, recently employed homeowner, applied for life insurance. I sat in my agent’s office, filled out the paper work, and I thought I was doing pretty well. With no medications or family history of heart disease, I thought I was on track for some strikingly low premiums. Then, buried between questions about tobacco use and prior surgeries, I found the question that ruined the healthy, sane, and wildly insurable image I was trying to construct. “Have you ever, or do you plan to ever, hang-glide, para-sail, rock climb, scuba dive, skydive, or hot air balloon?” I looked at my agent and said, “You bet.” The gravity of my upcoming skydive sank in for the first time. He just shook his head, probably because that meant we needed to fill out more paperwork.
I could not sleep the night before my skydive. I was not necessarily scared. I just could not picture what it would be like. My only experiences with 10,000 feet had been in the sterile stomachs of commercial airplanes. I could not anticipate how it would feel to fall out of an airplane and, five minutes later, gently hit the ground. I was reassured by the conversations I had with people who had previously plummeted to the ground. Ken Szymanski, a fellow Volume One contributor, had learned to skydive for a bachelor party and had completed a solo jump. Megan Zabel, another Volume One regular, had jumped in New Zealand, and she had given me her videotape of the flight. Even with these successful experiences in my mind, all I could think of was a conversation my brother and I had with a mutual friend who had completed a jump. He said that everyone has a different moment where the reality of what you are doing sets in and the rush of fear or adrenaline or shock hits. I could not picture what my moment would be like.
On a brilliant Saturday evening in August, my brother Joel and I, flanked by V1 editor Nick Meyer, my wife, and a few supportive friends, drove to the Indianhead Sport Parachute Club located on Lake Wissota. The entire outfit, including the planes, fields, and buildings, is owned by Robert Stumm, a successful businessman and serious skydiving enthusiast. I had spoken with Mr. Stumm on several occasions prior to our jump day. I knew he and several members of the club were award-winning skydivers with impressive lists of qualifications and certifications. I knew he alone jumps over 700 times a year, and I knew the fourteen person staff of ISPC has completed a combined total of over 53,000 jumps. I did the math. That equals 600 million feet, which is about halfway to the moon. I knew these people were insanely qualified and experienced professionals. But the culture of ISPC, was, like my moment, something else I could not have anticpated.
The clubhouse is a big room filled with TVs, old couches and recliners, and a constant parade of people packing parachutes and gearing up for jumps. Based on the seriousness of the activity, I had expected a no-nonsense facility and solemn, serious people. Instead, we were greeted with Miller High Life signs, a rambunctious black lab puppy, and people hanging out and eating bratwurst. After checking in, Mary, one of ISPC’s more experienced skydivers, found waiver forms for us under some bags of chips on the counter. She took us to the back room and showed us a video that discussed the risks associated with skydiving. The narrator of the video was a middle-aged gentleman with a beard at least down to the middle of his chest who quoted skydiving statistic from 1988. I looked at my brother, and I could tell we were thinking the same thing. What kind of place is this?
After we watched a dozen or so skydivers land, and talked with the members of the club and several first-time jumpers, we realized that it was the perfect atmosphere for skydiving. These people are not jumping out of planes with novices because it is their job. They are doing it because they genuinely enjoy it. Personally, I would much rather plummet to the earth attached to someone who was having fun instead of someone who was only there to pay the cable bill.
My brother and I would be completing a tandem jump, which is the easiest of the jumps offered by ISPC. We would be strapped to a professional by a harness. This person worries about getting out of the plane, positioning during free-fall, steering, and landing. The training for the tandem jump only takes about an hour, and most of this training consists of your instructor highlighting all of the safety features of the parachute and harness. ISPC also offers static line training, which takes considerably longer, but ultimately prepares you to jump by yourself. If you are especially taken by skydiving, ISPC will also teach you how to pack your chute, earn certification, and become a professional skydiver.
Joel and I met the person we would each be attached to as we fell – Margaret. Margaret was awesome. She was relaxed yet professional as she explained how we should lean when we exited the plane and where our feet should be when we were free-falling. She was wearing Teva sandals, which was weirdly refreshing. Skydiving can not be that horrible if you can do it wearing sandals. We also met the rest of the colorful cast of ISPC, including Ronnie, a tall guy with a stupefying amount of energy, Jamie, a female who looked younger that I am, and the president of the club and the photographer, Todd, among numerous others. Ronnie gave perhaps the best description of skydivers. “We are a different group, a unique breed. But if it’s your first time at a new drop zone, you are automatically part of the group.”
Joel's jump; photo by Nick Meyer
As the sun began setting, it was time to jump. Joel went first. We all stood in the field and craned our necks to watch him float in. He landed, speechless with disheveled hair. It was my turn. I climbed into the plane with Margaret and Todd. We flew for about twenty minutes. I was Margaret’s tenth tandem jump of the day, and I asked her if it ever got old. “It can get a little tiring, but I love it. Everyone reacts so differently, and it’s fun to watch.” As we neared 10,000 feet, she strapped us together. Then the door opened, and I discovered what my moment was. As I stared out the side of the plane, the jolt of fear and adrenaline and shock hit me. Margaret’s confidence kept me from hesitating as we stepped onto the little platform, paused, and fell.
When asked why someone would want to skydive, Bob Stumm said, “You will never have a boring weekend again.” As Margaret and I floated to the ground, I understood what he meant. The rush was indescribable. I do not think it has fully sunk in, even days after the jump. I was nervous, but Ronnie was exactly right. “Everyone comes in nervous, but everyone leaves saying, ‘We’ll be back."
As Joel and I watched skydivers come in before our jump, he made an interesting observation. "We use all this technology to overcome nature and go higher than we were ever meant to go, and then let nature take over again." There are dozens of reasons to skydive, from overcoming fears to unparalleled adrenaline to a metaphorical return to earth. Find your reason, grit your teeth, and jump out of the plan.