"Whatever you do, do not grab my hands." He was all of about 5 feet 6 inches tall, and maybe 140lbs soaking wet, but the glint in his eye told me he wasn't fucking around. I smiled, playing off the idea that I would ever do such a thing, all the while imagining the danger that I'd be able to put us both in should I choose to ignore his warning. "I won't", was about the only thing I could think to say.
Just then, a young woman rushed in from the airfield positively glowing. "How'd it go?", I asked her. No response, unless you count the ear-to-ear grin and flush cheeks. Good enough answer for me- I was ready ready to go.
They piled us into the plane like so many sheep- or were we lemmings, about to follow on another off the proverbial cliff? Either way, the plane lurched, then started down the runway before gliding off the ground and past the point of no return. Next stop: 13,000 ft.
"When we jump, I'm gonna need you to bend your legs backward and keep your head up." OK, so I had a confirmation- I was indeed about to jump out of the plane. "Then just wait for me to tap your shoulder.." Right, I'll remember that- I thought. Just tap my legs on my shoulders, and keep my head bent backward. Got it. "... then you can put your hands out." Hands in- got it.
"So I grab your hands when you tap my shoulder," I asked him wryly, a rather poor time for 3rd grade humor. He didn't respond, but I'm sure that I felt him loosen one of the clips that attached me to my parachute. That's right- I remembered- this guy isn't fucking around.
We waddled in a baseball catcher's position, my instructor strapped to my back, down the entire length of the plane to the open door. Bodies were falling out of the plane, one after another. Human rain. I was next. "OK, Three!...." You know, 13,000 ft. doesn't really look so far down. There's nothing relative to compare the distance, so it's actually more surreal than scary. "Two!...." I'm keeping incredibly balanced on this here ledge, with 140lbs strapped to my back. I can't tell you how many times I have imagined standing near the ledge of a precipitous drop only to teeter over the edge, loose my balance and... "One!....." Oh shit, we're jumping. "Go!"
As we rolled forward out of the plane, my first tangible memory sequence was my view back up at the plane. We had floated into a somersault roll, and paused just long enough on our backside to catch a glimpse of the plane gliding away. For a split second the world was absolutely quiet, the reflection of the sun off the plane windows was brilliant, and my body was weightless. Then we hit terminal velocity.
We faced down to be greeted by winds screaming at over 100mph right into our faces. We were falling fast. Really, really fast. Reality set in and I noticed that I was hurtling towards earth at the pace of gravity- I had willingly thrown my body to the whims of physics, just to see if all those laws were really true.
A tap on my shoulder- time to spread my arms and make like a bird. Got comfortable in those first 15 seconds or so- now I am whooping and hollering, though unable to hear my own voice. Cue instructor's improvisational portion of the program, titled "Spin the Beginner out of Control". "ALLLRRRIIIGGTTT! THIIISSS IISSSS AAAWWWEEESSOOMMM....." OK, 4-5 spins would have been good, but 30 was more nauseating than anything else. Glad he stopped when he did. We're at about 8000ft now, 30 seconds into the free fall, 30 more seconds to go.
The thing about the next couple seconds of the free fall was that it really wasn't as exhilirating as the first 30. I was no pro by then, but I certainly had grown accustomed to my weightless environment. That comfort lasted until 45 seconds in when the ground sped-up its approach- housing developments were turning into street blocks, and street blocks into houses. We gonna pull this 'chute soon?
Two miles, 60 seconds, and nearly 10,000 feet into the jump I felt the jerk of the parachute pulling me back up into the sky. I was swinging there, 3000 feet above the ground, not unlike the feeling of swinging away a sunny afternoon on the porch. We were a feather floating gently to the ground with views of the entire Central Valley, our senses heightened from the adrenaline of the previous 10,000ft.
It took us nearly 5 more minutes to touchdown. On the way I learned about which communications towers my instructor had base jumped from (1600ft, over there on the left), how many jumps he had made that day (9), and if anyone had ever grabbed his hands (no). The landing itself was another rush as we took the wind out of our chute at about 300 feet and plummeted to just 30 feet before yanking back on the reigns to slide in safely on the grassy landing drop zone.
I ran back to the hangar to greet my friends who had jumped just before me. On the way, I passed a middle-aged woman with fear and anxiety etched into the barely visible age lines beneath her eyes. She was strapped in her harness- slotted for the next flight up. With an expectant look, she called after me "How was it?". I smiled, with flush red cheeks, admittedly glowing, and ran right past her. It would only take 60 seconds for her to find out for herself.