I believe I can fly...
April 16, 2006 - 00:48.
Ixtapa, Mexico. Monday, April 3. Carlos & Charlie’s (one in a chain of tourist bars). I am there to get suited up for my first jump from a perfectly good airplane at 13,000 feet.
I sign a 10-page form on which I state my understanding of the dangers: airsickness, unconsciousness, bodily injury, mutilation, death. I check each box “si” (yes, I get it…they will no longer sell me life insurance).
I meet Wade, a sturdy native of Brisbane, Australia, who will jump tandem with me, and his girlfriend Helen, who is of Mexican/Middle Eastern heritage, and who takes my money: $225 for the jump and an additional $115 for an edited video and photos.
Wade has me step into the harness, which is cinched tight and feels like a diaper. I walk with my legs slightly apart, so it won’t chafe my inner thighs. I should have worn longer shorts. “When we exit the plane,” he says, “you’re going to arc your body. Tilt back your head and bring your legs up to the shape of a banana.” We rehearse.
Twenty-three-year-old videographer Kenny has logged more than 2,000 jumps. “I’ll be jumping with you,” he says. “Stay facing me and not the ground, or all you will see in the video is a nice picture of the top of your head.” We board the bus for the regular airport; there, we are led barefoot onto the scalding black tarmac toward the plane—a DeHavilland Twin Otter turbo-prop. We walk around the tail, which my instructor touches for good luck, and climb up the ladder, finding places to sit on our butts, legs out in front of us.
Straddled behind me on the padded floor, Wade hitches our harnesses together as the pilot taxis and takes off. Kenny the video guy is having fun with me and two other first-time jumpers, daring us to chicken out. Music is blaring from speakers I can’t see. I’m getting pumped.
Click to hear Attention by the Icelandic band GusGus.
(Player will open in a separate window. Listen while you read!)
We get to 13,000 feet in no time. The first jumper goes solo—he is certified and often comes to hitch a ride with the Ixtapa crew. He grips the horizontal bar above the open hatch—a monkey bar—gives us a toothy grin, lets go, and disappears.
Next is Summer, a man I’d met the night before who agreed at the last minute to jump with me, as they wouldn’t take the plane up unless there were two or more jumpers. He grew up in Ixtapa’s “twin city,” Zihuatanejo (ZEE-wah-tah-NAY-ho)—the only gringo among dozens of kids with skin like coffee beans, and with red hair to boot. He does not tilt his head back, but focuses instead at the ground. He did not purchase the video. The Mexican gives us a thumbs-up, grabs the bar, and hurls himself and Summer into the sky. I cannot see them fall.
I’m being prodded to walk forward on my knees toward the open hatch. I’m giddy with excitement. I feel safe, strapped in like this. I’m pretty sure there’s a reserve chute in case ours doesn’t open, but at this point I don’t bother to ask. This is Skydive Chicago, not “Acme Tours and Skydiving,” and it’s not 50 pesos, so I’m confident. I bend my neck, pressing my pony tail into Wade’s shoulder. “Ready?” he yells against the roar of the turbo-prop engine. “YEAH!” I yell back—and then I’m flipping, spinning—FLYING!
If you’ve gone skiing down a mountain with only the resistance of powder and the wind rushing in your ears, or if you’ve sculled beneath the surface of the ocean, down the wall of a reef, conscious only of the whooshing of the air from your scuba tank and the shiny creatures darting everywhere, you will understand the freedom and solitude that skydiving is. Even tandem, you, the passenger, are closest to the earth. You are falling but without that rollercoaster sensation in the stomach. You are a hailstone with a secret.
Banana-shaped, we descend 7,500 feet within 55 seconds. Kenny’s helmet-cam captures my grin, along with various poses that he had directed from the ground. “Make two fists and bring them together, like this,” he’d said. “Then when I put my hands in prayer position, you copy me. But don’t copy anything else or you’ll spin out of control.” (Doubtful, with Wade attached and 60 pounds heavier than me, but I suppose they have to say those things for legal reasons.)
When his wristband altimeter shows 5,500 feet, Wade pulls the parachute. We swoop upward, who knows how far, and then it is quiet. We are floating out over the ocean, just offshore from the beach where we started. I take my goggles off and hang there in the harness as if in a baby swing, waiting for the breeze to come and push us. It does. We drift, and Wade steers, along the beach and back, gazing down on family vacations, waning workdays, and doubtless a few lovers’ trysts.
One mile is 5,280 feet. It takes us five or six minutes to slide down that mile and meet up with the sand again. We land easily, and somehow I become unhooked in seconds. Wade had loosend up the harness right after the parachute opened, and I wonder how many hooks had stayed fastened for the rest of the ride down. No matter! I want to go up again, but it is after 4 p.m. and the crew has planned on going out for drinks. So we all have a Don Julio tequila for the road and go our separate ways—until next Thursday morning, when I will jump again, and pull the chute open myself!
* * *
Two weeks later and still I am high from the freefall and dazzled by the float back to earth. My friends are sick of hearing me talk about it. “Did I mention that I skydived?” I asked a co-worker for the third or fourth time. I am obsessed. I want to do it again. Eighteen jumps and $1,800 gets you certified. It takes about a week. The parachute and harness are the pricey part—$5,000 to $8,000 according to the Skydive Chicago crew. But then, what does hockey equipment cost over a lifetime? And what’s $5,000 compared to the price of even one share of a racing yacht? I am considering it.
Everyone asks me what my 20-year-old son thinks of my skydiving adventure. He saw the video. He shook his head. He smiled. “Whose mom does that?” he asked. I can’t tell if the sparkle in his eye was pride or envy—or a resolution to start researching parental senility ASAP.