Sunday, January 10, 2010

Falling With Style 2

I'm not afraid of dying. Nope. I'd prefer I didn't die tomorrow, I have too much to do but if (snaps fingers) that was that then no problem. Hell, I'm spiritual and either there's some big, great beyond or there's not. Guess what? If I'm wrong I won't be in any position to care.

I am, however, greatly concerned with HOW I die. In other words I'd like it to be as peaceful as possible.

Willingly falling thousands of feet from a fully functioning airplane just to slam into the ground, bones shattering, blood spraying etc. would not classify as a top 5 in the ways I'd like to shuffle off this mortal coil. When my good friend and co-worker Josh years ago asked if I wanted to go skydiving I replied no. No thank you. Not happening, good day sir.

But when he asked again at the end of last year in preparation for his birthday I said yes. I had trouble thinking of why exactly and then something he said made me pinpoint what it was. On Josh's bucket list two of the larger items were:

1. Sky dive
2. Go cage diving with sharks

He had asked who wanted to join him on both activities. I wanted to sky dive. It seemed interesting. I did not want to go cage diving with sharks. The reasoning was very simple, I didn't want to swim with sharks because I felt that the sharks would be bored with me, they are giant fish that live in the sea who got a bad rap because of a movie made 30 years ago, I feel kind of sorry for them. You are lowered in a cage so there's no real suspense and there is also 0% guarantee on the day you're in the water the sharks will appear. I have no real desire to spend a lot of $$$ for an experience I have no emotional connection to. (NOTE: I wish Josh luck with this quest.)

This however was not my reasoning for jumping out of a plane. I didn't want to go skydiving because I was afraid of it. It looked fun. I bet it was a really awesome experience. The only thing holding me back was fear, plain and simple. That was a shitty reason. So when he asked again I said yes.

The build up was surprisingly painless. I realized I wasn't doing any hard work, my tandem partner was doing the heavy lifting and assuming they hadn't been having marital problems or any substance abuse issues, they too would want to stay alive as much as I would.

The drive out to the airfield was about 2 1/2 hours. It was moi, Josh, Josh's cousin Alan and Rich. We arrived at the hanger and were greeted with bright smiles. They were very enthusiastic that we would be jumping with them. They brightly handed over the largest waiver form I've ever seen which was basically five pages saying the same thing: "There is no guarantee that under even the best circumstances that this will not kill or horrifically maim you! By signing this you can never, ever, EVER sue us, this is all your fault!" And it's true, once up in the air, anything could happen. No one dragged us there, this was our choice. I never blinked, never thought "let's get out of here" but the thought did cross my mind that IF some freak accident were to occur and IF I was horribly injured but still alive how pissed at myself I would be. I shrugged my shoulders and signed, let future Greg worry about that.

A video on safety quickly turned from boring into epic with the appearance of this gentleman:

I don't know what Skydiving Rasputin's name is but for some insane reason this is the man they chose to host the video on the joys of falling out of a plane. No wonder he loves it, nothing can kill Rasputin!

Following the surprisingly hilarious, not reassuring at all video, we waited around. We talked to some other folks who had just jumped, I ran into a co-worker of mine Lauren who had just finished jumping (small world) and passed the time anticipated our turn. I saw that one of the staff wore a bright blue jumpsuit with flames and hoped that they would be my partner. If you are going to do something potentially fatal it's best that your partner looks amazing.

After about an hour we were up. Alan's partner seemed pretty cool, down to earth, nothing too flashy. Rich got paired up with a large man with a huge scar on his face, if I was a foreign country and this duo parachuted in I would surrender immediately. Josh got a little French man who spoke with a thick accent. From his look and manner of speech he and Klaus Kinski would have made excellent co-stars in some kind of buddy cop movie. As fate would have it I got the Blue Flame. Blue Flame was very cool in explaining the procedure, what to do on the plane, what to do once in the air and then how to land. We were all briefed on the protocol and that was it. Off we went.

There were 16 of us crammed in a little plane, I chatted a bit with Blue Flame. His wife had signed him up for skydiving years ago to get him over his fear of heights, he fell in love with it and quit his day job to do it full time. As the plane climbed I just kept thinking that the view we had out the window, all the empty space, we would be out in that within minutes. The door opened:

Out goes Josh.

Out goes Alan.

We're making out way towards the edge. My cameraman is hanging halfway out the door the camera in my face. I offer it a smile, I lean forward, then back and then I'm gone.

It's bizarre and I can't really do the whole falling sensation justice. The closest comparison and even this doesn't begin to describe the actual sensation, is that it's like riding a roller coaster but one where the car you are riding in shoots off into the air. Back in the hanger, watching the videos of the others the minute long free fall seemed to last forever but in reality it felt over within seconds. He pulled the cord and my harness pulled tight as the parachute deployed. Drifting down was surprisingly peaceful. One of the guys back in the hanger had offered us some advice: "Look around". He said your gut instinct would be to kind of freak out, almost not think about anything but he said the best thing to do is enjoy the ride. I watched the ocean, the trees, I steered the chute for a bit, I tried to take it in.

He told me to brace for a landing, hold my feet out, let his legs touch down first. I agreed and got ready. Then in one of those moments, the ones you would play if your life had a greatest hits countdown.

"Oh shit."

There are certain words you don't want your parachuting partner to say. Honestly next to "Oh shit" the only words I think I would deem worse would be "We're dead!". I manage a "Wha-"

That's it. I don't even have time for the "t". In an alternate world this is my last word, an aborted "What?!"

We go from in the air to on the ground in what feels like a flash. Thinking back it's amazing how at that last moment the ground just shot up at us. Trying to glide in we lost the current and dropped instead. We managed to miss the target area, landing in some bushes. My tailbone nails the ground and I'm shocked. What just happened? In a split second my mind flashes back to the waiver I signed, the even under the best circumstances anything can happen sentiment that had been stated and restated, over and over. I just didn't want to be paralyzed, I believe we can rise to whatever challenge is set in front of us but I really didn't want to be fucking paralyzed because I was being an idiot. I cursed past Greg and went to wiggle my fingers and toes. Everything worked. I was happy/still shocked when we stood. The kicker is Blue Flame seemed shaken up. I offered him a "Any landing you can walk away from is a good one" but he seemed pretty relieved we were both OK. For the record I think he did everything right, this isn't an exact science, stuff happens. We're fine.

We drove back to the facility and waited for our DVD's (my crash looks especially epic on Rich's disc). Since we had more time to kill I called the folks to tell them what we did. (I am no super genius but telling them after was definitely a good call) While we can put this whole heights thing behind me my mom made me promise if someone wanted to wrestle an alligator for their birthday that I wouldn't go along so I apologize in advance if that's anyone's plan.

Falling With Style 1

Heights and I have always had an odd relationship. (If you want to read how the skydiving went, mosey on over to part 2)

In elementary school there were certain Fridays where instead of the normal gym class consisting of soccer, basketball or any other type of game we would get to do more gymnastic type activities: a pummel horse, a section devoted to somersaults and for some odd reason a rope swing suspended off a platform. You would make your way up some stairs, step across the platform and swing a few feet off the ground. I don't remember the exact height, I do remember hating the fucking thing.

I'm not sure exactly what I thought would happen, the worst the fall would have done is knock the wind out of me but at the time the idea of stepping up off the platform and sailing into the air really scared me. I boycotted the swing for years, the last thing the gym teachers wanted was a hysterical child so they let me be. Years passed. It's not like these hybrid gymnastics days occurred that often so avoiding the rope swing became kind of a common practice, there was no reason to do it. That is until one day it occurred to me that there would come a time where I would be older and regret never having conquered that damn swing. Yes, even my undeveloped brain realized that adult Greg would not want to look back at what a little wuss he had been so one random Friday I just did it. Much to my surprise when I returned safely to the platform the whole class applauded. Looking back is a weird feeling because on the one hand it was a very nice gesture, I appreciate that they were happy for me. But there is another part of me that gets angry because in reality they weren't applauding my bravery, they were clapping because I had gotten over being a really big pussy. I'm not angry with them, I'm angry with me, what the hell was I so afraid of?

Several years later I'm being forced to take an outdoor adventure course (my father reasoning that being inside reading comics, watching black and white movies and cheering as Bret Hart wrestled people were not the most constructive activities) when we come across the day I've been dreading. There's a ropes course laid out 30 feet up in a row of trees. The only way to get up to the course is by a swinging rope ladder and you have to attach your own safety harness once you're at the top. I don't even think I could sleep the night before.

Getting up was easy, just grin and bear it and haul ass up that ladder. Passing the ropes course was simple as long as I didn't look down, this strategy only worked for so long however since upon climbing to the third tree I came across three platforms swinging in mid air which I would have to jump from one to the other.

Nailed the first.

Second one, little shaky but I'm on it so not a problem.

Third one, different story. I fly in between the support ropes and just hang by my safety line, the one that I tied. No words can describe the feeling, it was mortifying and it lasted for several minutes as I flailed around in mid air. Eventually it occurred to me that either:

A. Hang on this line until I die of fright or for some reason the rope snaps.
B. Wait for them to grab a big ladder or something to rescue me where I would die from embarrassment so same result as A.
C. Pull myself up to the third platform and continue on.

After five frantic minutes (holding up the line of kids behind me) I climb up and finish the course. I'll admit feeling pretty great when I reaches the ladder leading back down to sweet, safe, Planet Earth. I went to jump off in celebration, a sign of conquering this day but misjudged what step I was on, landing flat on my back. While my dignity had taken a blow the overall result of not having died while hanging thirty feet up seemed to electrify me. To this day my mother says a different child came home that afternoon. I guess having the just about worst case scenario play out was a blessing in disguise.

(NOTE: Some poor bastard behind me ended up disturbing a bees nest and ended up stuck 30 feet up getting stung repeatedly by bees and no one could help him. He was halfway through the course and had to complete it just to reach the ladder to get down. I hope he's off blogging somewhere about THAT.)

Shortly thereafter I became a huge fan of roller coasters, whereas I had avoided them like they were covered in bubonic plague as a kid, after the ropes course they seemed like nothing. I also reasoned that large companies wouldn't spend that much money on devices which would kill children so that logic helped as well. In other words, for all intents and purposes, the heights issue was closed.

Yet when my friend Josh purposed going skydiving back in 2007 I answered: NO WAY.

Why? Why bother to even tempt fate? It's literally like the grim reaper has you in the palm of his hand until someone pulls the parachute cord. Your hand slips or the chute doesn't open and that's it, you're street pizza. I shook my head, told him no and that was that.

But that was 2007.