Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Lodi – Diving In


          We woke up early the next day to sign up for our tandem jumps. I have to admit that I never really read or watched anything about skydiving or jumping out of an airplane before we left. This may or may not have been a good thing. I might have been more scared knowing that you jump out of a small airplane simply clipped to another person by what looks like a climbing harness with a chest strap.
            Jeff met up with his private instructor, Ed and began his course a day earlier than us. In order for us to be AFF certified, we first had to try a tandem and then we could start our course the following day. Jeff was upbeat before he left us. We still didn’t know him very well, but he did not seem anxious or nervous in the slight bit. Maybe since he is a professional hang glider pilot, he feels at home in the air, a place that many of us believe would only feel this way for birds and bugs. But, with that said, hang gliding and skydiving are completely different sports. The element of free fall would be something that Jeff had never experience and it was evident that he was truly looking forward to it.
            Jeff wasn’t the only one excited, though. Jesse was stoked as well. He didn’t share the same experience in the air as Jeff, but that didn’t curb his enthusiasm. While I can’t say that I exactly was excited to jump out of a plane, I can say that I was curious. What would it feel like to plummet toward the earth? Would it feel like jumping off a cliff into the lake, like I used to do when I was growing up? Would I want to hold my breath and close my eyes until I pulled out my parachute? I wanted to know.

We fill out our paperwork, gear up, and are herded into the waiting area. At this point Jesse and I have been split up a little because they have to organize us by our height and weight, I assume, to match us up with our tandem instructors. My instructor is a short, muscular guy from Israel. He has such a calm and reassuring demeanor that I almost can’t believe that he jumps out a plane for a living.
            Finally the time comes for us to file onto the plane. The scent of fuel hangs so thick in the air I can taste it on my tongue. And as the plane creeps forward and into the air, my breath comes in shallow pants and my stomach drops away. I try to glance back at Jesse, but he’s too far behind and so I just watch the ground fall away out the window. My instructor makes a few jokes, probably to wipe the fear from my face. The ride up takes longer than I expect and I’m glad for this. It gives me time to collect myself and to remind myself that I want to do this. If I really hadn’t wanted to, I wouldn’t have stepped on the plane. I tell myself that even if right now I could wet my pants with fear, it doesn’t matter because I am doing this; the only way down is out that rickety, plastic door.

            The door cranks open when we reach the right altitude. I slip on my goggles and feel my instructor tightening my harness straps and clipping them to his. The person in front of me leaves their seat and I watch them fall away from the plane. And then it’s our turn. We quickly hobble over to the door and I see the earth directly below me. It’s like looking off the edge of the cliff with high winds that want to sweep you away. I can feel my leg muscle beginning to resist the jump, but I relax them just as my instructor pushes us out into the fall.
At first, I can’t believe what is happening. I am falling, plunging toward the ground, and I can’t do a damn thing about it. I take a big gulp of air and while I am still scared, I realize I can enjoy the ride down. My instructor pulls the parachute and I feel the jolt from the opening. And then he gives me a ride. It’s fun, for sure. But, at that point, my stomach is already a mish-mash from nerves and the nausea is going to get the best of me if we don’t get to the ground soon. Luckily, I don’t puke and we have a nice soft landing.
I can feel my hair sticking up in all directions and I know I am not walking in a straight line from all the spins. Jesse has had a great time and is ready to sign up for the course. I, on the other hand, am not so sure. Did I have fun? Hell, yeah! But, did I want to spin some more? Most definitely not! Jesse and I walk back to the car to share our stories and collect our thoughts. Jesse says that he didn’t get the spins on the way down and I begin to worry that maybe it was me and my nerves and not my instructor spinning the parachute that has made me nauseous. We eat some food and I become more hesitant to sign up for the course since my nausea is not subsiding.
We wait for a few hours and talk it over, deciding that I should try another tandem. We were going to be in Lodi for a week weather I took the course or not because Jesse and Jeff are going to be taking it. It would suck if I just had to hang out and watch, but I don’t want to be nauseous for a week either.
So, I sign up for another tandem and tell Cathy at the front desk that I am trying to decide weather or not I want to take the AFF course. My tandem instructor James, a jolly guy from Idaho, comes and finds me a little after that and begins coaching me in certain positions I will need for the course. I am a little surprised at this one-on-one attention because I didn’t see anyone else getting it. He is so nice and I tell him that I had gotten a bit nauseous on the last jump.
            “Well, I don’t like spinning either, so we’ll stick to the basic stuff,” he says with a smile.
            He shows me a few other hand signals and then we are called back to the gear room. He gives me a device that looks like a giant watch. He explains to me that this is an altimeter. It shows you how far from the ground you are.
            “So, at about 5500 you’re going to pull the ‘chute,” he says to me with a mischievous grin.
            I laugh and then realize he’s serious. “Really?” I squeak.
            “Oh yeah. My daughter is 18 and has about 60 jumps on you. You’ve gotta learn quick and catch up somehow.”

            We load up again on the plane and it all seems quicker this time. When we’re looking over the edge out the door of the plane, I am not so terrified. We push away from the plane and fall. The altimeter gives me something else to focus on other than the fact that the ground is coming closer. When the dial flicks to 5500 I find the little round hacky-sack on James’ leg and give it a good hard tug. The parachute fills with air and we are gliding down smoothly. He instructs me to pull the toggles on each side of the parachute to turn it at certain times. We land smoothly on the ground and I know that I’m ready to sign up for the course. I know that I can do this by myself. 

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