Thursday, April 29, 2010

Smile and Freefall

I’ve done some crazy stuff in my time. In elementary school, my best friend and I used to guzzle Sprite to see who could take the most successive sips. It burns like fire going down your throat, and is damn near unbearable by the sixth gulp. Try it. Then there was that time I dove off a trampoline into an above ground swimming pool and hit my head on the bottom. The world wouldn’t stop spinning for days. My sister tattled on me, and I was rushed to the emergency room and told I had a bruised brain, and the doctor scolded me and said I was lucky to be walking out of there and not cold and blue with a tag hanging from my toe. That wasn’t intentional, but it was still crazy, and ever since I’ve been prone to run-on sentences. And then on occasion, I’ll tell Sherry to just, like, punch me in the stomach as hard as she can so I can feel alive. And for a while I had a faux hawk, which was stupid. The point is, this ain’t my first rodeo. I’ve challenged my own fragile existence before. I’ve looked my own supposed mortality dead in the eyes and said, “Bullshit,” and called its bluff. But at this moment, turning and looking to Terry with his silvery mustache and tobacco stained teeth chomp chomp chomping at me, a maniacal fire in his eyes, I realize: this might be the stupidest shit I’ve done. A couple weeks ago, we took my brother-in-law sky diving for his birthday. Sherry and I jumped with him, and afterward on somewhat of a whim – cause sometimes you just gotta live your life on a cloud of whimsy – I enrolled myself in an elite and vigorous training regiment to get my skydiving license. Six classroom training hours and one week later, I’m 14,000 feet above ground with crazy ass Terry to my right and equally insane Ted to my left. I’m pretty sure Ted – at the risk of profiling – is an Italian dude from the east. He’s intimidating in a break-your-knees sorta way, and when I practiced incorrect form during ground training, he slapped me. But I think he likes me. I hope he does, cause I like him. Terry’s on the inside of the plane. Ted’s dangling like a windsock from the outside. I’m standing at the edge looking 14,000 below at the flat flat land of Texas and trying to remember to breathe and smile. In my classroom training, I memorized all sorts of procedures, hand signals and skydiving jargon. Greg was my instructor. Greg is a weathered old man. He has around 4,000 jumps under his belt. He had knee surgery about a week and half earlier, and he hobbled around all morning with the sound of painkillers shaking in the pocket of his sweatpants. “Just remember to breathe,” he told me. “Breathe and smile,” he said. “Smile and freefall.” Smile and freefall. “That’s a goddamned terrific philosophy on life, Greg.” I said. He grinned and winked. Keeping your calm, smiling and freefalling, is a lot easier on the ground, though. At 14,000 feet, in a purple jumpsuit, I kinda just wanna be back in bed with my wife. But the achievements in my life that I’m proudest of were without exception the scariest to face. Living abroad. Drinking the blood of a cobra. Winning back the heart of a woman who dumped me as a high school freshman. The goblin living inside me who makes me do these crazy things hisses at me, Because everyone else is too chicken shit, Papi. (He’s taken to calling me Papi lately.) I know I know I know, I say, enough already with the chicken shit speech, goblin. Terry gives me a head nod to begin my exit procedure. Deep breath. I look to Terry inside the plane and yell over the roaring wind. “CHECK IN!” He mouths the words “Ok”. I turn to Ted on the outside. “CHECK OUT!” Smiling like a mad man and flapping in the wind, Ted mouths “Ok”. I turn my head forward and look at my hands, which are gripping the door of the plane, one in, one out. Deep breath. I yell “UP!” and straighten my legs, “DOWN!” and bend my legs, “ARCH!” I step from the plane. Watching an airplane fly away as you plummet from the door at 100 miles per hour is a beautiful sight. I keep craning my neck, trying to see past Terry and watch the plane grow smaller and smaller like an eagle in the sky. Ted starts shaking my leg, and suddenly I remember that I’m not merely along for a tandem ride. I need to play an active role in this fall, but everything I learned in class has suddenly escaped me. All my thoughts are on sipping up as much oxygen as I can – like a little gold fish, glug glug. Ted gives me a hand signal. Fingers in a circle? What do fingers in a circle mean? Ted shakes his circled fingers at me, I’m afraid he’ll slap me again. Glug glug. Oh right, circle of awareness, check your altimeter! I turn my head to my wrist. “12,000 FEET!” I can’t hear my own voice, the wind rips past us like a bullet train. He sticks two fingers straight out. Two fingers? What do two fingers mean? Glug glug. Two fingers! Ted is adamant. He slaps my legs. Oh right, straighten your legs! He bares his teeth at me, reminding me to smile. SMILE YOU SONUVABITCH! I smile and freefall. He gives me the thumbs up. I turn to Terry on my right. He makes a fist at me. GODDAMNIT! WHAT DOES FIST MEAN? He shakes his fist. Oh right, glug glug, check your pilot chute! On the right side, at the base of my pack is a small piece of pvc pipe. It sticks out of a pouch. It’s connected to my pilot shoot, a small parachute the size of a trash can lid. At the necessary altitude – which today is 5,500 feet – I will grab hold of the pvc pipe and pull it, removing the pilot shoot from its pouch, and throw both out to the side. As the pilot shoot catches air, it will – god willing – create tension on the line and tug at my main canopy from the pack on my back. The tension will release a pin on the pack, and my main canopy will spring forth, fill with air, and I will drift gently back to earth. Ted violently shakes me, telling me to relax. Smile and freefall. At 6,000 feet I lock my eyes on my altimeter and watch the needle swiftly count down the feet. At 5,500 feet I wave goodbye to Terry and Ted, reach back, pull and throw my pvc pipe with all my might. Whoosh! The speed of my descent slows dramatically, and Terry and Ted fall fall fall to the ground. I look above me to confirm that my parachute is in working order. Is it there? Are there holes? Tangles in the lines? It’s in a flapping bundle, not completely open. I keep my eyes on it, waiting for it to inflate, flap flap flap, but nothing happens. As calmly as humanly possible, which isn’t terribly calmly, I begin running the emergency procedures through my head that will release me from my main parachute and deploy my emergency reserve. Flap flap flap, my parachute is still in a ball. And I’m still falling. And then by the grace of god it catches the right gust of wind and opens into a graceful arc. I watch it, and aside from the whomp whomp whomp sound of my beautiful, functional parachute, everything is silent. I’ve never heard so much silence. It’s almost deafening, damn near spiritual. I look down at my feet and try to comprehend the space separating the ground from my dirty Converse. Four thousand feet, my altimeter tells me. I swing my legs like a child in a booster seat. I’m directly above the drop zone. And then I’m a little upwind of the drop zone. And then I’m further upwind of the drop zone.
Like a helium balloon released by a careless child, the wind is carrying me away. My helmet is equipped with an earpiece. From the ground Terry is supposed to be communicating with me, guiding me back safely. I haven’t heard a word, though. My radio is broken. Try as I might, I can’t fight the winds (50 mile per hour gusts, I’m later told). I kick my legs and try to run back to the drop zone. I make tiny turns with my parachute, hoping to crab walk across the sky (only making things worse, I’m later told), but the wind continues to carry me further and further away, drifting across the sky, further and further from the airport. At 3,000 feet it becomes perfectly clear, there's no way in hell I'm landing anywhere close to where I'm supposed to land. With each second I watch the countryside below me drift by at 50 miles per hour. I look from one plot of farmland to another. Desperation swells in my throat. I soar over bodies of water, major roads and clusters of trees. I’m lucky if I land within 5 miles of the airport. My hands tremble. My breaths are shallow. I no longer want to go through with the remaining 24 jumps required to get my license. If I survive, which is doubtful, I wonder if I can donate to charity the other 13 jumps I've prepaid for. Shits, goddamns and other rueful words spew from my mouth.
At about 1,000 feet, I’m forced to pick a field in which to land. I’ve resigned myself to a long walk by this point, now I’m just focused on not killing myself. I follow the landing path I plotted just seconds earlier in my head, trembling my way through trees, miraculously approaching clear land, and at 300 feet am approaching the ground quickly, much too quickly, and suddenly there it is. Earth. With a thud I slam into the ground, bang my helmeted head and topple amongst the dirt, cacti and cow patties.
Oh sweet consciousness. After several wide-eyed and astonished breaths, I collect my canopy together in a bundle, carrying it like an armful of fresh laundry, and begin making my way several miles back to the airport. I wriggled on my belly under one barbed wire fence, then another. The sky is crystal clear today. The temperature is perfect. I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful day. Everything is silent. I’ve never heard so much silence. It’s almost deafening, damn near spiritual. I come upon a field full of cattle, hundreds of them, grazing, sleeping, lazily enjoying the impossible peace as I am. One cow notices me and stands. Then another. Then several more. Soon every cow, hundreds of them, have risen to their haunches and are facing me, batting their long lashes and silently imploring me to state my business. “I’m just passing through, cows." I tell them. “Just passing through.” I crick my neck. Adrenaline saved me from any immediate pain of my landing, but tomorrow I reckon I’ll feel as if I was hit by a bus. For now, though, I’m alive. Unless I’m not. I look at the cows. The cows look at me, hundreds of them. They hardly move, just the infrequent swish of a tail. There's something otherworldly about their serenity. Calm as Hindu cows, they assess my presence as if I've stumbled upon a gathering I wasn't properly invited to attend. A fox wedding. A teddy bear picnic.
Am I alive, cows? The cows don’t answer. I turn to look from where I came. In that direction there is only the horizon with no end in sight. In the other direction, cows. Hundreds of them.
Is it possible, cows, that I did not survive that landing? Is it possible that this moment of serenity and clarity and appreciation of all the universe has to offer is simply a final moment playing out endlessly, existing for an eternity in my severed cerebral cortex, while there's a flurry of activity around my mangled shell of a body, wailing and mourning, five stages of acceptance, the seasons pass, my ashes scatter on the wind?
Whatever, cows. Alive or dead, I'm seeing and smelling and hearing and touching the here and now. It's a good here and now, forever and ever amen.