Escape the Urban: And the Ground as Well

7 Nov

I’m a writer. Words are my business, and I take precision in language very seriously. Mark Twain said the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. So when undertaking an experience as intense, as thrilling, as heart-stopping, as skydiving, I was determined to find the right word to describe it.

Tremendously amazing? Too easy – I can do better than sports play-by-play commentary.

Harrowingly sublime? True, but it doesn’t fully encompass the experience.

A primordial confrontation? Now we’re getting somewhere.

I traveled to Pensacola this week to jump out of an airplane for the first time. There are local drop zones, but for my first jump, I didn’t want to pick a company out of the blue. So I asked a good friend of mine, a fighter pilot and motorcycle racer who skydives to relax, to set me up with a tandem master and company he trusted. Thus I found myself at 13,000 feet above the Alabama Emerald Coast, in a Cessna 185, helmeted, goggled, and jump-suited, strapped to a guy named Axel, stomach in knots.

You don’t need to be young or in great shape to skydive. The stresses on the body, if performed correctly, are minimal, and senior citizens other than George H. W. Bush skydive until very late in life. All that is required is a certain personality type to take the step from peripherally interested observer to actual freefall student. I am the type that climbs to the ledge, peers down from the gorge lip, over the edge of the CN Tower, and instead of recoiling, wonders what it would be like to jump. As I’ve gotten older, the urge to tumble has become overwhelming. I needed to see what it felt like.

Over the last month, as the day drew closer, I became more and more nervous. The butterflies peaked early, as I boarded the plane at the Buffalo airport bound for Florida, as possibility became certainty. Once I hit the coast a resigned calm ensued, until the moment the door opened on the jump plane, the wind poured in, and years of earnest waiting would suddenly be realized, not in days or hours, but in seconds.

The moment of truth occurs when you place your feet on the rubber edge of the jump door, look over your toes at empty space, and confront millions of years of evolutionary instinct in a single instant. Driving a car, or riding in a train or bus, is dangerous, but we don’t feel it deep down. Most people have no fundamental fear of moving across the ground at a high rate of speed because our homo erectus brethren had no reason avoid such behavior. Falling off a cliff, or in a ravine, or out of a tree, however, is a little different.

When you shuffle to the open jump door, a battle in your brain ensues, between the front logical lobes, that know the parachute will save you, and the deepest reptilian part of your being, the basest stem that seeks to preserve your existence at all costs. Skydiving is the ultimate subjugation of evolution to logic. Only jumping in the dark covered in spiders could be worse. A sick version of rationality won as I crouched at the wind-swept door, rocked forward, and fell.

A gut clench, an instinctual recoil, a tumble, a roll, a pinwheel horizon, a rush of cold air in the face and icy adrenaline in the veins, and then . . . emptiness. No sense of falling. No more fear. Just a heady giddiness, as ground and air swim before you. Resignation to a nerve tingling Fate of intensity and invigoration. It is impossible to not be present in that moment. You can control your terror . . . or embrace it so the endorphins flood as fast as the air past your head, into your gopher cheeks.

Still I searched for the perfect word as the parachute opened, and terminal freefall snapped into a peaceful glide. The bracing chill at altitude gave way to a warming sun and a surreal vision of oblivion between my knees, a view normally reserved for the window seat on a plane. The firmament neared, I lifted my knees, flared my chute, and survival was ensured as my feet dug in. The friends rushed in – How are you? How did it feel? Still I searched for the precise eloquent word. Exhilarating? Unreal? Astonishing? Transcendent?

“Dude that was awesome!” Pure poetry.   

My grandfather often said that Anticipation is greater than Realization. While true for Christmas morning, it is wildly wrong about skydiving. The Realization was more than I dreamed. Frontier Skydivers in Newfane may have a new student in the Spring.

4 Responses to “Escape the Urban: And the Ground as Well”

  1. BobbyCat November 8, 2010 at 8:25 am #

    how bout ‘breathtaking’

  2. Gabe November 8, 2010 at 2:24 pm #

    Brian, great piece, really a nice read. I’ll admit, I’m probably too chickenshit to ever try this myself. I’ve always been terrified whenever I’ve experienced heavy G-forces, weather it’s a deep drop on a rollercoaster or a spontaneous dip in altitude on an airplane. Approximately, what was the duration of of free fall that elapsed before you chute opened?

    On the topic of land vehicle travel, I’d argue that the rate of acceleration is so gradual that one’s body has ample time to adjust to the mean travel velocity, therefore fear-inducing (survival-threatening) sensations don’t really factor into the equation, so to speak. See: boiling frog.

    Fear of abrupt change is hard-coded into our reptilian base kernel. Human politics illustrates this quite well. Fortunately being high-cognition sentient beings means me can use abstract thought to keep our uglier animal instincts in check, when appropriate. Being civilized means taking this even further by being able to moderate many of the limitations of so-called “human nature.” I really liked the evolutionary angle of your account of your “totally awesome dude” experience.

  3. Brian Castner November 9, 2010 at 9:23 am #

    @ Gabe: Good news – there are no heavy G-forces. You are moving the same velocity as the plane (of course) when you start your fall, and you reach terminal velocity (not that fast) within the first 10 seconds. From 13,000 feet, the total jump was about 6 minutes: 1 minute of freefall, and 5 minutes under canopy. And it is totally awesome.

  4. Ben November 9, 2010 at 5:06 pm #

    Nicely done. Don’t sell yourself short – I’m no writer, but I seem to recall something from my elementary English class about sentence structure. Subject – Verb – Adverb is a perfectly valid sentence. I’ve seen much worse from first time jumpers. I’m glad you called me to set up the jump. Welcome to the obsession!

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