Jumper #1

It was peer pressure that made me jump out of that plane. That, and boredom. I’d been restless all year. The kind of restlessness you feel when you’ve been in college for five years, changed your major four times and still don’t know if you’re doing the right thing. The kind of boredom that makes you wonder if you’re living too safe a life. Too middle class. Too predictable.
        So when my friend Jen Kowalski told me she’d taken up skydiving and I should try it, I figured what the hell. Maybe this will clarify some things. Shake up my life, get my head straight. “It’s amazing!” she said. “You’ll absolutely love it!”
        A more reasonable person would have given this some serious thought. Weighed the options, considered the source. After all, Jen was the friend who once rode naked on a motorcycle down University Way in Seattle to try to win free tickets to a Melissa Etheridge concert. We had different ideas of fun. She was “wild;” I was “calm in a crisis.” She was loud and outgoing, I was quiet. She would dance with abandon, her legs loose and seemingly boneless while I rocked back and forth on the dance floor, shouting into the ear of the person I was with in an attempt to carry on a conversation that would distract from the fact that I Had No Rhythm.
        Jen ran through life. She was not distracted by self-doubt or what other people thought of her. She’d convinced me to join a women’s rugby team the year before in a similar moment of boredom and self-doubt. Despite the fact that I was still paying off the chiropractor bill from that adventure, I decided she might be onto something this time so I turned myself over to her higher power.

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This alone is proof of the recent theory that brain development is not complete until our mid to late twenties. I was actually terrified of flying, ever since Reagan fired all the air traffic controllers and a rash of horrific plane crashes occurred in the 1980s. As a child I’d flown comfortably, although infrequently. But by the time I hit college, I was the sort of traveler who spent an inordinate amount of time scanning the faces of flight attendants to try to figure out if anything out of the ordinary was happening. I shot irritated looks at fellow passengers who weren’t attentive during the preflight safety demonstration. I wondered if the pilot had knocked back a few rum and cokes-or worse- before climbing in the cockpit. And I was convinced on an intuitive although not entirely rational level that I was somehow responsible for keeping the plane in the air through the pure power of concentration. Therefore, to read or doze on a flight was reckless, and irresponsible.

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The skydiving “facility” was outside the tiny mountain town of Zig Zag, Oregon. From what I could tell, the town consisted of a ranger station and a store with a wooden chainsaw carving of a bear standing on its back feet either getting ready to attack or waving. The jump school was really just an open field with a hangar and a pit toilet which I would come to discover was so full of excrement I imagined virtually every skydiver in the history of the place had emptied his bowels in there to avoid crapping his pants on landing. I hoped the state of the outhouse didn’t reflect a general lack of upkeep in other areas. Like plane maintenance.
        More concerning was the stack of empty beer bottle cases along one wall of the hangar that stretched above my head.

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“Don’t worry,” Earl, the instructor, said when he saw me eyeing the empties. “We never drink until every jumper is down for the day.” The fact that he was reassuring me had exactly the opposite effect. Earl was a husky guy with a belly that made me think he’d probably downed more than a few of those cases himself. But he was calm and told us he’d been jumping out of planes longer than we’d been alive. I managed to take some comfort in that.
        Earl handed out a stack of waiver forms for us to sign and red helmets, which looked like Little League rejects. We also got jumpsuits. Mine was blue and white pinstriped and way too big so I looked like a little auto mechanic. We spent the day standing in a line in the field outside the hangar, arms up and out in a frozen jumping jack, counting “ONE ONE THOUSAND, TWO ONE THOUSAND, THREE ONE THOUSAND,” and then tilting our heads up to the right and to the left and saying “CHECK, CHECK, CHECK.”
        A good thing would be for you to only have to do this once during your actual jump because this meant you had exited the plane and your chute had opened in three seconds and you were ready to pull on your toggles, steer yourself gently to the ground and walk out your landing.
        In the event you counted to three one thousand and your chute did not open, you were to count again (just to make sure, I guess) and then pull your reserve chute, also known as your emergency chute, which was a neat little football shaped package strapped to your belly. These checks were to be done calmly and in an orderly fashion, all while you were hurtling through the sky four thousand feet in the air. It seemed absurd and I wanted to ask Earl, “What if you forget to count?” or “What if you accidentally count to four instead of three?” But I didn’t want to look like a smartass.
        We spent time practicing landing on the emergency chute, which involved rolling onto your side to avoid breaking all of the bones in your legs. And we heard again and again that you should NOT look down at the ground just prior to landing but should look instead at the horizon. That way you could tell how close you were getting without experiencing the sensation of seeing the ground rushing up at you a thousand miles an hour. Which, we were told, could disorient you and cause you to make a Big Mistake.
        We were also to avoid power lines and if we found ourselves drifting down onto one, we were to cross our legs to avoid electrocuting our genitals. And finally, we were warned to avoid the Sandy River, a fast moving, icy cold body of water that wound through the valley where we trained. “You definitely do not want to land in that water,” Earl said. And I thought this was good advice.
        At five o’clock we piled into the ancient little plane. The pilot, my fellow jumper (#2) and me. We bounced down the grassy runway and lifted into the air. We jumpers were crouched down in the seat-less plane like we were praying to Mecca, which was fitting because I was trying to remember how you said a Hail Mary, just in case. I was wondering how hard it would be to convince the pilot to just forget the whole thing, but he read my mind and yelled over the roar of the engine, “We can’t land this thing with y’all in it. It’s a one way trip, for sure!” He had long greasy hair, mirror shades, and what looked like dried spit in the corners of his mouth. I suddenly hated him.
        And then it was time. The pilot reached over and opened the passenger door. He gestured to me, shouting, “You’re good to go!” I looked at Jumper #2 and tried to communicate all of my innermost thoughts to her with my eyes. All of the last, big thoughts you think at these moments: Tell my family I love them, don’t bother with an open casket, burn my journals.
        I stepped out onto the tiny platform over the wheel and grabbed the metal bar that angled under the wing, like we’d practiced that morning. I looked back into the plane at the pilot, who was grinning maniacally and giving me the thumbs up. I assumed this would be my last memory of my time on earth. I let go with my feet and hung there for a couple seconds before releasing my grip on the metal bar.
        I didn’t count to three one thousand. I didn’t arch my back or check for my chute opening over my head. I did not prepare to deploy my emergency chute in case my main chute did not open. What I did apparently do was scream. Loud enough to be heard on the ground, so they said later. Maybe it was an unusual air current that allowed them to hear me; maybe this was just something they told people to humiliate them. I’ll never know.
        I was supposed to be steering the chute with the toggles that dangled over my shoulders—to pull on them gently to allow air to pass over and through the chute so that I could steer myself to the ground. Instead, by the time I became conscious enough of what was happening, I had grabbed those things for dear life and was pulling so hard I was causing the chute to collapse on the ends, leaving me at the mercy of the wind and tossing me around in crazy circles. The more panicked I became, the worse it got. I have a vague memory of yelling “WHOAH! WHOAH!” like you’d shout at wild horses and then I heard Earl, on the ground, through my one-way headset. He was angry. He was shouting “JUMPER #1…GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF YOUR ASS AND GET DOWN HERE!”
        I couldn’t believe it. Earl thought I was messing around up there. He thought I was having a blast, carelessly stalling my chute and delighting in the sensation of uncontrolled freefall rather than fighting for my life on what I assumed was a faulty chute. I envisioned myself spiraling to the ground and catching on a power line or worse, landing in the river. Was this the price I paid for taking a risk, for stepping outside my comfort zone? This crazy, floating, out-of-control feeling was exactly what I was trying to overcome by throwing myself out of that airplane. I considered the irony while Earl yelled at me, his tone becoming increasingly irate, through my headset.
        By the time I pulled myself together enough to operate the chute, I couldn’t see the airport anymore. As I got lower to the ground, I reminded myself do not look down, do not look down. And then at the last second I looked down and was immediately overcome with terror at the bulletlike speed with which I was approaching the earth.
        I hit the ground flatfooted and flew forward, landing face first and knocking the wind out of myself. I lay there whimpering and trying to determine if I’d wet my pants. There was no one around. This is because I was nowhere near the airport. I’d landed in a field overgrown with thistles. I was covered in dirt. My jumpsuit was twisted around and one boot was untied. And I felt like I’d been up in the air, spinning around for hours. But I’d done it. I’d jumped out of that plane and I’d landed in one piece on the ground, not the river. And the thistles were stuck in my hands but they had beautiful purple flowers bursting from their tops and I lay there, smiling at them like some crazy person who just fell from the sky.
        I got up and yanked on the chute, tearing it in the process. I tossed it over my shoulder and started walking towards the airport.
        By the time I got back, Jumper #2 was already in street clothes. Jen hugged me; Earl looked irritated as he took my torn chute back to the hangar. I was disappointed in myself for losing it up there but I was also just damn thrilled to be alive. I collected my jump log, a small blue book they give you to track the details of your jumps. There are places to note the weather, the height of your jump, your instructor, the details of your technique. I still have mine. It has three phrases under my first and only jump: Poor arch. Poor canopy control. Missed airport.
        Years later, I added my own comments to those pages: Hit the ground feeling overwhelmed with thankfulness for everything in my life. Overcame fear and lived to tell about it. Finished college and danced crazy with Jen Kowalski all summer long.

Michele Lovell

Michele Lovell was born in Washington, D.C., moved to Oregon at the age of 15, and has spent the last ten months in rural Arizona, writing. She has had poems published in The Sonora Review, a story published in Hip Mama and the Hip Mama Anthology, and two stories that were Glimmer Train finalists, one in the April 2009 Family Matters contest and one in the Winter 2012 Glimmer Train Fiction Open contest. She has worked with children in the mental health field for the past 25 years.

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