That First Step Is A Loo Loo
By Thom Holbrook



"Why would someone go and jump out of a perfectly good airplane?"
   - Age old question


   That's a very good question and you know what? Speaking for myself, I don't know that I have a very good answer. Strictly speaking, in my case that question isn't exactly accurate since I didn't really jump as much as I was propelled out by somebody else: Caleb the skydiver I was tandem jumping with. It is a slight difference but a significant one. Yes I did willingly let myself be propelled into nothing but air but the real deal, regular basis skydivers throw themselves out that plane door not just willingly but gleefully. I went with a nudge and a scream. Them? They go with a scream... of "Woohoo!!!"

   And yeah, you bet I screamed when I went out that door. Hey, when I was on the ground having the jump procedures explained to me I openly asked at what point I was expected to scream like a woman and then cry like a school girl. I have two modes of operation with fear: letting it all hang out and total repression. Total repression sucks ass since you just deny anything you're feeling and take a "No big deal" attitude. I went on a roller coaster once acting bored so that when the coaster camera snapped my picture it would be a funny shot of everyone scared except for me looking bored out of my mind. It took me three times on the ride to get the shot right and guess what? Now that ride actually bores me! And that sucks because it's a great coaster. I figured no way in hell I'm even chancing wrecking probably my only skydive by forcing a "no big deal" attitude. Even on the way up in the plane I would start trying to play it that way for the guy filming my jump but then I would always break down and give a look of uncertainty because, hey, the truth is I was about to jump out of a perfectly good airplane.

   Which gets back to, hello, why????? Well I can at least explain how I ended up jumping which might help with the why. The how involves me going to visit my high school friend Cheryl... if that is in fact her real name... in the Lodi, California area. Lodi happens to be ground zero for a large community of skydivers and a great skydiving facility. And my friend? Well her good friend and former boyfriend Caleb just happens to be a skydiver so we decided to head out to the drop zone, hang out and watch folks jump. That's all. Just watch. And as we were hanging out I started getting into the whole vibe of the place. I'd never been to where folks actually skydive before. The only impression I had was from a very bad film called Skydivers that aired on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Based on that sad example I would have expected a handful of actual skydivers, tons of locals hanging around partying to a live band and everyone talking as if they were badly reading off cue cards they didn't fully understand. Oh yes, I would also have expected to find a low rent femme fatale willing to sleep with the local pharmacist to get acid so she could pour it on her ex-lover's chute to see him dead. That movie hurt me. It hurt me bad. But I digress...

   In point of fact I found a fun relaxed little community. Think Cheers minusing off the beers and adding on backpacks full of silk: a bunch of folks who show up all the time and know each other like family. Half work there, half are just regulars. Plus there's the folks just in for the day, the stopping-by-for-something-different background filler people. I really got the feeling of walking into the middle of a bustling little regular get together. Even though Cheryl isn't a skydiver everyone knew her really well from her being there with Caleb and second to the actual jumping the sport of the day became, as I'm sure it had in the past, trying to hassle her into doing a tandem jump. It didn't seem likely to happen.

   Early on in the day Caleb asked me if I might want to jump but I never really got a chance to answer. As the day went on several other people good naturedly hassled me about jumping while hassling Cheryl. Eventually I came to a decision. I wasn't going to stand up and shout out, "By God I'll do it!" but if someone asked - specifically asked me if I wanted to jump - I'd say sure. I figured this was a once in a lifetime chance. Even though like most people I have always been curious about skydiving I would never have gone out of my way to search out a chance to jump. But in this case fate put the opportunity right in my path. I figured if I was ever going to do it this would be it. I think I threw the "only if somebody asks" thing on as a kind of seal of approval by fate that I was supposed to be doing it. That and I'm a big old chicken. And chickens have wings but they don't fly so good.

   Of course before the day was done Caleb did end up asking me if I wanted to jump (D'oh!) and I said sure. Just to explain, I was going to do a tandem jump. That's where you jump hooked directly to another skydiver. That's another reason it seemed this was the right opportunity to jump. Any other time I might be jumping with a total stranger. In this case I would at least be jumping with someone I knew if only slightly and who my friend Cheryl clearly had confidence in. Then I paid my money and got prepped to take my chances. I sat down and watched the training video. Then I signed and initialed all the needed paperwork. You know, the usual "I'm about to do something not covered in the All Mighty's warranty" forms saying if I die I promise not to rise from the grave and sue everybody. That and the health stuff verifying nothing is wrong with you and that there is no bladder condition your co-diver need worry about (actually that wasn't on there but they really should consider it).

   After waiting around for my turn, the moment of truth arrived. We suited up and after being sedated I was dragged kicking and screa... errr, I mean... with the steely confidence of a an old pro forged in the crucible of hard worn experience... oh hell, we put the equipment on and walked out to the plane.

   Being a big TV geek, the entire way up I had an incredible deja vu going on. What sitcom hasn't done an episode where the characters go up to skydive, get scared and in the end either get tricked into jumping or accidentally go out the door. It's the oldest plot in the world. I think there's even a spot in the Bible where the Angel Of The Lord carries Moses up to 3,000 feet only to have him first lose his nerve and then fall off while reaching for the in flight peanuts. I fared about as well in my demeanor as the TV folk. Like I said I earlier, I just couldn't play it off as "no big deal". You can see on the video of the jump my look of, "Was this trip really necessary?"

   After ten or so minutes we reached the altitude we would be jumping from. hooray? Caleb told me to sit on his lap and I thought, dear Lord this is scary enough, I don't need sexually harassed at 15,000 feet! It turned out he just needed to hook his equipment to my equipment... and that actually sounds potentially worse than mere harassment but I assure you that's just poor word choice on my part (Caleb is actually a pretty buff guy and I pray he has a good sense of humor or I might not live to regret the last couple of sentences).

   Folks then started to make their exits. As hunched over with Caleb tethered to my back I made my way toward the door I looked forward and knew the jump would go fine. The guy ahead of me had big old rips in the butt of his jumpsuit. I looked at that and thought even though God likes to have more than his share of fun with me, he is not so cruel that he would let that be the last sight I would ever see. Not that I had any doubt or fear in Caleb's skill in the first place but, hey, I'm about to go out the door of a flying plane for the first time in my life!

   We got to the door and I assumed the body posture I would need for the initial free fall. Appropriately enough the posture is arms folded across the chest, knees bent in a kneeling-like posture and head tilted back: the body posture for saints and skydivers. I started thinking if I behaved a little better in my life I might be doing this for being a saint rather than a skydiver but, hey, what ya gonna do? Too late now. Best to take the pose for the skydive and use it also to make an appeal to the saints. Then just as I was starting to wonder if backing out was even any longer an option... out we went. As it turns out when you're hooked to a guy the size and build of a linebacker who wants to jump out of a plane, you're going!

   As I said at the start, going out that door I'm told I screamed. What other reaction would have been better I'm not sure. I think, say, to take it in stride and go, "Oooh, it's so high up don'tcha know!" wouldn't be right either. I likes the classics, in this case screaming like it's going out of style. I didn't keep screaming though because with the air whipping by at that altitude it was kinda tough to grab a breath to breathe let alone to yell with. Even if I was still yelling I don't think I heard it over the wind whipping by. Given that Caleb and I are both big guys we were apparently really hauling ass fast! There is an initial small drag shoot meant to slow you down a little bit. On the jump video you can see in our case it wasn't helping. It was like your appendix: it sure seems like it's supposed to be doing something but really it's just kinda superfluous and not doing much of anything.

   What didn't seem a very short time later, Caleb tapped me again. This was the signal that I needed to recross my arms because he was about to pull the rip cord and release the parachute. So cross 'em I did and then, just like you always see on TV, I felt jerked back up as the chute opened and we went from moving really fast to just slowly hurtling downward. Actually at this point it got pretty mellow. Like a sight seeing trip. Still scary but not as harsh as free falling. You know when you're in an airplane and you look out the window and everything on the ground looks like little toys? Well it was just like that except THERE WASN'T A PLANE! It's sorta like a backwards roller coaster ride really. You get the "Aaaaaaa!!!" scary part first followed second by the slow looking-around-at-the-scenery-but-still-kinda-anxious part that goes with clanking up that initial coaster hill. Now moving slow enough that the wind wasn't whipping deafeningly by, Caleb asked how I was liking the dive. Bringing to bear all the speaking and writing skills I had carefully developed and honed over numerous years, I summed up the deep well of feelings in my soul with the short succinct statement, "Holee sheet!" Ahem... or something like that.

   Caleb loosened my harness to give me a little more freedom of movement. Ya know, way up high like that... I think I was actually pretty happy with minimal "freedom of movement". When I felt myself sorta drop half an inch I must admit my first reaction wasn't really, "Well that's so much better." Caleb handed me over the controls to the parachute and for a split second I did begin to wonder about how smart he actually was. Don't give the moron the controls! But that only lasted a second. I realized that while I was technically in control, Caleb still has his hands further up the cord and was really in control. I guess you are supposed to feel like you are in control. But me? I knew what I really was was a tourist. Not to diminish the fact that I did go out of that plane but I was doing it as an exercise in facing fear. Caleb and these other folks? Hell, they do this all the freaking time! Realistically I was just baggage.

   Shortly we started going over the procedures we would need for landing. No pressure. I listened, I paid attention and got ready for ugliness. Not because of any failing on Caleb's part mind you. I just know myself and I know the way my life works. I'm not ever going to be the guy who lands suave and smooth like James Bond with a martini in hand. I'm more of a guy from a Mel Brooks movie... Peter Boyle getting his thumb lit when the blind guy mistakes it for a cigar. In parachuting terms, a big soft bale of hay would be my friend.


   My belief proved correct. As explained to me later, as we were making out approach someone else cut us off. We got caught in his backwash, caught a wind burble (At this point I am so just repeating skydiver specific tech lingo. Sounds good to me). Anyway, the result was we came in faster and at a little harsher angle than planned. We pulled down on the control cords to bring us to a stop. We didn't have a super smooth touch down. It was like when you stop short in a car and go suddenly forward then quickly backward. Except instead of forward and backward substitute up and down. We bopped up just a tad and then plopped down. Keeping my balance doing something like this I normally would be a bit sloppy. Doing this in tandem with somebody even bigger than me who is connected to my back... hoo hoo Betty! My feet hit the ground... for a minute. Then they decided maybe my knees would like a chance. Maybe... maybe my feet felt I would like to do the elaborate "Kiss good old terra firma" routine. I dunno what they were thinking. They aren't really very bright. They're known less for their minds and more for there soul (Rimshot!) THANK YOU LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! GOOD NIGHT! I'M HERE TILL NEXT THURSDAY!

   So I go down on my knees with a backpack full of heavy skydiver. At that point I was just looking down stunned at my knees thinking, "Oh that's not good." Not realizing my knees had just been KO'd, Caleb tried to stand up and I fell over backward knocking him over. If I was aiming for smooth like Dean Martin I missed and hit prat falling like Jerry Lewis. Caleb unhooked us and I stood up, my legs very shaky. Were they shaking because I just jumped out of a plane or because I just hammered them into the ground like railroad spikes? Well, I'm not normally that much of a nervous nelly especially after the fact. And my upper legs seemed happy as clams. It was just the lowers doing the hippy dippy shake. Again a big uh oh. But not too big for the moment. Bang yourself up and usually you're good to go immediately after. Its, say, eight hours later that you're going to have trouble. So, safe on the ground I was now able to put on my "No big deal" face.

   Cheryl came running up and she and Caleb both started to assure me many many people land like idiots and that there was no shame. Then I knew the landing was bad. They didn't have to bother though. Like I said I had a good idea going in how the landing might go. Plus if I was somebody who did this all the time I might have had an ego about landing sloppy but that wasn't the case. I was a tourist who jumped out of an airplane and failed to end up a greasy spot on the map! Hey, mission accomplished! For me, someone likely to only ever make one jump, anything that adds to the drama of the tale and doesn't smush me (much) is sort of a plus. For example, watching the video you can see the shoot didn't exactly open perfectly. After the fact, safe and sound, for a one-timer looking for a tale to tell that's a dramatic highlight!

   Then my cameraman asked me to rate our jump and not thinking I rated it a 7. I felt bad because Caleb in good humor took it as a shot at him, asking if someone could pull the knife out of his back. Heheh. I felt bad. I should have been more specific. I'd give Caleb a 10. The monkey on his front I scored much harsher and that dragged the cumulative score down. That and of course the tough marks from the Russian judge. I hate that guy.

   So why did I do it? I guess I figured I might learn something about myself. Did I? I guess. Oddly enough one of the things I learned is that I live up to my astrological sign of Libra. Libra is all about scales and balances. Not too far this way or that way but right in the middle. Sure I'll skydive if I'm asked, but I'm not likely to volunteer. Go out the door of a plane? I'll willing go if pushed but I don't know about jumping. So the scale isn't tipped heavily to the negative and the wussy but its not exactly heavyily weighted to the positive and gung ho G.I. Joe either. Nope. Close to the middle tilting a tad toward gung ho Joe and the positive. And it's my very willingness and ability to take some chances that gives me that tilt. And that aint bad. Of course anyone willing to help me to tip the scale of my life to wildly positive and successful thereby utterly ruining my analogy, please feel free to contact me at the e-mail address below.

   As for the skydiving folks of Lodi, allow me to say this: you're crazy! And I mean that as the highest compliment. I like crazy. Crazy is good (And I say that clearly drawing a line between those who are crazy and those who are psycho hoo-hoo nut jobs - they're baaad). When anyone tells me I'm crazy, I say thank you. You guys are good and crazy and thaaaank you!



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