We were a colorful group that morning, the five of us; Chris, with her cat glasses and multiple facial piercings; Elijah (aka Lije), looking like the long red haired six foot elf that he is; my new friends - Katie and Rennick, family members of the Smiling Iguana Cafe; and me, you know me... a tattooed, spiky haired dyke who apparently lives under the bookstore counter at Herland. We were off to Skydive Hollister for Chris birthday, a fifteen thousand foot jump with 70 seconds of free fall at 120 miles per hour... It was a good day to die.
Chris, Elijah, Katie and I signed up for tandem jumps while Rennick was going to perform his first solo flight. The training for the four of us was simple: first we watched a half hour video on how & why we had to waive our rights away, as this was still considered an “experimental way” to go parachuting despite tens of thousands of successful jumps over the decade. Second we signed a ten page form to show we understood the risks, and we wouldn’t sue these nice people who make a living by jumping out of air crafts. Then we had to actually write out the sentence “I understand I could be seriously injured or die” and sign it. Lastly, I handed over my credit card (taking charge of my life) and everything became very surreal...
We watched a video made only half an hour before with the guy who had just performed his first jump. His enthusiasm was contagious, and we clustered around the monitor with as nervous excitement. In tandem jumping you are actually buckled to your flight instructor, who wears the chute, pulls the rip cord, and does the landing. Our instructions were simple: Start with your arms crossed and once you are clear of the plane, arch your back, spread your arms, and it’s “1,2,3... kick your own butt!” This puts your legs up between the instructors, who can actually grab you & move you if need be. After 70 seconds of free fall, the instructor opens the chute, and you have about a ten minute glide to the jump, where a van shuttles you back to the airport.
Tension was building and we were cracking jokes at a furious pace, the energy beginning to sparkle. To our dismay, we were not all going to jump together, as was originally planned (apparently the rubber band in the big airplane had snapped). Instead we split up into teams and went to get our gear. I pulled on my black and turquoise flight suit and buckled on my harness, feeling like Devo goes butch. Meanwhile Elijah had brought along his favorite fuzzy friend, Ducky, who was lovingly tucked into his flight suit, with just the head sticking out. We were introduced to our flight masters: Elijah was teamed up with Mike, a white haired grinning lunatic, who was talking a mile a minute. I was teamed up with Doug, who was wearing a red flannel flight suit with little pictures of Mighty Mouse all over it, with blue flight pants spangled with big white stars. I loved Doug in that moment.
Mike explained that because you are so high, you no longer have a fear of heights or of falling. It’s not the thrill of the roller coaster, with the ground rushing up at you. Skydiving is the experience of great velocity, a pure adrenaline rush. Doug said, “There are two things you need to do: First, trust me. I am the man who is going to save your life as you plummet to the earth at one hundred and twenty miles per hour. Second, take care of yourself - when you are falling that fast, your body can’t even comprehend what is happening, except it feels like deep, deep sea diving. So some people forget to breathe. Simply breathe. And your ears will clog, and if you don’t unclog them, it will really hurt when you reach the ground, so remember to clear your ears. Other than that, it’s 1,2,3, kick your own butt.”
We walked out to our plane, a small Cessna I think, and began swapping stories. Doug asked me why I was jumping. Good question. I am recently divorced, and my ex-partner and I used to compare our relationship to the metaphor of jumping into the abyss, blind. We use this metaphor each time we took new risks in our relationship. The last time we jumped into the void of uncertainty, my love flew away and I was smashed on the rocks below; my spirit flayed worse than Hypatia - I had taken the leap of faith and lost everything, had felt destroyed. Broken hearted, I began to rebuild my life, beginning with a shift in paradigm: This time, I was jumping into the clear blue sky, my eyes wide open, with a fucking parachute on. I was ready to kick my own butt.
We packed into the small plane tuna fish style: Doug and I tucked in the back with Lije and Mike crammed into the front, ready to go first. The batteries in the plane were dead, just to add to the tension, but after some coaxing our trusty pilot lifted us up into the air. We circled over Hollister, and I watched everything shrink before my eyes, like looking down on that toy train set from when I was eight years old. I felt in a state of complete disbelief, the anticipation building in my chest and belly, as I looked at the tiny blue dots of swimming pools, the scurrying of cars.
Doug asked, “What are you thinking?” And being the good lesbian witch from Santa Cruz, of course I tell him about my last tarot reading, and pulling Obatala, whose message is, “just lean on my shoulder and I will take care of you.” I thought of my father, who came and planted roses with me during my healing time. I thought of my mother, whose stomach would turn if she could see me now.
Ok, tensions mounting, we’ve gained altitude, we start strapping this and buckling that, adjusting this, adjusting that, put on our goggles, the door is up, the noise is HUGE. Mike and Lije are in position, they are counting, counting, but Lije is NOT ready! I see Lije’s knuckles fiercely white against the door frame, while Mike is trying to pry them loose. The pilot is punching him in the arm yelling, “You can’t miss the jump! You can’t miss the jump!” And an instant later, they’re gone. Doug and I move into position, and I am basically sitting on his lap in front of the open door, the wind whipping past my face, my feet dangling in front of nothing, the ground far, far below. It was a moment suspended, of complete surrender, there was no turning back. Doug said again, “What are you thinking?” And I said, “On the ground you told me to do two things. Trust You and Take Care of MySelf. That is how I will do every one of my relationships from now on!” He said, “One, Two, Three...”
There is no way to describe the tumbling rush as I flipped and turned, the earth above me, the sky below. I was a ball of confusion hurtling through space, and then I spread my wings. I arched my back and felt my arms grow wide enough to embrace the whole world. My eyes were wide open, my heart was eide open, my mouth was wide open — I could breathe, in fact I was breathing deep lung fulls, my blood pounding, the wind singing in my ears.
I heard a little voice at the back of my head, “Isn’t this better than sex?!” It’s Doug! Doug yelling over the deafening roar. I had completely forgotten about Doug, the chute, the plane, Lije, any letting go rituals I had intended to perform. I had let go of it all. I had let go. It was an ecstatic moment. I was touching god. I was Alive...
I heard the little voice say, “I’m going to release the chute now!” and with a gentle tug I was launched into serenity. The chute pulled me up, up and I realized that funny noise was me laughing, laughing hysterically, laughing louder than I ever have before. I am flying, I am gliding, I am completely free. I can see the ocean, I can see the tips of the Sierra’s peeking through the fog, I can see Santa Cruz. I can see the little houses getting bigger. I can see Lije floating below me in a slow spiral towards the jump strip. Everything is extremely peaceful, and we can talk in conversational tones. I am enthralled. Doug moves the controls into my view and I can slip my hands in. Now I can swoop and dip, plunge and dive. I feel a tumbling buoyancy and an overall giddiness as I soar through the air. Too soon, it is over.
Landing was no more than keeping my legs raised until Doug touched down, then taking a few steps forward. We clicked out of the harnesses, then Lije and I were hugging everyone, jumping up and down, in the middle of a great open field. We said goodbye to Doug and Mike, who shuttled back to the airport with our chutes, while we waited for the rest of our tribe to make their jumps. Lije and I watched the full moon rise, as our friends floated in, the hills a pale yellow in that perfect moment when night is falling. We had found a random roll of bright orange tape, the kind used to mark off construction sites, and our exuberance burst forth as we decorated ourselves with headbands and wristlets, ribbons and badges to mark today’s initiation, our passage as warriors who jump out of the sky. We were a colorful group, fierce and proud. We had been prepared to die today, and instead we found ourselves wonderfully, incredibly Alive. we had seized the moment, we had lived with intention, we had kicked our own butts.
(First published in La Gazette, Santa Cruz, September 1997)