Throughout the three three weeks leading up to yesterday, my life was one cloaked in fear.
Ever since I clicked the MAKE PAYMENT button on the Urban Escapes SKYDIVING page, I’d been thinking, “Do I really want to do this? Do I really want to do this? Do I really want to do this?” I kept picturing my body plummeting from a plane, 13,000 feet above the ground, at 120 mph. My goal was, theoretically speaking, a good one: Challenge myself to try something I’d never logically challenge; stop being such a wuss and live a little; face my fears head-on and without flinching. Mostly, stop letting my hypochondriaâ€”the constant, annoying fear of deathâ€”consume my life.
But, uhg, did I really want to do this? Could I really do this?
We arrived at Skydive Cross Keys in Williamstown, N.J. at about 1 pm yesterday afternoon. It was a van with 15 of usâ€”14 of whom had never before skydived. My two sister-in-laws, Leah Guggenheimer and Jessica Guggenheimer, were also jumping, as well as Chris Berman, Jessica’s boyfriend (no, not that Chris Berman).
Although I was probably the third or fourth oldest of the group, I was definitely the most nervous. Throughout the day, my hands were frigid and coated with sweat. The same image kept entering my headâ€”looking out of a plane at the earth, 13,000 feet down, and falling … falling … falling … falling. No net, no string. I’ve loved roller coasters for a long time, but, factually, you’re latched onto something made of steel and touching the ground. Skydivingâ€”no ground.
Anyhow, for about 4 1/2 hours we waited in the Skydive Cross Keys overhang, observing the divers as they came and went, came and went. It was a busy placeâ€”the stars identifiable by their cocky struts and colorful jumpsuits, the novices identifiable by their nervous walks and frequent trips to the bathroom (Unofficially, I went seven times). I spent much of this time watching the planes fly off into the air, then dump divers out. It was, in a word, freaky. The planes went sooooooo high, the divers appeared like little sprinkles in the sky, moving so damn fast. Uhg, I couldn’t watch. But I watched. Then I couldn’t watch. But I watched. Shortly after one novice touched the ground, I rushed him and asked, “So, was it fun? Was it great?” He shook his head. “No, man,” he said. “Not good.” This, I didn’t need to hear.
At one point I called my friend Mike Lewis, who did his first skydive several weeks ago, and told him I didn’t think I could do it. “Yes you can!” he said. “Trust meâ€”it’s amazing! Do it!” Finally, I retreated inside to a couch, where I listened to T.I.’s Live Your Life and Bad Ronald’s Let’s Begin over and over again on my iPod. This actually soothed my nerves untilâ€””Group 19! You’re up!”
Crap. Crap. Crap. I was brought into a back room, where seven of us were fitted with harnesses and warned not to do anything especially stupid. As soon as my harness was placed over my shoulders and wrapped around my waist, I checked it. Was it too loose? It felt too loose. Surely, it was too loose. Thenâ€”a command. “Group 19! We’re ready for you guys! On the plane! Now!” No time to think. We were rushed outside, where I was met by Gio, a bald man with a graying goatee. Here was my tandem diver. “Nice to meet you,” I said, extending my right hand. “Listen, I really don’t wanna do any tricks or anything. Is that cool?” He nodded. “Also,” I asked, “how many times have you done this?”
“More than 10,000,” he said.
For the first time all day, I enjoyed a relaxing moment. Ten thousandâ€”no joke.
The plane was weirdâ€”silver, angular, like an enormous rectangular box with wings and propellers. I was told by someone who went earlier that the flight was the scariest part, yet as I sat on the floor, a sardine stuffed in a can, I was oddly calm. The plane left the ground, jerked to the right, then was pretty smooth. Over the course of the ensuing 15 minutes, Gio and I chatted. At one point I said, “Look, I can’t screw this up, can I?”
“Yes,” he replied. “You can get us both killed.”
“You have to keep your body in the shape of a banana,” he said. “Hips thrust down, OK?”
OK, I saidâ€”then kept trying to remember what he said. Banana, pear or apple? Hips up or down? Hands crossed or straight. Crap, crap, crap.
Gio and I were seated in the rear of the plane. When we reached 13,000 feet, the huge door opened. I was glad I’d be lastâ€”but then, without warning, bodies parted, and Gio and I shuffled to the front. What the hell? An experienced solo skydiver jumped first, and as I saw her body plunge toward the earth … I … I … I … went numb. Brain-dead. Gio pushed from behind, I sorta resisted. He pushed again, and I found myself at the lip of the door. As instructed, I crossed my arms over my chest and tilted my head back. Then, one last push and …
I promised a friend I would no longer curse on this blog, but, well, here’s an exception: Holy shitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshitholyshit!!!!!!!!!!! Our bodies flipped head-over-feet through the air, and suddenly I was plunging toward earth. 120 mph. Attached to nothing. Plunging. Plunging. Plunging. But here’s the friggin’ amazing thingâ€”it was absolutely, positively, insanely, remarkably, dazzlingly awesome. Sure, I was scared. But mostly, I was blown away. How to best describe the feeling of free-falling from an airplane? I’ve thought about this a lot today: Combine the nervous/excited energy of that moment when your future wife is walking toward you down the aisle with the fear (only times 100,000) of approaching the highest point of the Coney Island Cyclone. It’s as if you’re a character in the Matrix, in some 8th dimension that makes no real sense. You’re thinking nothing, feeling nothing. Just 100 percent in the moment. If I could bottle the aura, I’d sell it for $10 million a pop, because it’s unlike anything I’ve ever had before. Bliss at 13,000 feet.
After 30 seconds of free fall, Gio gave me a sign to pull the parachute chord, so I reached back and grabbed … nothing. Didn’t matter. He pulled it for me, and suddenly we went shooting upward. It wasn’t scary, just jarring. Thenâ€”the float. Beautiful, serene, magical. Gio handed me the parachute grips and allowed me to steer right and left. From the ground, it had looked so nerve-wracking. But it wasn’t. I was floating above the world, tears in the corners of my eyes, and I didn’t want to come down. It wasn’t the view, or even the sense of accomplishment. No, it was just … floating. I wasn’t worried about my job or my family or my health. I was just floating, as peaceful as I’d ever been.
The landing was simple, and as soon as I touched ground I wanted to go right back up.
It was, hands down, the most electrical 15 minutes of my life.
I don’t think skydiving will cure my hypochondria, or erase my fear of death. But it served as an important reminder about life: You have toâ€”have toâ€”challenge yourself; take risks; step out of the comfort zones. Especially as we get older, it becomes increasingly easy to fall into patterns and never break out. We wake up, we work, we come home, we tuck our kids in, we watch American Idol or sports or whatever, we go to bed. Press repeat. Press repeat again. And again. And again. Well, I’m refusing to live this way. I’m already seeking out the next adventure, and whether it’s hang gliding or ice fishing or learning to play the banjo or how to tap dance or … whateverâ€”I’m there.
And you should be, too.