When the Present is not the Gift
So I’m crouched on my knees in a tiny little airplane with the engine roaring in my ears and my heart thundering in my chest. Also, I am shackled to a man who I have known for all of 14 minutes and into whose hands I am about to place my life.
The plane climbs higher and higher in lazy circles until we reach jump altitude. The pilot reaches over and opens the door and I look out into the abyss.
It was go time.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is not a story about skydiving. It’s a story about a memorable day when I learned two very important lessons. More on that later.
When I turned 40, I decided to celebrate four decades of shamelessly cheating death in the way that most sane, rational people do.
By jumping out of a perfectly good airplane.
At that time, my daughters were small. Just about to turn 3 and 6. As a conscientious and loving father I thought it was a good idea to tell the girls what was going to happen in a few weeks. I explained how I would be jumping out of a plane but that it was perfectly safe and that they could even watch me in the sky. Of course, I fully expected them to say “Daddy what if the parachute doesn’t open? Will you still be safe?” or “it looks pretty scary”.
Nope. Instead, they asked me if I would bring them back a cloud.
Now I may not know much but I do know this. When your baby girls ask you to bring them back a cloud you find a way to bring them back a cloud.
Just before the four of us left for the airfield their mom took out my birthday present — a handful of pillow stuffing. You know, the wispy cottony kind. Total cost = $0.27 give or take. I put it in my pocket and off to the airfield we went.
When we arrived, I was issued a prison grade orange jumpsuit and a helmet. It occurred to me that giving someone a helmet when he is about to go skydiving is like going white water rafting and being issued a pair of water wings.
After signing about 15 different waivers, I was ushered into the Video Viewing room. I thought “at last the instructional video.” Nope. The video was in fact a warning from the parachute school’s lawyer.
He sat motionless staring into the camera dressed in his 1970s leisure suit and explained that the waivers we had just signed were completely, absolutely 100% airtight. He told us that attempting to sue the parachute school would be futile. Hundreds have tried, zero have won. He admonished, “If you want to hire a lawyer that’s your right but trust me you would be wasting your time and money”.
I started doing some mental math… hundreds of attempted lawsuits and assumably thousands of jumpers. Does this mean that I (or my estate as it were) had a one in ten chance of having something to sue over? But hey, this was no time for arithmetic. It was time to seize the birthday!
I walked outside into the bright summer afternoon where the air hung heavy with the smell of new grass, blossoming flowers and abject terror.
My girls went off to sit on a park bench with their mom and take in the whole experience over some tasty snacks. I blew them a kiss and was directed to the hangar where I was introduced — and rather abruptly shackled to — Sergei, my jumpmaster.
Sergei was from someplace in eastern Europe and his mastery of the English language was — to be kind — halting. This was not my concern though, as he knew the important stuff like “Arch body”, “Look up” and “forget about litigation.”
But back to where I started the story, just before my date with the Infinite.
Looking out into the abyss, I realized that there were only two possible outcomes here. Either this will be the most exciting thing I have ever done, or I will die a mercifully swift and painless death. Where I come from, we call that win/win.
Standing in the doorway with my eyes preternaturally open and my underclothes astonishingly unsoiled, Sergei gave me the shoulder tap. This was the non-verbal equivalent of “You jump now”. I took a deep breath, arched my body, and tumbled out into infinity.
Strangest damn thing though. The second that my body left the aircraft, all the fear left my body. It was replaced by a mix of exhilaration and child-like wonder. The world below me was an arial map, the sky around me was warm and welcoming even as it rushed past me at breakneck speed.
I had gladly paid the exorbitant upcharge for aerial photography of my adventure. A few minutes before my jump the photographer exited the plane. By exited I mean he casually walked out the doorway with all the nonchalance of a man falling gently on his back into a heated swimming pool filled with bikini models.
When the photographer had aligned himself with Sergei and me, I was doing one of those things that they explicitly tell you not to do — looking down. Not necessarily because it would diminish the experience but rather so that I could show my full face to the camera to get one of those “Look at me, I’m flyyyyying — and my thumbs are up” shots.
When Sergei abruptly grabbed my head and yanked it upward it was for optimal photographic effect.
After about a minute of freefall Sergei pulled the ripcord and our descent slowed with a great lurch. I’ve never been stuck in a runaway elevator as it jerks to a halt between floors, but I imagine that it is something like that. Except that you are — you know — in the sky.
We went from hurtling to falling and finally to gliding as the world beneath me got closer and closer.
As we got near the ground Sergei slapped my upper thigh which meant “Extend legs now”. I did and we landed with all the impact of jumping off a curb onto the street. Flawless and effortless — for Sergei anyway. I unshackled myself and walked away from the landing zone.
Once I was close enough, my daughters ran to me with hugs and kisses and — of course — asked if I brought them back a cloud. I reached into my pocket and gave them the stuffing.
The way that their little faces lit up when I gave them the bag was the best birthday gift I could have imagined. Not to mention guaranteeing my spot in the dad hall of fame.
Remember when I said that I learned two very important things that day?
First, I learned that skydiving is only scary until the second that you exit the plane. Because the anticipation of a thing is almost always more frightening than the thing itself.Secondly, I learned how something worth about $0.27 can have value beyond measure. Because sometimes the birthday present is not the birthday gift.