When I was sixteen I went away to Conservation Camp. We stayed in cabins and wandered through the woods, there may have been an all-girl skinny dip at the lake at two in the morning and I had a brief interlude (though not while skinny dipping, of course) with a boy named Stacie. He was cute and ginger and I giggled a lot around him. Stacie gave me my first hickie while sitting on the deck of the pier. I half-smile as I think of those few days that summer when life was still fresh and new and exciting. Well, this weekend (at the age of forty-three) I got another hickie. This one was not from a pretty young redhead named Stacie. This one was from the lines of my Dolphin chute as I came in hard and fast and at half flare. The French judges would have scored my flip flop a ten, I just know they would.
But, let’s back up and review the weekend as a whole.
I had Mander drive me to Huntington and drop me off for the weekend so she could use the car. I brought a few things for Big Blue (my little “under repair” camper – when finished, a before and after blog will be posted) and figured I would sleep in the hanger. Friday night was my first all-alone overnight at the hanger. A few of us hung out for a while and then when the last one (Bobby) bid his goodnights, it was just me. Wow, that hanger has some great acoustics. The rain started soft at first and then built up to an angry pelting. The hanger is located close to an active railroad and somewhere in the middle of the night I heard a growing noise and wrote it off as a train coming down the tracks. The sound grew louder and louder and suddenly the two garage doors at the front of the hanger started a heavy rattling and the building shook a bit. It was this amazing wind that was just loud and angry and wicked. Once the wind died down and the steady thrum of a soft rain started, I drifted off and slept like a baby (and maybe snored like a trucker). Dawn broke and through the window over the door, I could see the morning come to full light. The patter of the rain would fade in and out. And, like the rain, I faded in and out of sleep. I was having a rather intense dream in which Sigourney Weaver and I were battling just-born aliens in the space lab. As I woke up, I thought – holy shit that was so real! Then I heard it – the skittering clawing sound as little bird feet scratched along the metal roof. It sounded just like the baby aliens in the movie and was just enough to wake me up soundly! Saturday was a wash (literally) as far as jumps go. The whole morning rotated between showers and storms – dark, ominous and always threatening skies. Andy and I worked a little on my camper (air conditioner in the window – check). Saturday night found me sleeping in the hanger again. – Checking the weather, we were pleased to see a forecast of sunshine by no later than nine-ish. Before everyone settled in for the night, we had a visit from one badass crawdad…
What a foggy Sunday morning we woke up to. FIRE THE WEATHERMAN! Our jumpers started arriving around 930. They were all very understanding of being a slave to the weather. The hanger was still in good spirits. And, one of my fave people in the world – Melissa – brought chocolate milk…score! Then began the “hurry up and wait” game. Finally, the fog did break and the clouds started to part – happy happy sunshine for everyone! By then it was after noon-thirty. So, we started hustling and getting the jumpers in the sky. All-in-all we had eleven drops in the day (eleven tandems, six student jumps and a number of experienced jumps). We wrapped up the day around 830 that evening – everyone was wore out but smiling. The last experienced jumper of the evening was Chase and he entertained us with a swoop and chug… He is, after all, the Party Patrol!
Two of those IAD student jumps? Me. Let me go on record before I give you the down and dirty on those jumps and state two facts – Sam Tomlin is an amazing instructor. For me, what I like about Sam is that he is not intimidating when he teaches and he reminds me to breathe and have a good time. After all, that is what we are here for. Second fact – any time spent in the air is a good time. Now, for the down and dirty:
Sunday Jump One: If you recall from the video of my first solo IAD, I exited the plane, looked down and followed my line of vision. I barrel-rolled out of the door. Ugly Prom Date (for those of you who asked – You have an ugly prom date, you obviously asked her for a reason, you dance all night and enjoyed the hell out of it. However, you know your friends are going to give you shit after the night is over.) So – jumping my first solo IAD gave me perspective. Before it I had nothing to compare “jumping” to. It gave texture to my experience. After lengthy discussions with a number of people, I tried to determine how to make my exit a more favorable one. Located outside the door of our Cessna is a small silver step (maybe 4″x6″ roughly). In the minutes leading up to jump two, I “tried out” new thoughts on exits. I sat inside the door of the stationary plane and, with Sam’s guidance, tried to get a feel for what would work for me. The thing that continued to haunt me – I HAVE to arch, I HAVE to look up. I decided against trying to use the step. It was a little too high to feel comfortable for me. I decided to go the same route as I did in my previous jump and just concentrate on the things that I needed to improve upon. So, in the plane and up in the air we went. Oddly, I was not as “sick to my stomach nervous” as with my first solo. I felt as if my nerves were so much better this jump (don’t get me wrong, I was still nervous – I just didn’t puke before my jump this time). We climbed to 3,000ft (under my breath I whispered over and over “look up, look up, look up”) and Sam began to check my gear, prep my pilot chute and go through the checklist for my exit. As we came to our jump altitude (4,000ft), Pilot Ryan gave the call “DOOR” and the door went up. I waddle my ass forward to get in position. Sam retrieved my pilot chute and then the moment was upon us. “CUT” and the engine was suddenly off. Once again I had difficulty waddling ass to the door (it was in that moment that I vowed to myself to get in better shape). Sam screamed “YOU READY TO SKYDIVE?” “YES” “SKYDIVE!” Out of the door flew me and my pilot chute. Reviewing the footage, you will see that I did look up this time. BUT – damn that arch (or lack thereof). My hands flew forward and my feet I guess wanted to come up and meet my hands. I think I might have looked as if I was in a seated position or something. The moment my chute deployed I folded like a wallet (which explained my sore ass muscles a few hours later hee hee). Ralph caught a great picture of my exit. When I posted it on Facebook Aaron made a comment and said I look like flattened Frogger…
yeah, yeah. He’s kinda right on that one. My chute felt like it took longer to square up this time. But when she did she was a beautiful sight to behold. With my toggles in hand, I became a canopy pilot. I once again encountered difficulty hearing the radio. Aaron had taped up my “good ear” hole to see if maybe by keeping out the wind, it would allow my hearing to hone in on the radio. Not sure if it helped or hindered. I may try without the taped up ear hole the next time so I have something to compare it to. I began my checklist – get my sites on the airstrip (check), line myself up right (check), look for parked cars to get perspective…look for parked cars…shit! I was looking at the adjacent golf course. Easy fix, turn and head for home. Andy once again talked me in for my landing. I feel that my steering is pretty good. My strongest point, I personally believe. As I came in I was fussed at to keep my “arms up high”. I have a tendency to want to bring them down when I should not. Another shortcoming is that I try to flare (air brake) by bringing my arms down on the outside (think of me looking as if I am doing a jumping jack – sort of). I should be flaring in a way that sort of looks like – reverse bicep curls. Basically, bringing my toggles to the crotch straight down vs via past my hips. This is something that I need to work on – knowing the moment to fully flare and to flare properly. So – the short of it – I came in on my ass once again. I did not have the adrenaline shakes that I did with my first jump. It felt so much better than the first jump. I had a bit of a long walk to make but I was smiling as I trekked back to the hanger.
Sunday Jump Two: For my second jump of the day, Sam had talked with another experienced jumper and had come up with a plan for me to fall out of the plane straight on, not with my body at an angle toward the wing. I have not seen the video of this exit. To be honest, I cannot really remember the exit that well at all (my landing kind of took away from my exit memory). I did gather though that it was pretty much crap. I kind of wish I had stayed with the same exit formation of my first two jumps. This is, in part, because on my second jump I felt that I had improved. And because I was concentrating on what I needed to work on from that particular angle, I felt that I had more of an “understanding” of what it felt like to jump from that position. But I know that Sam was trying to get me into a comfort zone that allowed me to realize the arch in a more comfortable manner though. I am truly frustrated with my exits. As my chute deployed, I encountered my first line twist. I was so overwhelmingly proud of myself for not getting into a panic. I grabbed my risers, pulled them away from each other roughly, and spun out of the twist. I then gathered up my toggles and began to do a controllability check. Chute was square, stable and steerable. Everything was good. Well, almost. For my third time in a row I had major issues hearing the radio commands. I floated all the way to the end of the runway and then took a meandering turn and floated all the way back to the concrete supply building. In between I would catch a few phrases, but not everything, I misunderstood some commands and I think others I might have gotten right. They teach you to not depend on the radio and to know the course of your landing. I am not Linus, I should not need a security blanket. However, at that time, I fell prey to a little panic when I realized my “security blanket” wasn’t fully working for me. After a sharper turn I began to desend, checked my altimeter and realized I was right around 1,000(ish)ft. I cannot remember clearly how I ended up over our parking lot vs the airfield, but there I was – I thought I was going to have to land on a patch of grass in the middle of the lot. I made a sharper right turn, the desent started to escalate, I came over parked cars (that silver jeep was real pretty as I saw it closer than my comfort level felt was appropriate), I cruised rapidly over the wooden fence (that one kind of scared me) – at this point the commands were very clear, “FLARE, FLARE, FLARE!!!” I feared flaring over the cars because I thought I would end up on them. My brain hesitated and my flare once again was not as it should be. I came in at an angle. And oh, what a rough angle it was. As I realized I should really be flaring, I had that moment of “come on, run it in, you can do it this time and make this otherwise not-so-good flight into a great jump” – but then realized I was coming in faster than I initially thought. As I tried to lift my feet to ride my seat – my toe caught the turf and…I am very thankful that my chute was still full as it came to the ground with me. It hid me from the eyes of my concerned skydive family. Behind that chute I did a modified flip flop, the riser grazing my neck, my wrist feeling a little mis-bent and I landed on my back. Carl was down the field behind me – he saw the rough landing. But everyone else did not. Everyone ran to my aid. I love my new family and I love their concern for me. But, after a few minutes I truly wanted nothing more than to walk it off. The “holy fuck” adrenaline (the bad holy fuck, not the good holy fuck) was in full force and the feelings of a hurt pride were feeding the feeling of utter failure. There was a moment when I was beating myself up that I thought of the episodes of Friends when Monica dated the rich guy who wanted to be a UFC fighter (Pete, played by Jon Favreau). He had heart, he had nerve but he had no skill. None of the “Friends” had the nerve to tell him to try something a little safer, maybe scooping ice cream or something. But he plugged away at it. That moment I found myself sitting in, while feeling a bit like shit (and realizing that there was turf in my panties), I thought – maybe I am Favreau, maybe I was not cut out for this thing that I love so much. I dropped my gear in the hanger and tried to escape. Andy caught me making my way around the corner and out of sight. He calmed me down. He is pretty amazing really. After a while, when the attention was away from me, I made my way up to my camper, pulled out one of the outdoor chairs I brought and sat down looking out over the airstrip at the soon-to-set sun. I was a little overwhelmed but I took stock of my disarrayed mental state. Was I hurt? No, not really – pride yes, body somewhat, but all-in-all I was ok. Then I did a check and balance of my frustrations – I am NOT Jon Favreau! Damnit! I am Chumbawamba! Yeah, I got knocked down but I can get up again! (I know, I know – all downtrodden “me” is pretty cheesy with what went through my mind at that point – but Chumbawamba kinda worked at that moment).
You can love your parachute, you just can’t LOOOVVVEEE your parachute. Yeah, so what if mine gave me a hickie! Ha!
Bottom line – after some ibuprofen, a few blueberry lagers and a Five Guys hamburger – I realized that I learned a very valuable lesson. Yeah, I took a tumble – it shook me up a bit but it was not so horrible I could not overcome it. The most important thing is that I came out on the other side. I think sometimes worrying about what it would be like to fail at something can hold us back from succeeding at it.
As silly as it might sound, I am pulling my cooler into my bedroom and practicing my arch in the privacy of my own quarters. Melissa is right, muscle memory is important. If I work every day for a few minutes on the feeling of my body in full arch, it should help me when it matters the most – while exiting the door.
So, keep your eyes to the sky – if you see Frogger heading for you at terminal velocity – smile. It’s just me looking for a patch of grass to land on.
(I may have made Mander drive home so I could nap….)