The plane gave us a nasty bump and twist to one side. With no seats other than the cold metal deck to sit on, we felt every wisp of the outside turbulence. I steadied my stomach and for the thirty-first or thirty second time, reminded myself, despite the evidence before me, how safe this really was and that I hadn’t lied to my new bride, back on the ground that I really – really wanted to do this. . . .
The pilot resumed his heading of up – at a really steep angle, pushing both engines to claw their way through the thinning air. I could hear and feel them as they complained of the strain, and as the fuselage twisted and creaked to follow. Were people ever meant to fly like this?
The only comfort was the cushion behind my back. It was my rented parachute and now my only source of comfort from this rattling war relic and then as the only way I was going to touch ground again. I felt buried in other gear, special jump suit with grab holds for the instructors, goggles and altimeter strapped to my chest where I could monitor our climb from 600 some-odd feet where the instructors ran out all the static line jumpers, those whose chutes would open as soon as they were marched out and something closer to 12,000 feet where those who had signed up for the full experience of jumping, falling, pulling our own rip cords and then driving our chutes back to the landing area.
Well before I was ready, the pilot leveled off and turned for his run across the jump zone. I watched as others, then two of my good friends, were shown the hatch and disappeared out the side of the plane. It was too loud to talk, but my instructors were clear when they signaled and helped me to stand and get to the hatch. I wanted to stop and consider what I was doing but these guys were too well trained and did not allow any pause and with a final step, a tornado of rushing air threw us and I could see the tail of a perfectly good airplane as it quickly disappeared from my grasp.
The unstoppable adventure had begun and now it was time to see if I had learned anything about surviving it. Dear God! What have I done?
Have you ever wondered what drives us to do some things? In this case, I wanted to experience the largest challenge to my latent fear of heights.
My mom told me how hard of a baby I was to manage. Once, she said, “You were only about 16 months old when you were in your high-chair at the top of the porch stairs while I walked down to collect the mail. You managed to topple that chair and roll it and yourself down the stairs after me.” My dad was near the bottom helped to catch the snarl of chair and baby as we snowballed past.
I think this proved that my highly developed sense of physics had not yet appeared. Either that or I was suffering from an unbearable diaper rash and simply could not sit still. Either way, I certainly came away with a precognitive fear of heights.
High bridges became a later temptation and mom took few risks with me until I put a few more years between me and that roll down the stairs, but I recall the creepy urge to get too close the the edge and something deep inside calling me to step over to see what happens.
While living in San Jose, I found a fun way to appease that voice. I was taking a diving class at De Anza College taught by a deviant phyis-ed guy who loved to pull stunts on us. His class only dealt with the neat things you can do off of a normal height board. So we practiced stuff a trampoline where he could put spotters beside us as we twisted and bent in mid-air to get the feel of some of the dives we would later do down in the pool.
It didn’t take long for one of us to ask if we could check out the 10 meter platform used for competitions. He smiled in a way that I really should have caught, and said, “Sure. Follow me.” He led us up the stairs to the gate just before the highest platform which he unlocked and stepped aside to let four rowdy 20 year-olds scramble up and onto the platform. We were cautiously stepping out to take in the view of the surrounding campus and remarkably small pool a couple of miles below us, when we heard dreadful lock re-engaging from behind us.
“Sorry guys, I need to get back to the rest of the students and can’t leave the lock open. Simple jumps, feet-first only please as you come back down.” And he was gone. We knew better than to plead, but thought he might respond to a hunger strike after 14 or 15 days . . .
We stood at the edge when one guy said, “I don’t think I’m quite ready for this, but . . .” he jumped anyway. We watched him fall, and fall, and disappear behind a layer of rain clouds. He reappeared just outside the approach pattern for incoming jets at nearby Moffett Field Airport and splashed down in the tiny pool far below us. In a few long seconds, we saw him surface and wave back to us before swimming back to the pool side. He survived and so might we.
A couple of the guys were beginning to make discouraging sounds so I knew the task before me was not going to get any easier. There wasn’t much to figure out, just step out and let gravity do what it consistently does given any chance, so I said, “See you below gents,” and stepped out — and wow, it never occurred to me that I would feel the acceleration. It seemed to take a long time to fall that distance, but when I finally hit the water, it was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I’d heard several people say that when you’re falling that fast, the water feels more like concrete and the impact wasn’t anything like a graceful jackknife dive from the 1 meter board.
But I both survived and was drawn to do it again later.
It was only a few years later when a real adult friend from work who I’d backpacked a lot with asked if I’d be interested in climbing Half Dome in Yosemite. His requests always took priority so away we went. We climbed up around the east side of half dome and to the cable trail to the top. It was the off season so we had the monument to ourselves so the full safety cabling was not set up. We had no special gear for climbing the main cables that were left up year round but they were just lying on the step slope. We did have our leather gloves so up we went.
During the climb up, an unexpected heavy gust of wind ripped across the trail and rolled me several feet to one side, but I never lost my grip on that cable, which if you look at the photo, I’ll bet you wouldn’t have lost your grip either. My friend had had enough so he went back down. I stood back up and kept climbing to the top and walked off my fatigue.
After a snack sitting in the middle of the top, I could wait no more and had to walk out to the highest sharpest edge so I could look over. When that edge was no more that 8 feet away, I found I simply could not bring myself to “walk” to the edge. Just one more gust of wind like we had down below and I’d be magically changed from a climber to a faller. That voice calling me to the edge, could not convince me to approach while standing up, so I crawled and found the view breathtaking – and heart melting.
After college, I had my new bride and a new career teaching computer science for the University of California Berkeley and anyone who would hire me for a week or two. I was making reasonable money and had two friends who wanted to try skydiving. I had to give up scuba diving because my eustachian tubes could not handle the pressure changes of diving deeper than about 20 feet. Bummer, but who can’t go down could always go up = or so I reasoned.
I had a friend at church who did this for a hobby and now I had a small gang of friends to do it with me, so off we went for the best version of sky diving for newbies, something called AFF, or Advanced Free-Fall. This is when, after training, you gladly jump out of a plane much higher than the static line folks who jump and immediately have a full chute to take them back down. We AFF students went high enough to fall for about a full minute. Go on. Imagine “falling” for a full minute with an instructor holding onto either side of their jump suit.
At a predetermined altitude (we used 5500 feet) the student signals that he understands where he’s at and pulls his rip cord. Then you have several minutes of a full chute to drive around and enjoy the view before landing into the wind so you can almost always walk through your landing. Landing with the wind had you moving over the ground fast enough to break bones – so this was discouraged.
So, after stepping out of that plane, I got my bearing and balance in the skydivers pose of belly down with arms and legs spread and was finding I could position myself some by adjusting my limbs. Glancing at my altimeter, I was falling fast and the view was amazing. I wanted it to last as long as possible. That creepy voice inside that often tempted me with fear and a strange longing, was crushed. This was so much fun!
I was actually sad when I made it down to 5500 feet and had to rip-cord my instructors away and the whole experience changed. I was expecting a huge jerk from belly-first to feet-first descent, but modern chutes prevent this. The chute system is designed to inflate slowly and thus ease you into the position needed to drive the chute.
Now — I wanted this part to last as long as possible. It was quiet and breathtaking with all the Christmas-tree size towns and hills below.
I saw the landing zone and realized that after sightseeing for too long, I was too far away so I spun my chute and noticed, ugh, there were power lines between me and where I wanted to be. Could I get over them without touching them?
Nope, I couldn’t, but I had closed the gap some and at the last moment realized I was coming in with the wind – oh no! How quick can I turn this thing? I managed to lose most of my momentum but still ended up rolling on the ground with more of a crash landing than any anything I would have wanted video evidence of.
My wife’s last words to me had been something along the lines of, ” go get this out of your system now before we have kids, because after that, you’re grounded.”
“Okay,” I thought, “Fair enough.” I only needed first hand evidence that I could squash The Voice whenever desired.
My fear of heights was firmly under my control and I’m still alive to tell this and other tales, so I think she knew what she was talking about.