This story was performed at the June edition of the Stories We Don't Tell. If you would like to hear the story and the entire live event, listen to this episode of the Open Kwong Dore Podcast: CLICK HERE. _________________________
Hanging out the door of the ratty plane, the plane held together by duct tape, heavy clouds blocked my view of the earth, which was 10,000 feet below. Did you know that when a human being jumps out of an airplane, they travel upwards of 120 miles per hour? What kind of damage occurs to a person's body when it hurtles 120 miles per hour and slams into the earth 10,000 feet below? The wind whistled loudly: This was not a good idea. In the history of ideas, this was the worst. My instructor, 'The Tandem Master', nudged me and I had a moment of clarity: I was going to die.
I blame this all on my friend Jim. It wasn’t his fault that he turned thirty, but it was his fault that he wanted me to go skydiving with him to celebrate turning thirty. We made the pact late one night in a bar. The copious amounts of alcohol might’ve had something to do with my enthusiastic commitment. Laying in bed the next morning, hungover, the alcohol-fuelled bravery of the previous evening had evaporated and I tried to think of ways to get out of this.
With death in the air, I became very annoying. We had a two-week deadline before jumping and I let everyone know this. Repeatedly. Telling friends about my death became an enjoyable pastime. This is the last Saturday of my life, I said. This is the last time I will eat at this restaurant, I reminded them. This is the last time I will see you.
Besides annoying my friends, my other pastime became thinking about every which way I could die. The parachute failing to open, the parachute opening but it would be filled with holes, lightning striking me in mid-air. But, chances were that I would die in a very boring way, say, the plane crashing before we even got the opportunity to jump.
We arrived at the skydiving site, which was out in the country surrounded by farmer’s fields. A large barn operated as the office. Beside the barn, sat a line of trailers. Lots of young people with long hair, beards and vintage clothing mulled around in small groups, drinking coffee out of dented tin cups and avoiding eye contact with us skydiving virgins.
A young woman took us for a tour of the place. In the back of the barn, rows of parachutes lined the floor. People concentrated on meticulously folding parachutes. All of the instructors rolled up random parachutes and always used different ones when jumping. They did not know who’s were who’s so that everyone would give 100% of their rolling efforts to each individual parachute 100% of the time. But, what if someone was having a bad day? Or was hungover? This was not something you could do at 75% – even at 99.9%. This was a communal level of responsibility I’d never seen before and simply didn’t trust. I thought this was insane.
The final stop on the tour was the audio/visual room. Uncomfortable, multicoloured plastic chairs sat in front of an old television and VCR. I hoped their skydiving equipment was more up to date then their audio/visual equipment. The safety video must have been circa 1982. The host had badly quaffed hair and a thick Burt Reynolds moustache. “You are holding your lives in your hands,” Burt said. “The danger of death is all around you.” He talked about the different ways we could die. And I was right, as he went through lightning, cables, parachutes not opening. He signed off by saying, and I’ll never forget it, “This could be the last stop on the train of life.” After the safety video, we went for our training. The word training was up for interpretation.
We were tandem jumping, the type where you jump with an instructor. You are attached to The Tandem Master via a harness system. Burt explained to us that you need no prior jumping experience as The Tandem Master is responsible for overseeing that everything goes according to plan. The Tandem Master has hundreds, if not thousands, of jumps under his or her belt. My Tandem Master was a tall, gangly fellow, with long scraggly hair and curly cue beard. He wore an old t-shirt with a fading band logo, frayed cut-off jean shorts and was bare foot. His name was Thumper. Now, I’m going to repeat that. His name was Thumper. The man who held my life in his hands.
Thumper led us out of the barn to a makeshift replica door of the airplane. The ‘training’ took five minutes. Standing in the haul of the fake plane, Thumper instructed me to place one foot on the platform just outside of the door. Next, I crossed my arms in front of my chest. ONE bend forwards, TWO rock backwards, THREE fall forward out and under the plane. If you jump out, the force of the wind might thrust you backwards, smashing you into the plane, rendering you unconscious and most likely falling to your death. Burt failed to mention that point.
“And that’s it,” Thumper said.
“What do you mean, that’s it?” I asked.
Thumper paused, looked over to Jim and said, “We have some time. There’s a town about a ten minute drive away. Maybe you can take your friend here and get a drink. You know, take the edge off.”
“Listen here Thumper, if that’s your real name. Excuse me if I’m a little nervous, if I’m displaying a small amount of anxiety. I would not say that I’m afraid of heights, I have no problem riding up long escalators or being on the top floor of a high building and I don’t even really get nervous when flying. However, I do not jump off the escalator when I reach the top or jump off the top of that high building and I’ve certainly never felt compelled to jump out of a plane until about two weeks ago. Yes, these things might contain the illusion of safety. Yes, I realize that I could get hit by a bus crossing the street tomorrow. But I would imagine the percentage of dying when you’re actively and voluntarily jumping out of an airplane is much higher than being hit by a bus crossing the street tomorrow. Yes, Thumper, I am scared. I am sorry that my fear is showing, a fear that I attempted to cover-up the past two weeks with my obsession over how I would die. But let’s look at it this, can we? I’m paying you a pretty substantial fee so you can show me safety videos that probably are not regulated or official in any way, we train for a full five minutes, I mean, it would have been nice to at least have a bit more information, don’t you think? Maybe seven, or even eight minutes? I’m introduced to my Tandem Master and you’re named after a fictitious rabbit from a 1942 Walt Disney movie and you’re not wearing any shoes and I’m supposed to trust you with my life and now you’re ridiculing me because my hands are a bit shaky, because my voice is cracking a bit and your suggestion to quell this fear is to put alcohol into my system before we fly 10,000 feet into the sky and jump back down, falling at speeds of 120 miles per hour? Well, excuse me for being a bit scared.” Of course, I didn’t say any of this to Thumper.
The plane, if you could call it a plane, appeared as a wobbling speck in the sky. The only evidence it was a plane was that it was somehow airborne. As we waited for it to land, Thumper wasn’t happy with the weather system coming in from the east. He put his hand to his brow, sniffed the air, narrowed his eyes at the overcast clouds approaching. “I don’t like the look of those clouds,” he said. “On the plus side, if they stay, it means we’ll have to go higher.”
The plane bounced off the ground a few times before landing and rolling towards us on what appeared to be a flat tire. It was an old hollowed out prop plane with just enough room for the pilot, Jim, myself and our two Tandem Masters. Rips and cracks were covered with fraying grey duct tape. The plane felt like it was coming apart at the seams. Now that the plane was on the ground, I wondered how it would get back in the air.
Jim and his partner were up front by the pilot. Thumper and I in the back. Thumper was relaxed in his cutoffs and sprawled his long legs out. He opened a compartment closed up with duct tape and pulled out a book. Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. Thumper: the philosopher.
We climbed the 10,000 feet slowly. After breaking through the clouds, Thumper motioned for me to hook in. I sat back in his lap and he put his arms around me. I wanted to stay there: inside this ratty plane, 10,000 feet in the air, in the arms of a grown man named Thumper. It felt safe and warm.
Jim and I had a deal. Since this whole thing was his idea, he had to jump first. And it was time to jump. Jim got into position. His Tandem Master gave a nod to the pilot and he opened the small door. The sound was like being inside a turbine engine. Jim looked at me, there was nothing left to say. He got into position, hands on his chest. ONE he bent forward, TWO he rocked backwards, THREE and he then he just … disappeared. You know those scenes from a movie when a plane rips open in mid-air and passengers get violently sucked out and die terrible deaths? That’s exactly what it looked like. I blinked and Jim was gone.
Thumper tapped me on the shoulder. I snapped out of my haze and he motioned towards the door. I shook my head. He nodded. I shook. He nodded. Then he kind of pushed me towards the door. As per my training, I was supposed to put my foot on the platform outside the door, then cross my hands in front of my chest. Staring down 10,000 feet, the most vulnerable thing I could do was cross my hands in front of my chest. Instead, I lay back, put my feet on the inside wall of the plane, grabbed on to the edge of the door.
Thumper kicked my feet into place, pried my hands from the door and forced them in front of my chest. I looked down ONE. TWO. THREE.