When you have tasted flight you will always walk the Earth with
your eyes turned skyward; for there you have been and there you
will long to return.
--Leonardo da Vinci
Greene, N.Y. -- April, 1969.
We were about half a mile above the ground on a crisp, sunny Saturday
afternoon, the patchwork grid of the rural landscape visible through
the Plexiglas door of the blue-and-white Cessna. The Chenango River
snaked through the valley between the low rolling mountains just
below the right wing. Spring never looked so lovely. The whine of
the engine wound down slightly, and Bill Smith, the jumpmaster,
unlatched the door and slid it open. He motioned me to swing my
feet out on the step, and the prop blast, colder than I expected,
slapped rudely at my cheeks. I held onto the metal strut, tighter
than I needed, stiff as a barnstorming wing-walker.
What was I thinking? Im not certain. But in reviewing the
blurry events of a day that occurred when I was a young man, more
than two decades ago, I realize now that the operator of this skydiving
center was nothing if not practical; he asked for payment in advance.
Id been through four hours of instruction, where Id
watched parachutes being packed, practiced falling off a small platform,
"exited" from a wooden structure that looked like a makeshift
gallows, and learned how to identify various "malfunctions."
I paid rapt attention during the emergency procedures.
I was petrified, naturally. The next few moments were pure adrenal
thumps, and the memory of this occasion pulses easily through my
mind. I vaguely recall being ordered to go, and as I released my
grip and took the leap into the vast space below me, I saw a flash
of sunlight against the cobalt sky as the plane quickly receded
This is the critical moment. When you let go. I have pilfered this
phrase from the photographer, Henry Cartier-Bresson. I know I screamed;
you cant get much more primal than an instant like this. "One
thousand, two thousand, three thousand
," I yelled, my
heart jumping out of my chest, and then there was the sharp report,
a thwack as the static line extracted the billowing canopy.
Opening shock, its called. Youre relieved because youve
just experienced the welcome pleasure of the violent jerk. Then
release, like waking from a dream and realizing that all those previous
thoughts, the story you had written in your mind was completely
The brief reverie was interrupted. An anonymous voice on the radio
receiver, which was tied to the top of the reserve chute, came alive
and asked, "If you can hear me, kick your legs." The doctor
checking for a pulse. I meekly complied, and I was ordered to pull
the left or right steering toggles as I was guided toward a huge
round landing pit of gravel and dirt.
The primal part was over, and for the next two and a half minutes,
I merely viewed the Earth from a vantage Id never known, one
part beauty, one part the possibility of disaster. My heart was
still racing, though the fear was dissipating. I peered up at the
umbrella and marveled how a sheet of nylon and a group of 28 strings
could actually hold you in midair. Would this old crate stay together?
I drifted toward the ground, the horizon slowly rising in the periphery.
The earth was slowly swallowing me. It was tranquil, with the whisper
of the wind. It was like drowning your head in a pillow.
When I reached the ground, and rolled in the dirt, I laughed at
the thought of what Id accomplished, duly astonished. Id
cheated death, which I soon discovered was a popular cliché
among the blessed, the sky gods, the hard core, the guys who wanted
the world to know how brave they were. You mean you have to actually
pay to do that? you are asked. The euphoria was palpable, and it
lasted a long time, a thrill ride that was certainly worth the $25.
What kind of rush could ever equal that? I wondered.
Later, I wrote an article about the experience for the sports section
of my college newspaper, and the one phrase that sticks out, extracted
for the headline, was "a kaleidoscope of color," which,
looking back was kind of a sophomoric redundancy. I was, after all,
a sophomore, and I was reaching for some kind of passage that obviously
eluded my descriptive abilities. One fact not noted in that piece:
I was an illegal, underage, having turned 20 just a week earlier,
and I had forged the parental consent form. The waiver warned about
the possibility of serious injury or death and absolved the drop
zone operators of any liability. I knew that this was one form my
parents would never sign.
On the ground, I was greeted by my close friend from grade school,
Richard Aberman, who had traveled from Hobart College in Geneva
to visit that weekend, only to be roped into witnessing what he
thought was a foolish act of bravura. Informally, before the jump,
I had willed to him my white Rambler American and my cheap stereo,
my entire estate. It was only half in jest. I think he expected
me to survive, whereas I wasnt so certain. He must have asked
me what it was like, and this likely prompted his curiosity (he
later made a jump himself). I dont remember what I said. But
it had to have been something appropriately juvenile and hyperbolic.
This was a feeling that was better than sex, potentially addictive.
I was soon to enter this pleasure dungeon for a very long stay,
about to experience how habit-forming parachuting could become.
I just opened my psyche and let it happen. I had to repeat the fix.
Ten days later, I bought a used parachute for $35, a lime green
military canopy with the apex dyed in gold, "modified for sport;"
that is, it was clunky and it had a couple of patches, but you could
steer it. It was like the VW Beetle (with a few dents in the fender)
of canopies. It got you down, and kept you out of the trees, mostly.
The guy who ran the drop zone brokered the sale. He explained that
the jumper who owned it was dropping out of the sport (he hadnt
intended the pun, Im sure); the guy hadnt been around
in months. This lapsed skydiver was nicknamed Sodomite, and he was
a member of a loose cadre of skydivers who called themselves LAGNAF.
I could jump the rig, and if I didnt like it, back out of
the deal. Try before you buy. I figured if it opened, what was not
to like? If it didnt work, I said, then the deal was off.
He gave me a crude laugh; hed heard that one only about a
After the article about my first jump appeared on the back page
of the Syracuse University student newspaper, The Daily
Orange, the first girl I ever slept with, a freshman, sent me
a postcard. It had but one sentence, "So how was the second
one?" She apparently knew. (One thing I can say with certainty.
The fear and anxiety over my first sexual event was probably about
the same as my first parachute jump. The latter, however, had a
better payoff. Yes, it did.)
Thus began a 13-year odyssey of small, country airports around
the United States, France, and Canada, weekend relationships with
many interesting and occasionally strange and manic characters,
who lived for the weekends alone, lived for a lust to make dramatic
leaps through the atmosphere amid the clouds. For at least a few
years in my early twenties, I was very near what might be termed
a skydiving bum. In all, I made 849 jumps, earned an expert license
and jumpmaster rating, competed in various skydiving events, made
a number of group jumps where minor milestones were claimed, and
threw myself out of 24 different kinds of aircraft including
dangling from the strut of a hovering helicopter.
I jumped at night and into a lake, (but not on the same jump);
I jumped naked and into a nudist camp (but not on the same jump);
I parachuted into a number of weddings; I jumped for hire, too,
into more pig roasts and firemens and VFW cookouts and country
clubs than I can remember, including a fancy cocktail party in the
Hamptons on Long Island, and a night jump at a luau on the beach.
I was also a skydiving slut. Id do almost anything for a free
I spent six hours in free fall, perhaps another 50 hours floating
to earth under an open canopy, which is remarkable when you consider
that the farthest most people fall is probably out of bed or off
a ladder or off a mogul while skiing. Maybe a couple of seconds
at a time, a total of 20 or 30 seconds in a lifetime?
On two occasions, my main parachuted failed, requiring the use
of the reserve. This is a big test, the final exam you fear and
hope all the training you had prepared you well. And yes, if you
hang around drop zones long enough, death eventually will make an
unscheduled visit. It is an intrusion that you are always prepared
for and yet are never quite expecting. Sometimes it visits someone
you know, a casual weekend acquaintance, and sometimes its
an intimate friend. Sometimes the fatality has a rote cause, or
a long complex explanation, and other times, it is a matter of lousy
luck. Either way, these are hard funerals, and you make a silent
pledge to the deceased to get back upstairs as quickly as possible.
One of my friends, a Southern writer and novelist who lives in
Mobile, Alabama, suggested I try to write about this sport that
I loved for so long. He had mentioned that it had all the earmarks
of the themes that form the foundations of literature. Love, sex,
death, interesting characters. A lurid reputation, deserved or not.
I told him Id tried in the past on a number of occasions and
had come up with nothing but clichés and shaky prose. The
sport just reeks of its own excitement, accompanied by a smugness
among its practitioners. The result was an overcooked stew, shrouded
in the conventions of the skydiver. Eavesdrop on a drop zone, any
temple of parachuting activity. The lingo is not much different
from any other sports cult. Skydivers get stoked, too, all the time.
The dialect is different, and its always evolving.
I should note right away that a skydiver cannot be killed in a
parachuting accident. He "augured in" or "bought
the farm" or just "bought it." These expressions
have their origins with military aviators and airborne paratroopers.
Todays practitioners prefer to think the ultimately botched
jump meant that the victim "creamed in" or "bombed
in" or "hammered in" or just plain "went in."
If a skydiver "bounced," well, there is a reason such
a verb has made it into the common usage. Skydivers have their crude
and rotten and graphic euphemisms for death by parachute, just like
any other sect. I think I know why. It comes under the rubric of
humor as the only real psychological mechanism for survival. Jumpers
are generally a kind-hearted group of people, even incredibly warm,
but they are stoic and realistic. Like most of us, they would rather
laugh. They cry but not at funerals.
Skydiving certainly comes under the heading of "extreme"
sports, though while I was active, the term hadnt yet come
into vogue. It did not even occur to me until Id read an article
about Americas new proclivity for such risk-taking in the
International Herald Tribune in the summer of 2001, while
returning from a holiday in Spain. The quote that struck me was
from a 34-year-old woman who was a regular extremist in a number
of activities, including skiing, mountaineering, and ice climbing,
among others. She was lamenting the cavalier use of the word extreme
by the MTV-Gatorade generation. Weve been inundated by the
fairly tame "X-Games" and the "Gravity Games"
on cable TV, featuring trick bicyclists and in-line skaters in baggy
shorts. "I get annoyed with the general publics perception
of extreme where they look at a skateboard or a taco and go, Thats
extreme," she concluded. "I just laugh at that.
True extreme sports are if you screw up, you die."
She is correct. Extreme, Ive since discovered, has various
gradations. Surfing is not normally extreme, but racing down the
face of a 30-foot wave at Mavericks near Half Moon Bay certainly
looks pretty hairy. Downhill ski racing at speeds up to 90 mph?
Extreme, no question about it. Solo rock climbing? If youve
ever seen mountaineering footage of Alain Robert, the famed French
free climber, on the face of sheer walls wearing nothing more than
a pair of shorts, you know this is beyond extreme. This is insane.
On the other hand, bullfighting has a long, occasionally gruesome
history, mostly at the expense of the bulls. I do not buy it as
an extreme sport, though matadors are gored all the time. Much has
been written about this glorious and beautiful ritual by authors
with far greater command of the language than I can ever hope to
attain. I wont argue with their interpretation of its grand
tradition. But watching a few bullfights on television during the
Festival of San Fermin during that trip to Spain, I thought it was
no more interesting than a televised golf tournament. No more dangerous
either. That the odds are so stacked against the beasts does nothing
to intrigue me.
So what are the odds that you will die jumping out of an airplane?
In the last 11 years for which statistics are available (1990 through
2000), an average of between 31 and 32 people die each year in the
U.S. Some 3.2 million jumps are made annually, which means that
the worst-case scenario occurs about once every 100,000 jumps. This
is the cold analysis after the fact and pretty good odds indeed.
Only actuaries are interested in these numbers. Most skydivers do
not think about the odds, but they understand the risks.
Skydiving in any form is extreme, trust me. Todays parachutists
are somewhat more extreme than those in my era. (And we were pretty
extreme.) A group formation reached a world-record 300 skydivers
on December 12, 2002. These jumps are known as mega-blots or big-ways
or just plain blots. Skydivers now routinely "fly" head
down, sitting down, standing up, at greater free fall speeds, they
strap boards to their feet and whirl around like gymnasts while
video cameramen, free falling nearby, document their performances
(called "sky surfing"). "Freestyle" skydiving
is the sports equivalent of performance art, and there are
plenty of new adherents, solo or with others.
The latest fad is "pond swooping," where jumpers compete
in various events by flying their chutes across small bodies of
shallow water. It is causing a new breed of fatalities sudden
turns just off the ground, or collapsed canopies causing violent
impacts. Skydivers now regularly jump off buildings, bridges, and
mountains with abandon. Sometimes with reckless abandon and at considerably
greater risk than anyone who jumps at higher altitudes from conventional
aircraft. Dangerous? Indeed.
As early as 1965, a stuntman named Rod Pack jumped without a parachute
he was handed one in free fall by another skydiver
and the jump was recorded on film for Life magazine. The
Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, which requires two parachutes
for any intentional jump, was not amused. This was the ultimate
in temptation, the zenith of outlaw jumping for its time. Today,
the art of free fall has been conquered -- indeed, mastered
so that stunt could easily be duplicated without much risk by a
skydiver of average ability. But there are always new mountains
to leap from, and hence, there are always more dangerous challenges.
And those who seek them.
My writer friend said that hed mentioned to someone at a
cocktail party in Mobile that I had jumped out of airplanes. The
guy responded that it sounded "dreadfully fascinating or fascinatingly
dreadful." He couldnt quite decide. That was such a glib
yet interesting reply, Gothic and truthful, sly and ambiguous. You
could almost see him rattling the ice in his glass of whiskey as
he contemplated what skydiving meant.
Does it qualify as one of the ultimate dances with death? Does
it fit somewhere in the grand design?
It is something more than he speculated, I assure you. Skydiving
has all the colors in the spectrum. It has all the emotions that
one can hope to experience in a life. Some measure of controlled
fear, joy under pressure. Physically challenging it takes
a degree of athleticism to jump skillfully and mentally tortuous.
S&M of the mind. It is a constant test of your body and your
soul and your psyche -- your very being. It is existential. It is
about freedom, individual and collective freedom. Occasionally,
I found it blissfully relaxing, if you found the right people and
the right setting and the right time of day, usually the morning
light with the dew still on the grass. Or the orange sunset load
on a mild summer evening. Skydiving also has a fraternal order that
might equal the kinship of soldiers in battle. Skydivers routinely
trust their lives to each other every time they exit the plane together.
I always felt the bond was unique. It carries over on the ground,
and it lasts until death.
For skydiving to be a sport you have to get over the fear, and
while the fear continues to diminish as you become more practiced,
its impossible to eliminate completely. Like a limit in calculus,
where two lines on a graph approach each other but never touch.
You can reach a point where you almost overcome it, but you never
truly ever get over it. It is always in a small corner of your thoughts,
even though you quantify the risk and consider yourself rational
and safe. A parachutist of renown, Cheryl Stearns, would attest
to this. Stearns, an accomplished airline pilot, has made14,000
skydives, and she has more than 20 U.S. titles and has been a world
champion. She was asked about fear. "It's there," she
said. "It's a little thing on my shoulder that keeps me from
doing stupid things."
Of course, to enjoy the sport, or to compete in it, ultimately
you cannot be afraid of the most dire penalty, or have this fear
creep too far into the slip stream of your imagination. Your brain
has a divided loyalty on every jump. The maneuvers and enjoyment
portion in one area, and the risk-of-death, what-to-do-in-an-emergency
part in another. You try and separate them as much as you can, but
despite your best efforts to form a neural chasm between church
and state, they commingle a little, especially during long, prosaic
plane rides to altitude. As you log more jumps, the pleasure part
dominates the fear part, of course, but the second part never entirely
disappears, no matter how "easy" or safe the jump is.
The fear is always within easy reach of your consciousness. Just
as Cheryl Stearns implied.
The possibility of death looms on any given jump, but its
not going to happen to you. Otherwise, why would you ever get in
the plane? When you gain experience in the air, and you're with
other seasoned skydivers, the macho factor begins to appear. There
are always jumpers who horse around in the plane, singing and jostling
with their fellow leap mates. I wondered whether the vocal ones,
the guys who joked, "boogie till you bounce," especially
in front of the ground hogs, the spectators, were ever afraid. Were
they really so confident, or were their comments meant to disguise
their fear? My idea of arrogance confidence? -- never went
beyond, "See you on the ground." A little humility always
made me slightly afraid. And I always thought slightly afraid made
one think more clearly. Better to have a few butterflies fluttering
within your gut.
Perhaps the most dangerous period in a skydiving career is between
50 and a 100 jumps. In fact, there is a name for it the 90-jump
wonder. It isnt going to happen to me, you think, even
if you just watched somebody with a lot of jumps hammer in. There
is a point on the learning curve where youre likely to be
just comfortable enough to become sloppy with some of the tiny details
that can begin a disaster. Your instructor hasnt been double-checking
your gear for some time at this point. You leave "Did I forget
something?" and enter the realm of "Did I forget to remember
whether I forgot something?" Couple that with a certain youthful
demeanor, when taking chances seems as natural as cutting class.
Of this, I flirted with more danger than I like to remember or care
to admit. At 20 or 21 years old, especially for men (but not exclusively),
I think, there is a sense that everything is a possibility and ones
mortality is simply an abstract. If there is death in the air, you
cannot smell it or sense it, or if you do, then you dont care
to acknowledge it. Skydiving is exhilarating, a vapor trail of thrills
into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. There is a heady feeling
that youre invulnerable. This is why an experienced parachutist
does not protest very much when a novice thinks of him as a sky
Of course, jumpers with thousands of leaps die, as well, every
year. And an unknowledgeable person might conclude that fate was
tempted one time too many. But this is fallacious thinking, like
assuming the odds on the roll of a dice change depending on what
happened on the last roll. It is possible to be a thousand- or two-thousand
jump wonder, too. Ive always liked the anonymous airmans
adage: "There are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are
no old, bold pilots." Perhaps the same can be said of skydivers.
I recall an old greeting card I received one Christmas, though
from whom I cannot remember. It featured a photo of seven or eight
skydivers in free fall, linked together. It was made late in the
day, and the formation was passing alongside a group of cumulus
clouds, with the sun blinking through them, spraying I-beam-like
shadows. The picture is so captivating, so magnetic. Youre
thinking, thats a nice place to be. The caption read, "Peace
Is Where You Find It."
There is something quasi-religious or spiritual about skydiving,
I suppose, perhaps because you practice this sport in that great
void between heaven and earth. There is certainly some adhesion
to faith. Faith that the equipment will function properly, faith
that you can handle whatever situation arises, and faith in the
skill and safety of others in free fall. I may be reaching here,
I confess. Plenty of agnostics and atheists jump out of planes.
But the older one gets, the more one reflects about these things.
Heres a curious contrast: I never saw a skydiver cross himself
before a jump, yet you see this all the time at home plate in major
Skydiving can be explained with basic math and physics, of course.
I used to do this when I tried to convey what actually happens to
a falling human body in a controlled position. But the weird science
is what attracts the curious. A skydiver compresses time and space.
Other than the gear itself, and a platform to leap from, be it fixed
or moving, gravity and the clock are the two most critical components
of every skydive. Because there is little time for contemplation,
and the act itself is so short, the data processing that goes on
in ones brain occurs at light speed. Micro-time really, because
you are condensing the essence into small clicks on the stop watch.
And when you land on the ground you sum up all the joy and fear
and mental chaos into a couple of lines in a log book. The fragments
of the terror and the excitement rattle around your memory, and
sometimes appear in your dreams.
* * *
In writing this memoir, Ive had the help of my logs, four
small volumes of diaries that are a formal record of my parachuting
experiences. (I was surprised to discover that I still have my "first
jump certificate." To show my grandchildren what a daredevil
I was?) A dollop from an entry, a single word or phrase, a date,
the weather, prompted my memory of wonderful or harrowing events
sometimes both at the same time -- that took place many years
ago. And when these recalled moments were a bit fuzzy, Ive
tried to recreate them so they were as accurate as possible. This
is not a new literary technique, of course.
At the beginning of his Paris memoir, "A Moveable Feast,"
Ernest Hemingway wrote, "If the reader prefers, this book may
be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such
a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written
as fact." This was a disclaimer about his recollection of certain
events, and also a challenge to the reader to try and discover what
he disguised or made up. When one reads that book, it is an exercise
to search the prose for the pure fiction. Ive recently found
instances where I am certain he created or exaggerated a story because
the actual event just wasnt as good.
Jump stories, like others, are more refined when the teller of
such tales has enough distance to reflect, and perhaps even to exaggerate
and yet still impart the truth. Most of the characters in this book
are still alive, and the names are real. But I did not want to cause
any discomfort to anyone still alive, so in some cases, Ive
slightly altered the stories as a matter of discretion.