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34 and counting: Part I – The Tandem

“It’s the closest you’ll ever get to God.” I guess my story begins with this quote from the movie Point Break, a film my friend and I watched incessantly and memorized line for line when we weren’t slingin’ drinks behind the bar together back in the early 90’s. In our early 20’s at the time, with an abundance of adrenaline and a deficit of good sense, we’d reaffirm our commitment to jump together one day each time we’d watch the exciting but (as I now realize) unrealistic skydiving scene from the movie. At the time, it seemed as sure to happen as the sun rising each day.

Fast forward to Fall of 2009. Guess what? Life happened. My buddy was living his and I was living mine, and our joint skydive had not occurred in either during the 16+ years since we’d gone our separate ways. The friendship was still solid and we’d usually talk several times a year, but the skydiving promise was rarely mentioned. My birthday was coming up in November, and I wanted to do a little something different for this one. After striking up a conversation with a friend at my favorite cigar bar one afternoon, the topic came up. She’d done a tandem. Twice! Absolutely loved it both times. I told her I’d always wanted to, but just never got around to it. By the time I left that evening, I was seriously considering it. As wonderful as the idea of jumping with my buddy seemed, I realized that if it hadn’t happened in over 16 years, it probably wasn’t going to, so this was something I was going to have to do on my own. Looking back, I must also admit that there may have been a bit of midlife crisis at play here too…..a small epiphany of sorts. “I’m not getting any younger. I’m in good shape for my age, and most of my friends are in a different place in life right now. Carpe Diem motherfucker. It’s now or never” I’d tell myself. So over the next week, I made peace with the fact that I may actually be able to do it. I researched the specifics and began to wonder if I really had the balls to jump out of a plane. After wrestling with myself for a bit longer, I decided that my 42nd birthday would be like no other. I was going to do it. Now….how to tell those near and dear to me! Freda, my significant other, reacted with a great deal of concern, but to her credit, never discouraged me. She explained that her concern was out of love and for my safety, but if that’s what I wanted to do, go for it. My parents both reacted in a much calmer way than I thought. My mother even stated, “Well, I always thought you’d do something like that.” My father was actually quite intrigued by the idea. I was shocked….but in a pleasant way, knowing I wouldn’t have to carry the additional burdens of disapproval of loved ones up and then down with me. So it was decided. I called Skydive The Farm in Rockmart, Ga., and set up a tandem on my birthday, a Saturday in November. I was really going to do it!

The next 5 or 6 weeks seemed to drag out. I continued reading and learning about what I was about to experience. My heart would race when I’d watch videos and think of how it must be to fall from 14000 feet. One weekend, two weeks before I was scheduled to jump, we were at a Halloween party and I mentioned what I was planning to do. A friend, upon hearing what I was planning to do, immediately said he would do it with me. I called bullshit, and he said “No really, I’m serious. I’ve always wanted to do it.” I looked at his wife, who nodded in agreement. So he committed, and we were set to do it together. Now I didn’t have to go it alone! There were daily texts between us. 10 days….6 days….3 days. Finally, it was time!

My Dad and I arrived at the DZ bright and early on the Saturday morning of my birthday. My friend and his wife met us there. Freda opted to not come and watch, but did choose to receive a phone call upon my landing safely! We were pretty much the first ones there and didn’t really know where to go, but a regular got there about the same time and directed us to the office. We walked in and found someone sleeping on the couch. Immediately the thoughts began to race through my mind. “I don’t know about this. What kind of place lets people sleep on the couch? This doesn’t look very professional to me. Is the guy sleeping going to be the one I jump with?” All sorts of other thoughts raced through my mind as I looked around. I now realize that this is just a part of life at most dropzones, but at the time it was a little unnerving when mixed with all my other thoughts and feelings. Nevertheless, things started coming to life. We read and signed the waiver forms, which as most of you know, can be quite an experience in itself. We then watched a video of what we were getting ready to do. Soon after, we were led into the hangar and given our choice of who we could jump with. They asked me first, and pointed around to a few people. One of the guys was sleeved out in tattoos, had hoop pierced ears, etc. I saw him and said “That’s my guy.” His name was Ryan…..a 23-year-old skydiving badass that completely looked the part for what I wanted to associate with my skydiving experience. We met, and he began telling me all the specifics about what to do during the skydive. We got all rigged up, took a few pictures, and it was off to the bus to head to the airport, only about 10 minutes away. It was starting to get real now!

The 10 minute ride to the airport was pretty quiet and uneventful. I asked Ryan a few questions, and while friendly enough, he wasn’t overly chatty. Others were talking, joking and whatnot. I particularly remember several people commenting on the fact that one of the other tandem instructors had recently lost a good bit of weight. “Yeah, that meth’s a helluva a drug,” he said. It was obviously a joke, and brought out a good chuckle among everyone. It was a nice way to ease the tension, but before I knew it, we were pulling up to the plane. My heart began to beat faster, my mouth got dry, and my palms got sweaty. We departed the bus and my video guy did another quick little piece before we boarded. We filed into the plane and took our seats. The pilot started the engines and the fumes filled the cabin. They were really strong… much that they had to open the door so everyone could breathe! We took off and began the climb to altitude. There was one hop ‘n’ pop, so at about 5000, the red light came on and the door slid up. When I felt that cold air and looked out into the sky, that’s when it really started to hit me. Next thing I knew, a guy took his position in the door, faced forward, and just hopped out. There one second, gone the next. Holy Shit!!! It was shockingly surreal. In my head, for the first time I was saying “What the fuck are you doing?” The video guy was filming and turned to me to get my reaction. “Hey Allan! What do think about that? Did you see that guy get sucked out of here?” I commented, and he then said “Okay, next time that door opens, it’s your turn. Skydiving baby.” So we got to 14000 and the door opened. People, and groups of people, started jumping out. We were towards the end, and my buddy went just before me. We got to the door and I looked down. It was literally breathtaking in the truest sense of the word. I have never had such clarity of life as I did at that moment. I couldn’t believe what I was about to do. Before I knew it, we rolled out of the plane doing forward flips…..two to be exact. We got belly down and stable, and the drogue was deployed. I immediately began screaming. Not a terrifying scream, but more of an “I just jumped out of a plane and am having a fuckin’ blast” scream. Dave, the video guy, appeared in front of me and extended his hand, which I grabbed. We were spinning, high-fiving, and everything else. Then, before I knew it, freefall ended as Ryan deployed the main. This is when things got really interesting.

The deployment was a bit more violent than I was expecting. Not a neck-breaker or anything, but pretty substantial nonetheless. I looked up and saw the parachute over our heads, but noticed we were spinning. I thought “Hmmm…..this doesn’t seem right.” Ryan didn’t say anything initially and I could tell he was working to try and fix something. We continued to spin. I asked “Are we cool?” He said, “We will be if I can get this worked out,” or something to that effect. Then he asked me to help him kick. I’m like “Kick how?” This isn’t something we’d covered before the jump, so I had no idea what he wanted me to do. Nevertheless, I tried to do what he asked, to no avail. He then calmly announced “Okay….we’re gonna have to chop.” Now I didn’t know exactly what “chop” meant in skydiving lingo, but I had a pretty good idea based on the root meaning of the word. The next thing I know, he says “3…2…1.” The trap door opened, and we fell for a few more seconds. I then look up and see the most beautiful fully inflated grey canopy. No spins this time either. All the lines were extending to the chute in a straight, proportional and unobstructed way. Almost immediately, he announced “Well, that was #8 for me.” I said “Let me get this straight. Did we just have a main parachute failure?” “Yep, he said. “And out of the thousands of jumps you’ve done, that’s only the 8th time you’ve had to go to reserve on a tandem?” “Yep,” he said. We came in and made a perfect slide-in landing. Dave was there to greet us with the camera. “What do think of that Allan? You got a 2 for 1! Not everybody gets one of those!” My buddy and I met, slapped high-fives and gave each other a big hug. On the walk back to the hangar, a very nice and supportive guy approached me, put his hand on my shoulder and told me not to worry about it. “It’s about a 1 in 1000 chance, but it does happen, and that’s why there are reserves,” he stated. Although things were still going at warp speed in my mind, I really appreciated such a kind and comforting gesture from a total stranger. That was when all the misconceptions and stereotypes about skydivers began to melt away in my mind. The magnitude of what had just happened didn’t really sink in for quite some time. I had waited 42 years and finally grown the balls to jump out of a plane, only to have a main chute malfunction of severe line twists that resulted in a cutaway. Un…Fucking…Believable!!!!! As I tried to absorb and make sense of it, a weird feeling came over me: the malfunction and cutaway, in a strange and sick sort of way, had only added to the experience. I couldn’t believe I was actually feeling this way about it. “I really must be certifiable,” I thought to myself. I left the dropzone that day supercharged with adrenaline and with a whirlwind of thoughts, but one thing was clear: I knew I’d be back.

The four of us left the Farm and decided to grab some lunch. As we talked about the experience, my buddy and I decided that we wanted to get licensed together. As we talked about what we’d just done, I could hardly get my beer up to my mouth without spilling it. I couldn’t believe it. I’d just survived a main malfunction, and wanted to go back for more! We agreed that we’d get through the holidays, and would start the process sometime after the first of the year. So that’s what happened. I got through the holidays, saved some money and started my journey in earnest around the end of February this year. My buddy had other priorities to pursue and opted not to do it yet. He still wants to, so we’ll see. For me, the pull was undeniable. And it continues to be just that….undeniable.

So as you may have gathered from the title of this, I’m at 34 jumps and counting. I’d planned to try and summarize everything I’ve felt and done up to this point in one writing, but as you can see ended up getting a little long-winded! For now, let me just say that this has been an incredibly defining experience for me. This will now be a multi-part memoir, so there will be plenty more thoughts and stories in the future. I hope you’ll continue the journey with me in part II, which will be coming soon. Until then, enjoy the pic of me and my buddy after our tandem.

Blue Skies my friends!!!

We did it!!!
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