The first thing I did was make my father swear not to tell my mother that her daughter was going to jump out of an airplane. I did, however, tell several of my friends, most of whom refused to share my enthusiasm.
"What in the world do you want to do that for?" they asked.
"It will be exciting," I'd say positively. "It's something I've always wanted to do." But as Jump Sunday loomed closer and closer, I found myself asking, "What in the world do I want to do this for?"
The big morning dawned sunny and cool. My friend Dave and I set out at 8:30 on the drive to Hartwood Para Center, 50 miles south of Washington, with Billy Joel blaring from the Jeep radio: "You may be right. I may be crazy . . ."
After signing papers releasing Hartwood from any responsibility for possible injury, dismemberment, mutilation or, er, death, we met our "first jump" class. There were eight of us, from 18 (16 is the minimum) to 61. I was the only woman. Bob, a grizzled graybeard, told us this jump was his wife's 61st birthday present to him. "Do you think maybe she's trying to tell me something?"
Our instructor, Scott, blond, blue-eyed and mustached, looked more like a dashing young pilot in an old war movie than the guitar and banjo teacher he is "when I'm not teaching folks how to jump out of airplanes. I want you to know," he said, "that you've all already done the hardest thing you're going to have to do all day. You made the decision to jump. From here on in, it's a piece of cake."
Ours was the five-part basic parachuting course developed by the U.S. Parachute Association: equipment, canopy control, practice landings, plane procedure and reserve procedure (how to recognize and deal with an emergency).
For over four hours we learned about chutes (ours were each 28 feet in diameter), toggles (the small wooden knobs with which we would steer our parachutes -- gently, we hoped -- to the ground), how to enter and exit the plane properly, and how to land, as opposed to crashing. After watching several experienced parachuters make their jumps, the fact that in a couple of hours those tiny black specks in the sky would be us began to seem possible.
Learning about parachuting was interesting and easy; practicing it was harder than I had anticipated. To practice landing, for instance, we went behind the hangar to the "gallows," a two-tiered platform.
"Now this is the part of training I like," our instructor grinned at us, "because I get to yell at you, and watch you jump and roll around on the ground, and get good and dirty," He explained how to distribute the shock of impact evenly over one's body by keeping feet and legs close together, flexing the knees, and rolling onto five body points in order: feet, calf, thigh, hip and back. With Scott barking commands, we jumped from three feet and then six, each on the other's heels, like kids scrambling off a high dive.
"You're going to do it until you get it right," he yelled; and, somewhat shaken, gradually covering ourselves with what little straw was spread to break our falls, we did just that.
After passing a written test we were ready to jump. With only a couple of small planes in operation, however, and lots of hard-core jumpers eager to go up, this meant waiting our turns, probably the toughest part of the day. Some of us sat mutely and others paced, while we all wondered why we were doing this.
Finally, donning coveralls, gloves, goggles, helmets, and boots with soles an inch thick, we prepared to go up, three at a time. The chute, encased in a pack on our backs, was strapped on over our shoulders and between our legs, making it virtually impossible to stand up straight. A radio, through which someone on the ground would soon guide us down to the landing target, was attached to our chests. Our reserve chutes rested on our stomachs. Like pregnant women, we placed our left hands protectively over them, having been warned that if the reserve -- easily released by the slightest puff of air -- were to open, we could be pulled out of the plane.
The plane ascended slowly. My mind grew numb. "This is a dream," I thought, "None of this is happening."
Bob was the first to go out the door, then Dave, and as each one jumped I involuntarily exploded with a "Jesus!" My face ashen, I inched myself over by the door.
"Now just remember everything I told you and you'll be fine," Scott said. He opened the door, telling me to put my feet on the step. My ears registered the roar of the engine, the whoosh of wind. With my left hand clutching the strut (a bar reaching from door to wing) I turned my body to grasp it with both hands. "Hang from the strut," Scott told me. Pushing my feet off from the step I hung, dangling 2,800 feet above the ground, until he shouted, "Go" and I arched backwards into my fall.
Looking up, I was relieved to see a perfect circle, the skirt of my chute, in place above me. Below me stretched the tops of trees and lakes seemingly the size of my bracelet. As I drifted slowly down, I knew at last that this was the reason I had wanted to jump. The float down lasted only 21/2 minutes, but feeling almost balletic, as if I were falling in slow motion, I was filled with a quietness and an awe.
After what seemed like a long while, my radio crackled, the voice from below instructing me to pull on my right toggle. It took me a moment to rejoin the living enough to distinguish right from left.
The voice droned on, "right, right, right." I pulled, and miraculously, it seemed, the chute turned right. "A little to the left now," the voice continued, and I rotated slowly, now spotting the landing circle and the tiny figures of people below.
The ground rushed up to meet me far faster than I expected. I slammed into it, hitting first my feet and then my bottom -- a perfect example of how not to do it. My tailbone still aches from that jolt, but I got up pleased with myself, grinning, elated.
Parachuting is, undeniably, a frightening experience, and it is perhaps true that a person has to be a little crazy to try it. Like nine out of ten people who make a first jump, I doubt I'll go for a second; while the temptation is strong, my aching body tells me to resist.
Early on, Scott had warned us, "Your friends are all going to find you crashing bores, because you're not going to be able to talk about anything besides your jump." He was right. I have yet to stop babbling about it, and aches or no aches, I'm glad I gave it a try. Now the hard part is making up my mind about what to try next: Whitewater rafting? Hang-gliding? Niagara Falls in a barrel? LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP You may want to go out and watch a few jumpers before deciding whether or not to give it a try yourself. To find out more about Hartwood Para Center, or to reserve a space in a first jump class, call 703/752-4784