The first time

I was a 26-year-old sky virgin.

I was having neon-colored cocktails with some young and glamourous types. Michael was the guy who had tried it all -- his typical weekend involved extreme sports like rock climbing and scuba diving, and then an even more extreme sport of all-night partying with beautiful people who never get too tired or too drunk. He said he was putting together a group of people to go skydiving the next weekend -- the special deal was $99, half the price of a normal tandem jump. I said I was in, and he added me to the growing list on his Palm.

"You sure?" he asked.

"Go big or go home!" I smiled, downing the rest of my drink. Everybody cheered.

On my life's to-do list, skydiving was right at the top, along with bungee jumping, swimming among dolphins and visiting the Pyramids. You know, all the things you say you want to do and then never do.

So I had given it some thought. Once. Although, in retrospect, I really didn't know anything about the sport. I had no concept of exactly how people transitioned from plummeting to the earth to gently floating to earth. I knew there was a ripcord or something somewhere in there. My knowledge didn't extend far beyond what I had seen in Mountain Dew commercials.

The night before our skydiving excursion, I found myself in yet another bar, with yet another group of gorgeous young things, begging off yet another cocktail.

"I can't. I'm skydiving tomorrow."

There was a collective, "WHAT?"

Their stories pelted me like hail. According to one woman, whose brother had made a skydive, if you didn't keep your mouth closed while skydiving, it'll knock the wind right out of you. One guy said he knew someone who knew someone who died on their first skydive. Another one had a friend's friend who cheated death by landing in a tree. And of course, they advised -- stay away from clouds at all cost. Those fluffy white things will suffocate you.

I had to go skydiving. I'd already made the ridiculous "go big or go home" comment, but now every cell in my body was screaming, resisting what I was about to do.

I would go. But I was terrified.

The backpack I brought with me included a silly women's magazine (a diversion), a bottle of water (always good to be hydrated), a bottle of Pepto (for obvious reasons), and an extra pair of panties (just in case). Training was a group effort and involved about five minutes of an instructor teaching us how to arch our backs to fall in a stable, belly-down position.

No, no, no. This wouldn't do at all, I thought. Give me long lectures. Quizzes. A standardized test taken with a number-2 pencil. Basically, I wanted -- and expected -- a four-credit hour college class about the history of parachuting, the physics of falling from the sky, statistics dating back to the invention of the modern high-performance gear and discussions about skydiving in film and literature. NOT five short minutes on how to fall. A sack of potatoes could fall. I'm not potatoes. I wanted to know exactly what would happen every step of the way -- with diagrams, bar graphs and a short essay.

The instructor, Toby, thought I was crazy. The lanky man was the laid-back guy at the dropzone. He was clad in a long, tie-dyed jumpsuitt, which was half-off in the heat of summer, the arms of it tied around his waist. He was the man who would be risking -- and hopefully saving -- my life. He didn't think I was going to jump.

I did.

The 20-minute plane ride went way too fast. I don't remember much about it, other than the severe emptiness of the aircraft. Skydiving planes are nothing more than elevators to altitude. Because they want to squeeze in as many skydivers as possible, the planes are emptied of everything most people find familiar in the air -- baggage compartments, "fasten seatbelt" signs, seats. That way, the planes are lighter, and it's easier to fit a lot of jumpers with their gear.

I barely looked out the window on the way up. There wasn't much below anyway, other than Indiana farmland. Among the patchwork green, there was an occasional silo.

I was wearing a harness that wound around my arms, thighs and across my chest. It looked like it was made from the adjustable straps of my backpack.

Toby wore the real gear -- the pregnant container that was bulging with a 400-square foot parachute and a back-up reserve parachute. There were four metal clasps that hooked my body onto the front of him. We attached at 10,000 feet. I was the parasite and he was my host.

I'm the type of person who smiles and laughs at the worst things. It's a defense mechanism that I can't manage to stop. So that's why the video of my first skydive shows me in the door of the plane, vascillating between idiotic grins and gulps for air, trying to contain potential vomit.

"ARE YOOOOU READY TO SKYDIVE?!?!?" Toby yelled over the wind rushing through the door.

I barely nodded. He leaned my head back against his chest. I took a deep breath. And we jumped.

The sky is cold and noisy at 120 miles per hour. I curved my body in the precise manner we had been taught. My arms were bent 90-degrees at the elbows, hands close to my head. My palms were flat and my fingers were pressed tightly together. My legs were curled toward my body, my feet close to my rear. My back was bent into an arch, my belly pressing toward the earth. I didn't allow myself to even bend a finger, worried that any sudden movement would send us into a death spiral.

After about 60 seconds of freefall, it was time to unleash the parachute. Toby pulled the ripcord.

It was a magical shift in the world around me -- the sky was quiet and still, like those summer nights when wild thunderstorms suddenly ... just. stop.

We were floating, gliding, suspended in the sky. I had never been part of such a beautiful moment before. I was the luckiest person on -- er, above -- the earth.

After about four minutes, maybe five, it was time to end this ride. With my legs sticking out in front of me, we slid to a stop on our butts. We landed on a strip of shriveled, dried grass. Bits of the blades ended up in my mouth as we sailed through the field.

Again, I don't remember much because of the sensory overload of it all. I was heady with the sensation of tempting death. I was proud of taking this leap, metaphorically and literally. I was sad to leave the sky behind.

I did another tandem jump that same day.

A few days later, I found an old journal and read through an entry I had made on my previous birthday -- among a long to-do list, I had promised myself to skydive before my 27th birthday.

This was June 2003, less than one month before I turned 27. Somehow I unwittingly fulfilled my destiny.

I was a sky virgin no longer.
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By Blogger jamie, at 2:02 PM  

I just created a stupid blogger account, just so I could be the first person to comment on your new blog.

And, yay! It's great that you're doing this.    

By Blogger Shawn, at 8:10 PM  

My first time was in a ratty, old plane... I didn't have anyone's crotch in my face, but I did find myself sitting on the floor, pressed against the thin, metal side of the plane.

I became obsessed with a loose rivet that was slowly turning in place because of the vibration of the slowly climbing plane. The rivet next to it was missing. For some reason that made jumping out seem like a safer option than staying in the plane and landing...

Everyone wants to know about the free fall, but I loved the floating with no sound but the fluttering of the trailing edge of the chute...

Now I know why everybody I ever asked what skydiving was like had always just it was awesome, but I would have to try it myself...    

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