I know you've all been waiting for it. And on Day 195, the time had finally come to take the plunge.
Day 195's thing I've never done before was to go skydiving.
Sorry for the less than suspenseful build up, but the day was eventful enough, there is really no need for extra drama. When I tell people I'm attempting to do 365 things I've never done before, skydiving and bungee jumping are two of the most suggested activities for things to do. I knew when I started the project that at some point during my 29th year, I would do at least one of them. I also knew that when the time came, I'd be scared to death.
Thankfully, God knew this too, and he blessed me with one of the busiest weeks of my life at work so I had no free time to think about the fact that I had willingly signed up to jump out of a plane. I didn't even have any time to tell anyone that I was going to do it, which was also good, because in case I decided to chicken out, I didn't want a lot of people asking me how the jump went on Monday.
But on Friday morning, the day before the jump, I decided that for an activity like this one, like the trip cross-country with someone I barely knew, I needed to tell at least one member of my family in case something went horribly wrong.
I told my brother first, which was a bad decision. Jeff hates heights as much as I do, so him knowing what I was going to do meant at least 24 hours of uneasiness for him, as well as for me.
"I really wish you'd waited until you were done to tell me," he said.
I called my Dad next and told him about both the skydiving adventure and about the blind date with FF scheduled for later that night.
"Honestly, Dad," I said, "I don't know what I'm more nervous about, the blind date or the skydiving."
This statement made him laugh silently into the phone, something he does often when we talk. His silent laugh always makes me feel like a stand up comedian.
“Who are you going with?”
“My friend Lisa.”
“Remember the girl who danced with you at Trish’s wedding to ‘We are Family'? That’s Lisa.’”
"Well I think you're going to love skydiving," he said. Not exactly the response I was expecting from the man who once said, "Why would you want to go there? None of those people speak English," when I begged him to let me live in Spain for a summer during college. I completely thought he’d try and talk me out of it, but he kept talking about how much a woman he works with loves skydiving.
I told him the jump was planned for 12:30pm and he told me to call him when I was safely on the ground. The last person I talked to was my friend Kyle, who couldn't come along because she had to work, but thought skydiving would be fun. She wasn't overly surprised by our decision to do it, but she had a piece of advice that caught me off guard a bit.
"Wear long sleeves," she said, matter-of-factly.
"Huh?" I responded, certain I heard her instructions incorrectly, or that she misunderstood what I had just told her.
"If you're getting the video," she explained, "Make sure to wear long sleeves."
She, having already seen other friends' skydiving videos, had witnessed enough arm fat flapping in the wind to know that covering my arms before falling through the sky was imperative.
Silly me, I had only thought I had dying to worry about. I had not considered that the second worst thing that could happen after jumping out of a plane at 14,000 feet is arm flap.
Kyle is always looking out for my best interests, though, as it pertains to my life and my appearance, so I packed a long sleeve t-shirt. Trish was present when Lisa and I confirmed that Day 195 was the day we would drive to Monroe, Georgia to jump.
Since she sadly couldn't skydive herself (apparently doctors recommend pregnant women not jump out of planes), Trish said she'd come along for moral support. So on the day of the big jump, we met at her house before jumping into my car and heading out.
Trish, proving that she will be the best mom ever, bought me a Chik-fil-A chicken biscuit like it was the first day of school. She also packed a lawn chair, several magazines, a novel and bottled water, so she'd be prepared to sit and take pictures with her super fancy high tech camera.
On the way to Monroe, I learned how differently Lisa and I handle our nerves. Whereas, I awkwardly laugh when I'm nervous, Lisa, we found out, asks strange questions about random topics.
"What kind of panties are you wearing?" Lisa asked me. "What did you just say?" I asked, looking at her in the rear-view mirror.
"I wore the nicest panties I own, in case I die," she said, certainly.
I looked at Trish, who was sitting in the passenger seat, and we burst out laughing.
Minutes later, Lisa spoke again, "Have you guys ever done a body shot?"
Again, we laughed. "Where the hell did that come from?"
I have not done a body shot, for the record, though I seriously considered it on my senior trip to Cancun. Apparently Lisa had been offered the opportunity to do a body shot a few nights before and her decision to turn it down was still weighing heavily on her mind.
We continued on our way, and I was thankful that I was driving because it gave me something to focus on. Lisa kept reminding me of where we were headed, however, and threatened to back out several times, before making a request right before we arrived at our destination.
"Steph, I only ask one thing," she said, seriously, "I want to jump first. Before you."
I sighed before quickly responding, "Fine."
I was disappointed by her request only because I had wanted to ask her if I could go first. The thought of watching her and anyone else jump in front of me gave me anxiety. But she asked first, and I didn't want to give her any reason not to participate, so I agreed that I would jump after her.
When we arrived at the hangar, we saw a group of college-aged kids waiting on the grass, all looking up to the sky. Before too long, a female voice came over the loud speaker and muttered the words, "Two minutes till skydivers. Two minutes."
That prompted everyone to look up in the sky and start pointing at little black dots floating through the air. We watched the first of what would become many groups of skydivers.
A short, stocky bald man walked over to us and introduced himself. I told him who I was and that I had an appointment to skydive at 12:30pm. He said I needed to check in with Debra, or Vicki. I can’t remember her name, but she was a heavy-set woman with wild blonde hair, long purple painted fingernails and she smoked a lot of Menthol 100 cigarettes.
I did and Debra/Vicki told me she’d call me when she was ready. I returned to my friends who were now engaged in a conversation with stocky guy.
Stocky guy was very nice, but it became apparent to us pretty early that despite having jumped many times before, he was relatively new to the skydiving scene that he so desperately wanted to be a member of. He struck me as someone who so desperately wanted to fit in with the “in crowd,” that he spent his weekends, with his kids, hanging out at the hangar, waiting for an opportunity to jump, and learn from the pros. His goal, I think, was to become an instructor. He gave us bios on everyone that was there.
His kids looked bored, and I would be too if my dad dragged me to the hangar every weekend so that he might get a chance to skydive.
“Oh they love coming out here,” Stocky guy said, “Look, they even help pack the chutes.”
I’m sorry, what?
I like kids as much as the next girl, but I felt terribly uneasy that this guy’s kids were packing the chutes that are the only thing keeping me from crashing to my death.
He became our friend for the rest of the day, and calmed our nerves when we needed him to.
Eventually, Vicki/Debra told us to come into a room next to her office where she handed us both clipboards with a stack of forms to fill out. She also asked us if we wanted to purchase a video and still photos of the jump. While filling out her forms, Lisa asked me, "Are you getting the video?"
I didn't hesitate answering her question.
"Oh yeah," I told her.
My mind was made up by the time I arrived at Skydive Monroe, but only because I'd already been going back and forth about buying the video. The video was an extra $85, a miscellaneous expense that seemed a bit excessive. I had no plans of hosting a viewing party for all of my friends to watch the video, so what's the point?
On the other hand, how could I not get the video to share with all of you? And how could I not document what I was certain would be a one time activity in my life? Clearly when I paid this woman my $85 I forgot to insist that they make me look good while filming. So, you’re welcome. I look like a pale, redneck loser in the video. Enjoy.
As we were initialing the forms, and there were a lot of forms, Lisa wondered allowed, "What does all of this mean?"
"Basically," I explained to her, “It’s in case we get hurt, or die, we can't sue them."
"But that's the thing," she said honestly, "I will sue them." She signed the forms anyway and we paid the woman our money. After filling out of the paperwork and paying the lady our money, we watched a video that basically reiterated what the forms already said: "Skydiving is risky. We assume no responsibility if you get hurt or die."
Only, as if we weren't freaked out enough, the man on the video delivering this message was possibly the creepiest guy I've ever seen. He had beady eyes and a salt-n-pepper beard that was so long it touched the table he was sitting behind. I wasn't sure if he was a skydiving guy or a cult leader.
After watching the video, which said a whole lot of nothing, we went back out to sit with Trish who had set up a lawn chair in the sun. Her goal, in addition to supporting us, was to get a tan.
For the next several hours, we waited. We waited so long that Trish’s tan turned into sunburn. Pregnant women are more susceptible to the sun, she told me. Even if the jump was a bust, I thought, I’m learning new things.
I was prepared that we might have to wait and it wasn’t likely that we’d jump right at 12:30pm, but watching group after group go ahead of us became frustrating and I kept thinking, if we don’t go soon, I’m going to chicken out.
Let’s get this show on the road, already.
The free time allowed us plenty to time to talk about several topics, including the possibility of a Charleston beach birthday party to celebrate my 30th and the end of Project 29 to 30. Details to come, but everyone’s invited, including Trish’s unborn baby, who will be one month old by then. I hope he likes keg beer!
At one point they brought us into a little room with some other skydivers to explain what was going to happen and what we needed to do during the jump. There were a lot of instructions, “head back,” “arms crossed,” “arch back,” “arms out,” “feet up,” “legs straight.” I asked Liam, the Australian instructor, to repeat some of what he was saying, sure that if he said it one more time that I’d remember it, but who was I kidding. This class was useless, because once the jump happened, I forgot everything he said.
And then there was more waiting.
A few more rounds of skydivers took off and landed, we eventually suited up in skydiving jump suits and I met the man that I would be attached to for the jump, Bruce.
I took a good look at the man who would be responsible for my life for the next half-hour, and felt good about that because he was a father himself. He had people counting on him to live, so I felt confident that he wasn’t going to try anything risky with me attached to him.
He also had an ample supply of jolly ranchers, which I ate non-stop waiting to board the plane.
When I was trying to review with Bruce the instructions that Liam had given me several hours ago, he said, exasperated, “Come over here and get on your knees.”
“Say what?,” I asked. What a creep!
“Stop,” he said, rolling his eyes, “Just get on your knees.”
Then he got on his knees right behind me in front of every man, woman and child in the place and acted out exactly what we were going to do, which put me in several compromising and therefore embarrassing positions. I appreciated his willingness to go the extra mile but I’m not sure the dress rehearsal was necessary.
Lisa was dying of laughter. I was dying of embarrassment.
Within minutes of this little stunt, Liam, the spirited Aussie who was tasked with the duty of videotaping my jump, told us it was time to go. And then Debra/Vicki came across the loud speaker and said the same thing.
Walking to the plane was scary, so I listened intently to what Bruce was saying, none of which I can remember now.
We crawled into the small plane and sat, almost literally, on top of each other. There were no seats, and no way to stand up inside. Bruce sat on the floor next to the pilot, facing the back of the plane with his knees bent. He instructed me to sit, like he was, in between his knees. Awkward, especially after our little “trial run” back at the hangar.
Then Lisa’s videographer sat in between my knees, and someone else sat in between his. We were packed onto this plane like sardines. Lisa’s tandem sat beside me, and then she sat in between his legs. My friend Dan, who tried to get me to come skydiving with him for his 30th, said the worst part of the experience is the plane ride. He was right.
We talked all day about how many times these instructors likely heard from scared jumpers, “I can’t believe I’m about to jump out of a perfectly good airplane.” I’m sure it’s a lot.
Lisa and I had to endure cheesy jokes at the hands of our instructors though, the entire flight up, including, “Whoops, I forgot my parachute!” and “Whoa, the plane’s never done this before,” and “This parachute had trouble opening last week, I hope they figured out the problem.”
Lisa and I were the only women on the plane, and the only two who had never skydived before. At the very back of the plane, by the door, were four middle-aged thrill seekers who had already jumped several times that day. Before boarding the plane, they were practicing some tricks on the ground that they planned to execute in the air, Point Break style.
I wish I didn’t feel like I was going to throw up the entire time, I would’ve liked to enjoy watching them do their thing.
At one point, I turned around and looked at Bruce and said, “I want to do this, but there is no way I’m going to jump out myself, so I give you permission to throw me out.”
He said ok. Then he said, “Alright, it’s time.” I felt him clip his harness to mine and I was scared, but I was also terribly uncomfortable. My stomach flipped.
Once the door of the plane opened, everything happened really quickly. The four superstars literally jumped out of the plane one right after the next, and the next thing I knew, Lisa and I were on our knees headed in their direction.
"Someone farted," Lisa yelled, as she made her way to the door. I was following behind her, but could barely hear her and though I yelled back to her, "What?" within 20 seconds, she had shimmied to the door of the plane and then she was gone.
Long after the jump when we were driving back to Atlanta, Lisa pointed out that had something gone wrong, there is a very good chance that her last words on earth would've been, "Someone farted."
We laughed a lot at this thought, but I couldn't help but imagine how awful it would've been if things had gone tragically if when her mom and dad asked what their young daughter's final thoughts on earth were, I'd have to tell them, "Well, she was wondering who stunk up the plane."
I watched her tumble out of the plane through the air and before I could turn around to Bruce and say, “You know, I think I’m good, let’s just head back down,” we were on our knees at the edge of the door. The next part was extremely blurry. I remember seeing the videographer hanging onto the edge of the plane filming me. I remember trying to remember all of the things that the instructor had told us so that I wouldn't mess up. And before I knew it, I had forgotten everything, Bruce was moving my head back and then we were off.
Out the door free falling through the air for what felt like a mere 10 seconds, but I am told was more like one minute. During the free fall, Liam, the videographer, was right underneath me trying to take photographs and video. I know that I screamed at least once, but no sound came out.
I think I just kept saying, “Oh my God!” over and over again.
I also tried to wave, blow kisses, but evident by the video, none of that was really possible. I was falling so fast that my arms were thrown back against my will. Once the instructor opened the parachute, our bodies went from a lying position to an upright position extremely quickly. So quickly, in fact, that it felt like whiplash when it opened. When the free fall was over and the parachute was open, the next ten minutes were awesome. Drifting through the air, looking at the earth below, watching everything start small and gradually get bigger as we made our way to the ground.
Bruce could pull on one of the cords and make us dip to the right or to the left. I felt like I was on a roller coaster. A nice and easy roller coaster. Everything was nice and easy and strangely peaceful. That is, of course, until the landing.
Before heading up in the plane, the instructors had explained that because of the wind, sliding in on our butts was probably the best way to land. They told us to extend our legs in front of us as high and as straight as we could and just let the instructor do the work. At some point during our floating through the air, though, Bruce said the wind had let up and we’d be able to go ahead and land normally on our feet. Only I didn’t hear him say that, so I went into the landing thinking that we were going to land on our butts. Bruce stayed standing, however, which made for a less than graceful landing.
Lisa, on the other hand, landed after me and she did so with the grace of a trained ballet dancer. Like she’d been doing it for years.
I've been asked several times, "What was it like?" or "Describe it to me." And I’ve tried to tell people what it’s like, but it’s hard. I mean, I could, and have, used all of the generic adjectives like amazing, breathtaking, unreal and it was all of those things. But it was more than those things and less than those things all at the same time too. And it all happened so fast. After waiting all day to jump, the entire plane ride and skydive was no more than 30 minutes long.
Some people who have taken the plunge describe sky-diving as life-changing. And while I knew that facing my fears and death head-on had the potential to change my life, I didn’t feel all that different after doing it. I was happy to have done it and definitely open to doing it again, just as long as someone else pays for it. Skydiving is expensive!
And while I was scared to jump out of the plane, deep down, I knew everything was going to be fine. I knew I wasn’t going to die. If God is going to take me sooner than I’m ready, he’s not going to do with a man named Bruce strapped to my back.
Once on the ground, Trish, with her camera around her neck, broke into an all out sprint across the field to congratulate us on our jump. She was like a proud mom, and we were like her kids.
Speaking of moms and kids, my nervous energy had taken over me all day that I completely forgot to update everyone that at 4pm, we still hadn't jumped.
When I went to my car to retrieve my phone, it was close to 5pm. I had six text messages and five voicemails, most from various members of my family, all wanting to know how the jump went.
They started kindly, "Steph, we're dying to know how it went! Call us!" from my sister-in-law, Katie. Interesting choice of words, I thought.
My mom seemed friendly, "Hey, we all want to hear from you. Please call us whenever you get done.”
My dad's second and last message was not friendly at all, "Seriously, Stephanie. This is NOT funny. Call me."
I was somewhat annoyed at the fact that my parents think my idea of a hilarious joke is to not call them after skydiving and making them worry. Also annoyed that they didn’t assume that if something bad happened that Trish wouldn’t have called them.
I called home right away and my mom answered. She was happy to hear from me, and happy that the jump went well, but her reaction was somewhat lame, I thought. Maybe lame is the wrong word. Maybe “understated” might be more appropriate. The woman confuses me. Jumping out of a plane couldn’t really get her excited, but when I’ve mentioned coming to work without makeup on, she nearly loses her mind.
With everyone properly notified that the jump was successful, we waited for our videos to be processed (again, you’re welcome) and headed back to Atlanta, ready to hit the town and get drinks paid for because we skydived today!
Only the exhaustion, both mental and physical, was too much and Lisa and I went home and crashed. Facing my fears, facing death with a 180 pound man attached to me. It ain’t easy.