The Color of My Parachute

120mph Straight Down

photograph by Doug Park

From up about 13,500 feet, the human body descends at a rate of approximately 120mph. In a tandem jump, two people attached together drop at about 200mph. A teeny little parachute - one more seemingly fitting for a G.I. Jane action figure than for two full-sized humans - is deployed early in the freefall to drag the team down to the safer, more manageable 120mph. Now this discrepancy in airspeed probably has something to do with the air currents or somesuch thing because that difference in descent rates blows the whole bowling ball and bag of feathers routine right out of the sky: You remember, that lesson from fifth grade science class about how things get sucked down to earth at the same rate of speed due to gravity?

I'm here to tell you, Gravity Rules.

Gravity has kept me on this planet for as long as I can remember. Even as a wee bairn, anytime I'd get a notion to float above my crib, fly over my parents' heads, or soar with the seagulls, gravity would be there to remind me of my rightful place on this fine planet Earth.

On this particular day, however, I gave gravity a shove, a tonk, a tweak. I didn't exactly defy it - no, I gave gravity its proper props and respects, even quietly toasted it. I did, however, mess with it a little, gave it the old wink and nod, nudged it hard in the ribs, and tickled its bright beautiful blue belly. Six other wild journalistic adventurers and I challenged the sky and we are here to testify that, yes, we are still alive to tell about it.

Months earlier, I received an invitation for an all-expenses paid "Fam Tour" or media familiarization tour of central west coast Florida, hosted by Visit Florida, the Sunshine State's new tourism bureau.

As I faxed my acceptance, I sealed my fate. No turning back. From that point on, I was determined to do this.

"This" in this case was skydive. Buried in the agenda of events for Fam Tour's day two was a trip to Z-Hills Skydive City in spring-water capital and apparently skydive capital of the world: Zephyrhills, Florida. The trip included a free tandem jump for us hotshot media types. For the next few months, I was focused on the goal. I dedicated all my energies toward clearing my head, intent on diving out of a perfectly good airplane.

See, since the age of 17, I have been a confirmed aerophobe. My last trip in an airplane was a return 15-minute ticket from Walt Disney World to Fort Lauderdale after a post-graduation blowout with my best friend. For the flight's absurdly short duration, I schlucked down one-two-three-four screwdrivers. Upon landing, I got out, kissed the tarmac, and swore I'd never fly again. Since then, and through 18 years of terribly inconvenient non-flying, I couldn't tell you why this happened - what had impacted me so. It just did. I hadn't been on an airplane since 1980 and here I was, getting ready to jump out of one.

The kids on the Fam Tour suffered my pre-mid-life crisis ramblings and recently acquired personal philosophies about how sometimes life presents opportunities that one must just take no matter how much these opportunities might challenge one's own self-image and/or personal neuroses. Some offered support, calling my adventure "admirable." Tut-tut. Most, I believe, assumed I'd bail at best and at worst make myself a huge fool or mess. I was in the minority, age-wise. At my 35 years, I was the seasoned elder, having the best of my glory days behind me. The other journalists were barely out of school. Babies. Genetically taut, fit superhumans built for speed, programmed to stare down X-treme sport challenges and life's little gauntlets. Most of them shrugged at the thought of doing something they'd never done before or maybe thought they'd never do. I, however, required massive rationalizations: practical (I have too many friends overseas and one can hardly escape our stinky U.S. cultural imperialism without boarding a jet or being able to afford the QE2); prideful (my nine-year-old has more frequent flyer miles than I do); political (Reagan's ridiculous Eighties deregulation orgy is over ... sort of ...); and rational (I finally feel confident enough to challenge the basics laws of physics. Air travel is safe, right?)

Despite the veneer of confidence oozing from my twentysomething pals, it really seemed that most of them, like myself, just wanted the support and love of ... well, total strangers. Most of us tried to convince those on the tour not scheduled to jump to join us - either to bolster the soothing effect of peer pressure or to increase our chances of survival, er, probability-wise. We formed some pretty quick bonds in those tour vans, traveling around west Florida impatiently waiting to see how the sky would deal our fates.

Ellene from McCall's mag, Kelly from Fitness Plus and I, being the three most jittery, agreed to stick together and see if we could jump at the same time. Buff New York Peter, and Weight Watcher magazine's Chris would take a later flight. Our two resident circuit-girls, the giggly Micah and Mel from South Beach and D.C., respectively, were raring to get up and blast off. Their confidence and giddiness was infectious. I wanted to hurl.

Z-Hills Skydive City sparkled like the fabled Emerald one after a morning chock full of heavy meals, an interminable number of wrong turns, and nervous, twitchy anticipation. Zephyr, indeed. There didn't seem to be too much in the way of wind on this sticky, glisteny Florida afternoon.

My heart raced and I could feel the adrenal glands kick into overdrive. Blabbering overcompensating overconfidence seemed inescapable. Christ, I hate my coping methods. Oddly enough, I mostly shut up and observed. I touched, fondled, twisted, and yanked every harness, loop, and carabiner on the rack. In the 15 or so minutes we had left before suit-up time, I was going to damn well absorb, understand, and own all of this insanely primitive technology. After all, we were about to trust our flesh, our souls, our lives to a few straps of nylon and steel.

Oh God.

The Z-Hills crew took volunteers for the first round. My arm shot up into the air first. Kelly and Ellene stepped forward bravely. We're scared shitless, we explained; please god, let us get this over with. We were each assigned one jump instructor who would actually perform the feat and one helmet-cammed photographer. Crew members assigned to the second flight assisted in our harness fittings.

Tandem jumps work like this: We, as first time jumpers, essentially go along for the ride, attached in front of an experienced jump instructor by four carabiners. Basically a couple of three-inch loops of clunky metal kept us from plummeting alone to what was 13,500 feet below.

My brain was goo. Gooey goo. I recognized this feeling. It usually involved drugs. It took every drop of concentration I could muster to not dissolve into a puddle of catatonic blubber. Nervous humor ruled the roost as instructors joked about how few flights they had taken. One even popped a fake ripcord just to get a rise out of the über-cool and unflappable Ellene, one of my two trusty jumpmates.

Sensing my jitters, my harnesser Billy took it easy on me. I like to think it was due to his inherently sensitive nature. But perhaps he wisely reasoned that riling a large, nervous aerophobe was Not a Good Plan.

Billy did something that none of the other harnessers did for their students. He took me in the chute room to unroll a rig and explain safety backup procedures. He pointed toward another shed to where the mythical Haagen-Daas was rigging his own chute. Did this make me feel better, he asked. Sort of, I told him. A dude rigging his own chute is a good thing, I convinced myself, noting with confidence his self-interest. I felt calm, and this disturbed me. In fact, I was beginning to get nervous that none of my regular nervous coping mechanisms were kicking into gear (like climbing furniture, screaming obscenities, or clawing out the nearest set of eyes).

Haagen-Daas emerged from the back like a zen leprechaun. Shit. He's half my size, I thought to myself.

Walking across the field together we talked about fear and flying instead of fear of flying. His sweet, low-key manner and the fact that he'd performed thousands of jumps put me at ease. Doug, our photographer, on the other hand, was a bounding puppy, chirping with glee at this fresh planeful of jump virgins.

We boarded the plane, a lovely orange, yellow, and white Canadian Twin Otter that reminded me of the rickety beach buses in Tuxpan, Mexico. This memory offered little comfort. Once the big bird took off, however, I lost all discernable fear (and probably perspective). By this time I was a blissful basket case, full of the sauce that somehow got me there in the first place. Kelly got to ride shotgun in the cockpit.

The needles on our altimeters were to go around once and settle on 13,500 before we were to begin. The plane arced and banked for the entire ride as we spiraled up, up, up. Haagen-Daas rubbed and thumped my back as we sat in formation. Doug bounced around and tried to get me to spout witticisms and smart things. That was not going to happen. Inside, I focused. "I'm doing this. I'm doing this. Goddamn, I'm doing this!" I thought to myself. Outside I was an ashen mess. I was scheduled to follow Ellene's jump. Then Haagen-Daas found out that I had had knee surgery and decided to jump us up front to allay the kneeling wait time.

Now it was just me and the void. I had been mentally prepared to see Ellene's clean jump before me. Now I was to perform the inaugural leap of faith. Alone. First.

Haagen-Daas hooked up to my back as I was on my knees. As he pulled and adjusted the straps, I thought about Lovebugs, those annoying Florida insects which mate in the air and splatter in great numbers on windshields soaring across the state. Splatter. Great associative thinking, Kate. I leaned forward enough to pick Haagen-Daas right up off of his squatting perch.

"You testing me??" he shouted, laughing as I eased him back down.

"You and this #@$! rig!" I choked back, nervously.

Doug smiled as he opened the clear, Plexiglas garage door. I stood and held the bar above my head as the outdoors raced across my face. It seemed like forever. I breathed deep down into my toes. Below was heaven. How odd. For one serious moment, Doug stared me square in the eye and shouted, "Focus on me! You can do this!"

There is no way to describe what happened next. But I am a writer and that is my job. In some ways, I wish I could just keep this experience locked away for myself, as my own private reserve to remind myself of my courage, derring-do, and ability to get out there and face down whatever irrational foe tries to hold me back. But as a nice woman on the flight back to Austin told me, "You must share this story. Just think of the people who might go out and try something they've never tried before because of how and what you say!"

She knows fear. She sleeps with a gun.

The first step on a skydive is most certainly a doozy. The air becomes a cushion, a brick, a magic carpet, your lover, an opposing force. Airplane physics begin to make sense. It's like heaven and hell and shuddering multiple climatic release all at once. It's Debussy, Bowie, and Buffalo Daughter all wrapped up into one piledriving aural sensurround swirl ... My body and brain screamed music. While the atmosphere screamed past me, I could not scream out loud. Constricted by my one tether to safety - the godblessed harness - I could barely gasp. I could barely comprehend our descent and my ascent.

It's not like falling. Not at all. It's more like flying. Eyes wide open, I could not put together that the luscious tilt-a-whirling line between blue and green was the horizon. Like one of those toy floaty balls with an inner ball suspended in liquid, that horizontal line kept adjusting its place, while I lie perfectly still, save for 120mph straight down. Assessing the picnic blanket landscape below, I felt the planet rush onto me like a mile-wide freight train, like a tidal wave of love. The only times I had ever before felt like this or given in to wide-eyed healthy unclenched fear of this magnitude was when I gave birth to my son or when I fell - fell in pure, unadulterated love.

Doug the photographer raced circles around us, capturing the unbelievable event on VHS for posterity and snapping shots with some pneumatic rig operated by his wildly grinning mouth. He looked damn cute in his flying squirrel parachute suit. But free-fall was about to end.

Haagen-Daas ripped the cord and we accelerated backward at what seemed twice our velocity or more. Then the rainbow parachute took over. Haagen-Daas proceded to say profound things about why he jumps, and I told him it all felt humbling.

I lied. I felt like God.

This was something my parachuting pal Sue from Australia once told me. "I felt like God." As I surveyed my domain, I understood exactly what she meant.

Haagen-Daas adjusted the straps on the harness so that it wouldn't crawl up my butt as hard. The shift was disconcerting. Although he warned me about this maneuver in our pre-flight training, I'm sure I screamed for him to leave it the hell alone. Seven minutes of agony seemed a fair trade for inner peace.

As we drifted down for those seven minutes, he let me hold the canopy and steer. My chest filled with the very air I was slicing through. Somehow the thought of that seemed more profound up there than it does down here, now. The horizon rose like the sides of a bowl of earthenware to greet us.

My new pals below hooted and hollered my name as I was the first newbie to sail by. The landing was picture perfect and felt like what I imagine the other side of birth to be: soft and hard and gooey and gentle and a leaving behind of all that preceded it. I knew my life would never be the same.

As we touched down, I was overcome by the desire to be alone. I felt like a mouthful of X or some other psuedo-psychedelic had just kicked in, and I wanted to go get fetal and cry for happy.

Something about me has forever changed. Whether it was my nagging lack of confidence, screwed-up body image, or out-and-out stubborness to never change, with this dive, I experienced something transformative - and I did it with six other perfect strangers. Each of us took off as strangers and came back down to earth having shared something significant. Each of us left a little piece of ourselves up on that plane.

Features Editor Kate X Messer grew up in South Florida and never thought she'd see her home state from 13,500 feet up. This article hits the stands on her 36th birthday.

Between them, photographer Doug Park and Haagen-Daas have over 13,000 jumps. This month, Doug will be competing in the World Cup of Formation Skydiving in Portugal.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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