Facing Fear, Meeting Gratitude
I've always been a white-knuckle flyer, my palms sweating on takeoff. But as United Flight 122 taxied down the tarmac on its way out of Honolulu, I fell asleep.
A tickling on my wrist awakened me. It was a flight attendant fluttering a cocktail napkin over my hand. She asked, "Water?"
"Please," I said. When are we going to take off?
A guy across the aisle munched on pretzels. The lady next to me sipped some wine. Wait, these people have refreshments? It took a moment, but I finally put the pieces of the puzzle together. I slept through takeoff!
The only explanation I had for my newfound ease with flying was that two days earlier, I'd summoned up the courage to go skydiving. Suddenly commercial flying was easy.
Vaccines are made from the diseases they're meant to prevent, so maybe the cure for our fears can be found in living a little bit of them: The cure for the Fear of Failure lies in Failing, and the cure for the Fear of Being Alone, in Being Alone.
When my friend Scott proposed that we go skydiving, I didn't really hesitate. I'd always wanted to go. I'd said no to the idea so many times over the years that I couldn't bear one more refusal. My thought was that if I didn't say yes now, I never might. And then I'd have to live with the inadequate feeling of failing to follow through with one of my life's dreams.
Of course I could just give up the dream, but... Nah!
"Let's do it!" I said.
The next day, Scott telephoned. "We have reservations for tomorrow morning. They want us to wear long pants, long sleeves, and closed toe shoes. I'll see you at the airfield at 7:45am."
"Reservations!?" Oh my God. We're supposed to just TALK about it. Not actually DO it!
"Oh yeah, one more thing," he added. "Bring ID."
Oh yeah. How about a DOG TAG?
That evening, I barely slept. The gentle waves of Lanikai tried to work their usual magic on me, but I was not to be lulled into dreamland. Splayed out on my back, I stared at the ceiling, imagining myself hurtling toward earth at 5,000 feet.
Or would it be 10,000?
Every time I visualized a safe, exhilarating ride, my fear-mind took over. Any visions of elegant, swan-like touchdowns came juxtaposed with horrible crash landings.
Practical psychic visioning requires emotional neutrality. And I was far from neutral on the issue of me jumping out of a plane.
On the airfield the next morning, we met an experienced skydiver named Larry. Larry would be jumping solo. Scott and I would each be securely attached to our own professional parachutist.
I'll be attached to a professional. I'll be secure.
Shortly after we arrived, we saw the first tandem-jumpers pop out of the sky. Some pairs landed gracefully, others tumbled over one another. Overall the landings looked smoother than I'd imagined.
We were disappointed to see that the day was overcast. Larry waved at the sky and said, "These folks are diving below the clouds of course; looks like at about 6,000 feet. Let's wait and let this cloud cover lift to get the full view. That way we'll get a higher jump."
Someone behind us shouted, "We've got a cut-away!" All eyes went up to the sky. A deflated parachute fluttered through the air like a piece of confetti. Oh my God!
"Don't worry," Larry said. "They have a reserve chute. Just watch." Sure enough: Poof! A white parachute opened, not far from the main canopy. A few minutes later, instructor and student landed safely as if nothing had gone wrong.
If a parachute doesn't open correctly, the parachutist has to cut it away before pulling out his backup. I asked, "How often does that happen, Larry?"
"I've jumped about 5,000 times, and had maybe..." He trailed off a second. "Forty cut-aways I guess."
A bright, cute, redhead named Crystal had been hanging out with us. Crystal was working toward her tandem license. "I had a cut-away my fourth time out," she said.
Out on the airfield, an instructor gracefully placed a Japanese woman down as if she was a ballerina. Scott turned to me and said, "Man, I can't believe we're doing this."
All I could utter was, "Ha Ha!"
By 11:30, the clouds had lifted significantly. Larry said, "I've submitted us for the next flight up. We'll get the highest jump allowed. Derek, your tandem partner will be Peg Leg."
"Peg Leg's the best," Crystal said. And from several feet away, the man to whom I'd be entrusting my life called out my name.
He was a tall, good-looking guy, with tattooed muscular arms and a confident smile. He introduced himself by pressing his hand firmly into mine. "Are you ready to dive, Derek?"
"As ready as ever!" Ha Ha!
An array of belts and straps were laid out on the floor before him. "Step on in then," he said.
Your professional has a prosthetic leg! Okay? OKAY?
As he strapped me into the harness, I said, "I hear we'll be jumping from a high altitude."
Hoo! "Wow. Is that better?"
"It's safer. If problems happen, there's more time to deal with them."
"Here's the drill," he said. "You'll be clipped to me. I'll be behind you. When it's time to jump, I want you to crunch down at the door, like this." He demonstrated the position. "Then, as you jump out of the plane, I want you to tip your head back onto my shoulder, and look up to the sky. I want you to thrust your hips forward as far as you can, and flip your legs backward; your body in a full arch."
When our minds are filled with anxiety, the simplest concepts become impossible to comprehend. Peg Leg might as well have been speaking Chinese. I made him repeat it all. After patiently going over it again, he said, "I'm just gonna touch base with the office before the plane arrives, okay?"
"Sure," I said, practicing the maneuver he outlined. As soon as Peg Leg disappeared, I turned to Crystal.
"Motorcycle accident," she said, answering my question before I could even ask it. I felt safe with Peg Leg. I admire anyone who falls off his bike (literally in this case!), and isn't afraid to get back on it again.
A short, spry guy with a Southern accent approached me and said, "Hi, I'm Butters. I'll be filming your dive." He had a video camera attached to his helmet, with a short cable that ran down to his cheek.
"Thanks," I said. "You need anything from me?"
"Just look for me mid-air." He pointed to his forehead. "And remember to wave to the camera." Placing the end of the cable into his mouth, he smiled and added, "I opera a it wiff my teeff!"
About ten of us piled into a sparely furnished prop plane. Two long benches ran lengthwise down the fuselage. We straddled them with our backs to the pilot. I didn't see any seat belts. As we took off, I held on to a rope that was threaded through some loops above the windows.
Peg Leg extended an arm out to his comrades. "Synchronize your watches!" The instructors weren't actually wearing watches: rather, altimeters. They tapped their fists together as if cheering drinks in a bar. Everyone heartily laughed.
Peg Leg extended his wrist out in front of my face. The dial on it read 4,000 feet. I leaned back into him like an infant would with his mother. "Hey Derek," somebody called, "You can let go of the rope now!" All eyes went to my hand. My knuckles were so white they all burst out laughing.
A door on the left side of the plane was opened. Peg Leg said, "I've double-checked! We're attached at the waist and the shoulders! We're ready to go!"
Scott cried, "Derek, my legs are shaking! Are your legs shaking?"
It's eerie that he actually made this statement given what ended up happening. Scott's legs were attempting to send us a psychic message. But we were too ungrounded by anxiety to listen to it. Our thinking minds had decided: We were jumping out of this plane.
I turned to him as casually as I could and said, "No, my legs are fine." It's my spirit that's shaking!
The time to jump arrived. Butters climbed outside the plane, and shimmied down to the fuselage to a vantage point near the tail. James Bond music (the part with the horns) blared in my head. Peg Leg shoved me toward the door.
A thousand winds, slapping me! God! The plane! Gone! Sky! God! Ocean! God! Holy... Earth! God! The straps. OK! The straps. OK! God, thank you! Tears in my eyes. The Ko'olau mountains. Blurry. Blink! OK. It's clear now. Butters! Floating on his back! The camera...Thumbs up! Smile!
The night before I dove, a friend of mine (who'd once gone skydiving) said, "Derek, do you know how fast a skydiver falls before the parachute opens? 120 miles per hour. When they pull that chord, your heart's going to be up in your throat."
Our parachute opened with the solid snap of a bed-sheet being expertly cracked open under a backyard clothesline. I was delighted to feel a good, confident tug. The next day I'd see bruises around my groin and armpits, but the braking action wasn't as harsh as I feared it would be.
I shouted, "Are we alright?"
"We're alright! You cool?"
I slipped about two inches in my harness. It's coming loose! Frantically, I grabbed the ropes above my head. Peg Leg shouted, "Don't touch those!"
"I've got you fine. I'm just getting some maneuverability. You're good?"
"I'm..." Uh, "I'm good!" I guess. Peg Leg directed us into a sharp, downward spiral; two twists of a huge corkscrew. It was like being on a roller coaster. Then, he pulled the ends of our parachute in, and brought us to a complete stall.
For two beautiful seconds that I will never forget, I felt no wind in my ears. We were floating, some 5,000 feet above Mokuleia, in complete silence. It was utterly amazing.
After a few more turns, and a couple more stalls, Peg Leg said, as if he was talking to a two year old, "There's the field."
I'm sure I sounded doped up when I repeated, "There's the field!"
He brought us in brilliantly. We landed like a couple of egrets. Thank you, Peg Leg!
I turned around to find Scott, to give him a high five. I found him across the field, flat on his back, with his instructor kneeling beside him. Scott's right leg was turned out funny. One of his shinbones was pushing against his skin. "It's broken! I know it!" he cried.
I took hold of his hand and said, "But it looks good Scott!"
"I know it is. But it looks good. It's all together. They're gonna set it, easy. You'll be...good as new...Help is coming."
Derek, you bonehead! What the hell are you proving, jumping out of a plane? And what a DUMB thing to say: "It LOOKS good. It's all TOGETHER." My God, you're lucky to be alive. You GET IT!? YOU'RE LUCKY!
Scott's tandem partner clearly felt bad. He'd tried his best and, well, accidents happen. It wasn't going to do any good placing blame. Peg Leg said, "We call this--getting eaten by the Grass Monster--when the field gets you."
Myths didn't die with the Greeks and Romans. They still live today.
Scott joked, "I guess I blew my chance with Crystal, huh?"
We all laughed. He's fine.
The paramedics came, and as they tended to the business of securing Scott's leg, Scott said to Peg Leg, "Man, I feel guilty. You don't have a leg and I'm lying here praying I get to keep mine."
Peg Leg smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and said, "Hey, living with one leg isn't that bad!"
As it turns out, Scott's leg is healing beautifully. The doctors say that in a few months he should be as good as new. He'll even able to climb mountains.
I am looking forward to climbing one with him!
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