Food Feature: Legends of the fall

Skydiving over rural Georgia

Skydiving is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences everyone should have. Thanks to the miracle of tandem jumping, it's one that even a wuss like me can enjoy — sort of.

I'm not the world's bravest man. I tend to worry about things like doing a free fall from a moving aircraft 13,500 feet above the ground. My friend, Jim Waters, and I would be making our jump from Monroe-Walton County Airport through an outfit called Skydive Monroe. Even though I would be jumping tandem — which means you have a large man hitched to your back to pull the parachute when it's time — I was still incredibly nervous.

The night before our scheduled jump I had the grave misfortune of watching an episode of the "Late Show with David Letterman" where they drop plump objects from the top of buildings to see how they explode when they hit the ground. It was meant to be funny, but instead of making me laugh, it kept me awake most of the night. At 230 pounds, I could be classified as a "plump object," and I don't particularly care to find out how I might explode if dropped from a great height.

The next morning, after showing us a video demonstrating how safe it is to jump from moving aircraft, the kind staff of Skydive Monroe had us sign about 30 documents indicating we knew what we were getting ourselves into and that wouldn't sue if they had to scrape us off the hot concrete runway just outside the door.

For the past week Jim had called me almost daily with wives' tales he had heard about people being permanently injured during jumps; up until now, he was the one who was scared, and I was brave. That feeling was reversed as we signed these documents.

After listening to a short orientation, I squeezed my previously mentioned 230-pound frame into the little gray jumpsuit they gave me, and put on the 1940s-era leather cap. The parachute harness bunched up in a very private area. With my goggles on, I felt like Buck Rogers with jock itch.

We ambled into a small carrier plane, which had its seats removed to accommodate skydivers. We were told to slide back as far as we could on either side of the plane with our legs spread-eagle over the bench and our feet facing the aircraft's tail. Body after body slid in in front of us. It was the closest I'd ever care to be to a male stranger.

When the plane took off, the drone of the engines drowned out all conversation so we could concentrate fully on our deaths. As we climbed skyward with the hot, white sun piercing through the tiny airplane windows, I imagined we were a World War II special forces team heading off on a secret mission over Germany — and my feeling of terror gave way to one of exhilaration.

Still, it took no small amount of coaxing to get me to jump. There's just something instinctive about looking down at a patchwork of farm plots 13,500 feet below, with the wind whipping past your face, that makes you wish for solid ground. But after a slight rocking motion and a count down from three, I was out the door.

They said all fear would vanish as soon as we were out the door, and they were right. My body was flopping around so much I had no time to fear. Throw a T-shirt in an empty clothes dryer and you get an idea what the first few seconds of a free fall are like. All I could do was issue screams of delight, which were lost to the loud frenetic sound of wind rushing past my ears. As instructed, I arched my back and threw my head, arms and legs out behind me to stabilize my body. Within a few wild, thrilling seconds, we were stabilized.

This was by far the best part of the jump. Although we were dropping at an unbelievable rate of 120 miles per hour, the earth seemed so far below us that it was completely unthreatening. More experienced divers were steering their bodies through the air with simple hand gestures, like Christopher Reeve in the Superman movies. More than one hotshot zoomed by to make a crazy face or perform a mid-air tumble during our descent.

Sixty seconds into the jump, my tandem instructor pulled the rope and with a great lurching motion opened our chute, a bright rectangular canopy of red, blue and black. Immediately our speed dropped from 120 miles per hour to a more leisurely 8 miles per hour. A heavenly silence replaced the mad rush of wind.

For the next few minutes we drifted slowly to the earth with a stunning view of the trees and farmland surrounding the Monroe-Walton County Airport. Since ours was the last jump of the day, the horizon was painted in cool midsummer hues of orange and purple. The thick leather cap, tight goggles and jump suit made me feel as if we were in a tiny vehicle, like some kind of hovercraft. Steering was easy. A tug on the right rope turned us to the right, a tug to the left turned us left. A tight yank in either direction sent us in a dizzying front spin.

Landing was a breeze. As instructed, I lifted my legs, my tandem instructor pulled back on the ropes and we slid to the ground like a baseball player sliding into home plate. Jim landed shortly after me with both thumbs up and a wide grin across his face. We had cheated death and had a video to prove it. The rest of the day was ours to spend drinking cold beers and bragging shamelessly about our indomitable bravery.??

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