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Talk of the Town - Free fallin' April 22 2000

First-time jumper learns truth from skydiving dare

Marty dared me to do it.

Since junior high, neither of us has ever backed down from a dare. Marty placed a fountain of fireworks on top of a police car. I stripped down to my boxers at Neighbor's, stood on a bench and announced to the bar that I had a small penis.

So when he dared me to skydive, I didn't think twice about it.

That is, until I arrived at Skydive Monroe's hangar last Sunday morning.

First, I had to fill out five pages of waivers that repeated the phrase, "risk of serious injury or death" 26 times. Then I watched an instructional video that described in detail all the things that could go wrong - parachute malfunctions, plane crashes, entanglements and mid-air collisions. Afterward, I leafed through a parachuting magazine, which recounted the latest skydiving accidents. And it didn't help when a couple of veteran jumpmasters walked through the room discussing a near-fatal skydiving mishap that happened only a few days ago.

This wasn't daring at all, I thought to myself. This was just plain stupid.

Fortunately, I wasn't the only one having second thoughts. Another rookie skydiver named Jamilia sat in a plastic chair across the room, filling out paperwork. It was her 27th birthday, and she was celebrating by jumping out of an airplane.

"What have I gotten myself into?" she said out loud, and a few nervous tears squeezed out of her eyes as she tried to laugh.

But it was too late for either of us to turn back. An instructor walked into the room and began talking us through the tandem jump. He explained how each of us would be harnessed to an experienced skydiver, who would be responsible for pulling the ripcord and guiding our parachute to the ground.

I was about to hand over my life to a man I'd never met. His name was Bill Scott - a grizzly, gray-bearded skydiver who had logged more than 6,000 jumps. He quickly fitted me into a purple jumpsuit, leather frap-hat, goggles and crotch-cramping harness. Then we were sardine-packed into a twin-engine plane with 12 other jumpers, our legs spread eagle and our backs in the lap of the person behind us.

As the plane lifted, I thought about Marty, who was probably still asleep. I thought about my girlfriend, who didn't know I was skydiving this morning. I thought about my parents, who didn't want to know. Who would they call first if my chute didn't open? Who would scrape my splattered body off the runway?

The dial on Bill's hand-held altimeter climbed slowly toward 13,500 feet. I forced a tight-lipped smile and tried not to look scared. Beside me, Jamilia covered her face with her hands and whispered to herself.

"Door!" shouted the pilot. It was time.

The side hatch opened, and one by one, divers disappeared beneath the plane. With Bill strapped to my back, I kneeled at the edge and looked down. Right about then, my mind shut off and my body went on auto-pilot.

"One! Two!" I never heard three. Instantly, everything was swallowed up in wind. It blew the skin back on my cheeks and howled through my ears. I couldn't breathe the cold, thin air. And I couldn't make sense of anything.

Finally, my mind figured out what my body had done: It had belly-flopped out of a moving airplane and was free-falling at 120 mph back toward the Earth. A few seconds later, my body unclenched and I was able to breathe again.

We plunged two miles in less than a minute. But the whole time, the ground didn't seem to be getting any closer. I felt like I was floating on a pocket of air, timelessly suspended between Earth and sky. Like a mobile, I twisted and spiraled in the wind, hanging by an imaginary string.

Then the parachute opened and everything was quiet.

I began to take it all in - the smog-shrouded city skyline, the grid-like patchwork of farms and forest, the naked granite of Stone Mountain, and in the distance, the pimpled bumps of the north Georgia mountains. Everything looked green and peaceful.

Bill handed me the yellow toggles that steered the chute and we careened downward in wide spirals. The wind billowed through the burgundy-and-blue-striped parachute above us. When it was time to land, I pulled down firmly on the toggles, lifted my feet and slid gently into the runway grass.

On the ground, I hugged Bill and high-fived Jamilia. I felt close to everyone now - even skydiving strangers in pink and purple jumpsuits. And I felt so lucky to be alive. Marty's dare had revealed an unexpected truth: Size really does matter. In those 60 seconds of free fall, I saw the bigness of the world and the smallness of my petty problems. I saw how it all fit together. My skydive had given me a god-like glimpse of the Earth, and I felt bound to it now by more than gravity.

Afterward, I sat beside the runway eating a sliver of Jamilia's birthday cake and watching brightly colored angels fall from the sky.

Drop in to Skydive Monroe's website for information, www.skydivemonroe.com.



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