Awhile back, I wrote about my darling friend, Joel, a world champion skydiver who lost his life in a skydiving accident. When I wrote that blog, I promised to retell the story of my own skydiving experience, and today is the day.
Suffice it to say, I think about Joel every day, and about what a wonderful friend he was. I miss him tremendously. He was intelligent and kind, giving, funny as hell, sweet and gentle, beautiful, had the most brilliant, infectious grin, was wonderfully creative….the perfect man, in my eyes. I miss him very much.
Joel was a pioneer in formation skydiving, and was known the world over for his stunts and sky ballets.
I remember when he did work for a CocaCola commercial that ran for years, showing orange-suited skydivers drinking Coke en air.
Joel was definitely one of my heroes, (He built his own plane!) but I knew him long before his fame as a skydiver, before he was instructing dozens to jump in unison and to form pyramids and other incredible formations. I knew him when he was just starting out, and had a little skydiving school in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, called, Skydance.
The gang I ran with at the time flew everywhere. Joel was our pilot, and we would fly from Tulsa to OKC or to Aspen or to Texas….If one of us wanted to do something, off we’d go, without giving it a second thought. When the gang took up skydiving, though, a deep seated fear of death sprouted within me, and I could not shake it.
I pretended to be enthusiastic as I accompanied my friends on their jumps. Somehow, however, when it came time for me to go to Skydance, I always had an excuse and cancelled. Once, I feigned a sprained ankle. Another time, I had the worst cold imaginable (not). I hemmed and hawed…and simply refused to do it because I was afraid. My friends, of course, knew what I was doing, and gave me endless grief about it.
Early one Saturday morning, I heard the familiar sound of Joel’s Land Rover, “Winnie” in my driveway. A few seconds later, I looked up and saw his smiling face as he walked through the door. I remember his grabbing me that morning, and waltzing me around the room, as he was prone to do. There always seemed to be music in his head. We both laughed, and he said, “Come on. You’re going with me. I have a surprise for you” I dropped everything and off we went. I figured it would be a picnic or something. It wasn’t.
He took me to Skydance.
“Ok,” I thought. ”I’ll go through with the training….get to the door and simply say, ‘I’ve changed my mind’” Joel was so sweet and understanding. I knew this would work. So….
I spent the next hours jumping off the back of a pickup truck, onto a plowed field, and learning to roll. I learned (sort of) to pack a chute. I laid on the ground and learned what to do with my body during a free fall. I rode a zipline from a dummy plane to the ground, over and over, learning how to deal with a static line. (This isn’t me in the pics.)
I did everything that one who is learning to skydive learns…sort of….not…because I was not paying attention. I had no intention of jumping. None, whatsoever.
So finally, Joel and I went up in the plane. I have forgotten who the pilot was that day…one of Joel’s friends. It was just the two of us in the main part of the plane. He hooked my ripcord to a metal ring on a metal bar that extended out of the plane. As we reached 12,000 feet (I think) I crept to the door (in terror), what happened next happened very quickly. The wind was rushing in. I had goggles on. I turned to Joel, who was standing behind me much closer than I thought, and I smiled and said, “You know, Joel, I think I’ve changed my mind…” and all I heard was, “Huh uh…” as he pushed me….PUSHED ME (!!!) out the door!!! He had KNOWN what I was going to do and he simply wouldn’t stand for it. He felt that once I did my first fall, I would be hooked, just like the rest of our friends.
I don’t know if any of you have seen the film, “Private Benjamin” with Goldie Hawn…but there is a skydiving scene in that film that looks EXACTLY like I looked that day. I did not gracefully drift to the ground. I panicked. I screamed. I flailed. I kicked. I screamed some more. I’m sure I looked like a complete idiot…but who cares?
It was horrible!
Because I was on a static line, my chute deployed by itself. You know how most cinematic depictions of skydiving portray this gentle glide? Well, that isn’t what happens! When the chute deployed it JERKED my entire body. I felt like I was experiencing a train wreck. The wind was LOUD and it whipped me back and forth. The fall was FAST! There was no gliding at 120 miles per hour. I was FALLING!!! When I hit the ground, I hit hard, with a THUD. I managed to land correctly, but how, I will never know. I was screaming and crying in terror…and trust me when I say that I am generally neither a screamer nor a cryer. Things change rapidly, however, when one feels that she is close to death!
Within 20 minutes, Joel was walking toward me with that big, beautiful grin on his face. ”See? I TOLD you it was easy! Didn’t you love it?!” If I had a propensity toward violence, I would have slugged him in the gut. Instead, I refused to speak to him for an hour. He laughed. You are probably laughing, too, at this point. My other friends laughed, but I STILL shudder to think of it. I HATED that experience. To me, it was not funny. I am NOT glad that I did it, and I will NEVER skydive again!