My Pink Parachute

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Mark Twain

 

 

 

It was a cool and hazy Saturday morning, at a time I’d normally be buried under a warm blanket, dead to the world. It was early, but everyone had come on time. None of us would’ve missed this for the world.

We were inside a small hangar tucked in a far corner of the city airport. It was called an International Airport, but the only things that landed here were Cessnas and propeller planes. My friends and I were standing in a groggy circle, speaking in hushed tones, partly because we were half asleep and partly because we were all trying to come to grips with the enormity of what we’d signed up for.

Twenty of my college friends had come that day. Some I’d known since first year. Others I’d met a few months ago at the university pub. And still others I’d roped in at the last minute. The two newest recruits had joined the night before. These were the crazy ones, I thought. Or the really brave ones, if you think about it. Who’d agree to go with a total stranger who’d walked into class and said “Call me if you wanna jump”? I was surprised the professors even let me in, let alone allowed me to make my spiel. For some reason, the poster I’d brought seemed to charm them. I had made it on my roommate’s dying ink jet printer. In between ink splotches, the picture showed a blurry black and white photo of a man with an open parachute over what suspiciously looked like Belgium in the Second World War. That was all I could find for free on the internet those days. The profs took one look at it and let me right in with a smile. It was a wonky one that said “Well, won’t this be entertaining. Please go ahead. Be my guest,” but it was still a smile.

Now here I was on D Day, having met my quota of twenty. No one believed I could do this, most of all the company. The company was owned by a veteran skydiver called Phil and his wife Sheila who ran the office. She was the one who took my call that day, the day before final exams. I’d been determined to get a good deal.

“We give in­-class instruction in the morning,” she had said. “A run-­through after lunch and the jump happens at the end of the day. We also serve a gourmet light lunch. Now you’ll need to show up at six in the morning right on time and register in my office, OK?” said Sheila in a motherly voice. Few mothers would so easily give directions to a skydiving course, but I listened intently with as much reverence as I’d have if this had been directions to the annual Thanksgiving dinner.

“Can you tell me how much it is?”

“Our regular price is $300 per person and there’s a fifty dollar charge for no shows.”

“Whoah.” I knew it’d be expensive but not by this much. All I had in my dwindling bank account was a measly $443.70 which I’d been saving to pay for rent that month. For a moment I wondered which would be the greater priority.

“Do you give student discounts?”

“Student discounts..?” she paused. “Well, we do give group rates. That’d be $200 per person and the organiser gets a 50% discount.”

“50%? That’s great.” That sounded good. Maybe I can make it even better. “How many would I have to bring for me to go for free?”

Free?” Another pause. “Hold on honey. I gotta go talk to my hubby.”

They seemed to take a long time to hash out my question. I waited patiently on the line. I’d have waited an hour if she’d asked me to. This was my dream. My last hurrah before finishing college.

You know those people in school who didn’t study at all, partied all night and came to exams with red eyes and hangovers and still got the best grades? Well, that was never me. I had to work really hard at school and then really hard at internships that paid peanuts for two years, all before graduating. But it hadn’t been all work. I’d managed to goof off a bit and spend some time at the pub making friends, checking out cute guys, and learning names of new drinks ­- one reason I was graduating late and penniless. But, I was done now. Finished. This was the end of a life as I knew it, and it meant only one thing. Adulthood. I was terrified as a baby duck taking off on its first flight, and jumping out of an airplane was only way I could think of to delay this new phase of life. Even if it would  be for just one day.

“OK, if you bring in twenty, we’ll give you a free ride.” Shelia was back on the line. “They’ll get the group rate of $200. Alright? Bye now!”

“Hold on.” I wasn’t done yet. “Can we bring our own lunch?”

“Your lunch?” she sounded confused. “Sure…if that’s what you want to….”

“Will you give us a discount for that too?”

“Ok,” I heard Sheila sigh. “I guess I’ll take $20 off for that.”

“Cool! Thanks so much!”

“Bye Bye.” She hung up with a click.

 

That was a month ago. And here I was with twenty of my brave friends who’d put their faith in my planning, my research, my negotiating ability and had signed up. We had been talking about this for weeks now, at the pub, in classes, before exams, after exams. I could see everyone was pumped up. They all had this crazy I can’t believe I’m doing this crazy look in their eyes. I also saw other signs, telltale signs of nervousness. Lips being chewed and hands being wrung, a few feet hopping from one to another. I was nervous too. What if something happened? To them? To me? What if I found I couldn’t jump? What if I jumped but my parachute never opened? I felt nauseous on this mix of excitement and anxiety, but I knew I couldn’t afford to show it. I had to be strong. I had to show mettle. I was the leader here after all.

Now I was not new to adventure. I’ve always had an outlandish streak and a thirst for the unconventional. This was what made me the lone black sheep of my family. More than one relative had called me the wild one, and I was surprised I got invited to family gatherings at all. There was some truth to their thinking because it was only ten months ago I’d jumped off a bridge with only a rope attached to my feet.

All I remembered from that day was screaming all the way down as I sliced through the air till the top of my head touched the cold water. Then springing back up in the air, arms flailing, screaming some more and that awful feeling at the pit of my stomach as I began to hurl down towards the quarry again. This happened not once, not twice, not three times, but in four full bounces until the rope settled and I hung upside down over the water, swinging gently, my arms numb, my heart thumping like mad and my face stuck in an unstoppable grin. It was the day I learnt what exhilaration meant. That unimaginable feeling of having conquered it all. Of having defied death, given it the finger, and lived to tell. I’d never felt more alive than when I’d been so close to death. At the end of that one jump, I’d felt I could do anything, anything in the world.

It seemed like my friends had felt the same way. We were lined up at the main office of the bunjee company to pick our free t­-shirts. These shirts had bold lettering in front that said “Certified Insane,” and in the back, “I’m an adrenaline addict and should not be trusted near open windows, ledges or cliffs.” We were standing in line waiting for our turn when someone out of the blue said, “Guys, this is what we should be doing before job interviews. Imagine walking in pumped like this? They’d hire us in a second.”

I don’t know who, but someone else said “Can you imagine what skydiving would be like? That’d be even more amazing.”

“Yeah man,” said someone else. “That’ll get me that investment banking job in New York for sure.”

“Me too!”

“Let’s do it,” I heard my voice. “Let’s do it, guys.” Everyone turned to look at me. High on adrenaline, that wonder drug of nature, legal but just as lethal as the kind sold on the street corner across our college dorm, I promised to organise it on the spot. I even promised to jump first.

 

“How many did you say?” said Phil. In khaki shorts, black t­-shirt and a crew cut, he looked like a drill sergeant on vacation. He was standing in front of the main door, hands on his hips, a scowl on his face.

“Sheila!” He bellowed to the side.

“I…I called last week,” I said, but he was too busy glowering at his wife who’d just stepped out. Sheila walked out in black high heels and tight pants, looking like she belonged at a Saks Fifth avenue store than a sky diving school in the middle of a small airport.

“Did you really bring twenty?” she said looking astonished.

“I called and left a message last week,” I said. “You told me I could bring twenty and that everyone will get a discount and I’d go for free.”

Sheila and Phil stared at me. For some reason, I felt like I was in front of my parents, having done something terribly wrong and not for the first time. Phil looked pointedly at Sheila. She gave a sheepish shrug and said “I didn’t believe they’d all come. How many people call every day and never show up?”

“I don’t have enough planes for this gang,” said Phil.

“We can split the group over a couple days, if that helps,” I said desperately trying to think of solutions. I couldn’t lose this chance and I couldn’t let my friends down. They’d never forgive me. “Maybe some of us can come tomorrow morning?”

Ignoring me, Phil turned to his wife. “Call John. I need two more planes no later than two. Now!”

“Ok, Ok,” said Sheila scurrying inside.

“We start class in ten minutes,” said Phil, surprising me with a softer voice. “Coffee pot’s on and we can make another batch if you need.”

 

***

 

We’d been sitting in class for fifteen minutes, counting like we were back in kindergarten. Everyone was beginning to feel a bit silly. Behind me, the two guys who’d signed up the night before were whispering to each other, but I could hear them.

“This shit is what we signed up for?”

“We can count, man. Show us how to jump.”

“Hey dude, can I have your truck if you die today?”

“Deal. And I get your girlfriend if you…”

“Boys!” roared Phil. “Are you paying attention? If you don’t follow my instructions here, how do I know you’ll listen to me up there? You think this is a joke?” Phil’s face had turned red and everyone had turned silent. I was beginning to worry about our instructor. His mood changed so quickly from polite businessman to dictatorial instructor and then back again, I was sure he was a candidate for an imminent heart attack. I wasn’t sure he was the kind of person I’d want to be with in a life and death scenario.

“Pay attention now!” The veins on his neck throbbed. “Because if you don’t, you might as well be dead. Do you all understand?”

Everyone nodded gravely. Phil gave a satisfied grunt.

“From the top now. Arc-one-thousand.”

“Arc-one thousand, arc-two-thousand, arc-three -…” we chorused like a bunch of bored kids.

When we were done learning the physics of a free fall, how parachutes work, how reserve parachutes work, and then fed statistics on how many people die every year from car crashes versus skydiving, we were ushered outside. We spilled out of the classroom into the hangar. Here, two of Phil’s employees were rolling up what looked like sleeping bags.

“What’s that?” asked someone, stepping around a large cloth laid on the ground.

“Don’t step on them!” yelled one of the men, making us all jump.

“Those are your parachutes people,” said Phil. “If yours don’t open up, you can blame these guys.”

The men chuckled. Phil grinned. None of us smiled.

“They look a bit flimsy.” I said bending to touch one. “What are they made of?”

“Tough as nails,” said Phil. “You can’t rip through one of these even if you tried.”

“Wanna see yours?” said one of the men looking at me with a grin.

I nodded.

“See that over there?” He pointed at a smaller piece of cloth lying on the floor, yet unrolled. “D’ya know why it’s pink?”

“It’s a pretty colour,” I said before I could think. The two new guys snickered behind me.

“So when the ambulance comes rushing in, they can identify you as a girl.”

Everyone guffawed.

 

Our next lesson was to practice the exit from the plane. We practiced in a derelict Cessna that had been grounded a long time ago and parked on the green grass near the hangar. Here, we did our drills over and over and over again. Walk to the door from inside the plane. Step out, hanging onto the wing. Arch your back. Then let go. We fell only an inch onto the grass but in an hour from now, we’d be doing the same maneuver at four thousand feet in the sky.

Thinking about it made my throat tighten. All of a sudden, I couldn’t breathe. I gasped for air and my chest began to heave up and down. I swallowed hard, closed my eyes and silently counted from one to ten. When I opened my eyes, I saw Phil watching me. There was a question on his face. I nodded. He gave me a silent thumbs-up. I remembered his lesson from that morning. “False Evidence Appearing Real!” he had bellowed. “That’s what fear is. Conquering fear is what gives you the edge. And that’s what you gotta do today. You hear me?”

I straightened my back and took a deep breath, trying to look tough on the outside while I still felt like a melting ice cream on a hot day inside. I can do this. I said silently to myself. I can do this.

“Back to class, people,” said Phil waving us towards the hangar. “Got some final reminders before I send you lot jumping like lemmings.” We followed him in single file. No one spoke. There were no more jokes, no more fooling around. Everyone was lost in their own thoughts. It was sinking in now. This was for real.

 

***

We were finally in the air. There were four of us and our instructor crowded into the back of a tiny white plane. We were hunched in our jumpsuits, our precious packs strapped to our backs carrying the one thing that would keep us alive. No one said a word.

I’d been in a Cessna before and there was nothing more I loved than the feel of every dip and turn of the wings, the feel of being free in the air, like how birds felt, I imagined. But I wasn’t thinking of birds now. I was focussing on my tummy, pleading it not to turn so much. Something was also threatening to come up to my throat and I kept trying to keep it down. There was no sink or toilet up here, and no way to get out of my suit and then get back in it.  This won’t do. I took a deep breath and counted to ten reminding myself of Phil’s words. False Evidence Appearing Real. I repeated this over and over in my mind, but there was no avoiding the race my heart was on. I opened my eyes and looked over at my friend next to me and saw her hands were trembling. I reached over and squeezed her shoulder. She gave me a brave smile back.

When we got to the right altitude, Phil stood up and hooked himself to a bar inside the plane. Without any warning, he reached over and opened the door. We all watched with widened eyes as the door swung open and a fierce wind rushed in, whipping our hair, reeling us back. There was a cavernous void of light and wind in front of us now. We couldn’t ignore it. We huddled in the back of the plane holding tightly to one another, probably looking like a pack of terrified cornered rabbits.

“You first!” yelled Phil pointing at me. I looked at him shocked. First? Whose crazy idea was that? I didn’t move. Everyone was looking at me now.

“Me?” I said pointing to my chest just to make sure, but my words were drowned by the sound of the engine and the wind. Phil nodded and motioned for me to come over. I then remembered my promise to everyone. Seemed like he had heard about it and was now holding me to it.

“Show those boys how to do it,” shouted Phil over the noise giving me an encouraging nod. “Come this way, just like we did on the ground.”

I held onto the inside bar and made my way to him slowly, trying not to reel from the rush of the air. I seem to have lost all sensation of my arms and legs and felt like I wanted to throw up. I took a long, steady breath. Stop thinking, I kept telling myself. Stop thinking. Because if I did, this jump would never happen. I knew from all the other things I’d done before, from that bunjee jump to rock climbing to white water rafting, the trick at the scariest moment was to believe in what I was doing and go through the motions. It was time to trust the universe and go for it. Anyway, it was too late to turn back now.

I put myself on autopilot and pretended I was in that rusty plane back on the ground. All I had to do was step out of the door and clutch onto that wing, just like I had done that afternoon so many times that it had got boring.

I was at the door. I realised Phil didn’t hook me up like he was, and that was because I wasn’t staying in the plane. My legs had turned into jelly but my mind was steel. I gave a nod to Phil, grabbed onto the bar of the wing and stepped out. I swung out, kicked back by the thrust of the plane. Instead of grass, my feet felt nothing. I was dangling thousands of kilometers high in the air like a puppet at the mercy of everything. I held onto the bar tightly and looked up, my heart beating a million times a second. The propeller was a few feet from me and could suck me in if I’d moved an inch the wrong way. With half of his body hanging out the door was larger-than-life Phil. He was gesturing. Over all that noise I heard him bellow. “Atta girl! Make me proud! Go! Now!”

I let go.

When I was inside the plane preparing for the jump, I’d expected to tumble and roll through the air, flail wildly and spin all over the place. Instead I crashed straight down at super high speed, spread-eagled like a cat falling from a high tower balcony. The roar of wind thundered in my ear but I had no time to hear, see or think. I had a job to do. I started shouting at the top of my lungs.

“Arc-one thousand!”

“Arc-two thousand!”

“Arc-three thousand!”

“Arc-four thousand!”

“Arc-five thousand!”

My body jerked up, like a rag doll pulled up roughly by its owner. Above my head came the ruffling sound of an immense canopy opening up. My body straightened up and steadied in mid-air within a second. And then there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. Just pure dead silence.

I sat in my harness, stunned. Stunned at the change of hurricane force winds thrashing in my ear to the utter silence now. Stunned that my parachute had opened at the right time. Stunned that it had opened at all. I looked up and there she was. My beautiful pink parachute. Sure everyone had snickered at it, but what a thing of beauty it was.  I looked at it in wonder and a giggle escaped my lips. I can’t believe I did it! 

As my heart slowed down, I began to survey the world below me. I was floating three thousand feet above the earth in an eerie quietness. A blissful, peaceful quietness. I now knew how birds really felt high up in the skies. This was what flying was like. I could see green fields going on for miles, scattered with doll-like farm houses. A silver road curved its way below me with cars the size of toys slowly making their way on it. I even spotted a herd of horses far below me in a white fenced corral.

I caught a movement from the corner of my eye and snapped my head around to see. Someone had jumped from the second plane. I waved at the small stick figure high up above me. He or she didn’t wave back, probably too busy counting or praying for that chute to open just like I had done. In a few seconds, I saw their bright blue parachute unravel beautifully above their head like a flower opening its petals at high-speed.  I watched in wonder. Wow. Wow. My giggles had turned into a full blown laugh. What a thrill. What a rush.

I think I laughed all the way down. I don’t remember if I snagged any of the job interviews I had that month, but I do remember I had on a smile that lasted a month.

 

 

Main Photo Image from http://skydiveflyingvranch.com/category/quote/page/3/

 

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