Monday, August 11, 2008

Skydiving: The Only Way to Die

Having recently reminisced about the 20-year anniversary of moving to Hawaii, I have recalled yet another memory of that same era. The memory of the day my father tried to kill me.

It was on the plane ride from Los Angeles to Honolulu when Dad announced that when we landed in Hawaii, he had arranged for some of us to go skydiving.

sky·div·ing [skahy-dahy-ving] – noun – an ancient Hawaiian word, which, when properly translated, means “fine, go ahead and kill yourself.”

Dad had been trained in Vietnam to skydive, but was never given the opportunity to perform. Skydiving probably being the only joy that Vietnam offered my dad, and then having that opportunity taken from him, I think the idea had been festering in his heart and soul for far too many years, and now he had definitely gone bananas. (Or coconuts—pick your poison.) I wasn't too excited about dad killing himself, but to involve me seemed completely unnecessary.

It soon become painfully obvious, however, that this was not my decision to be made. On our third day on Oahu Dad informed me that we were heading for our death sentence. Dad felt we had no time for silly “lessons” or “instructions” or “legal steps” that are required before skydiving, so he had made a Plan B. How he researched this place is a mystery to me, but he found his Plan B.

On the north side of Oahu, in a spacious, grassy field, stands a tiny hut, where Bubba and Buddy hang out all day, drinking beer and admiring the makeshift airplane they must have stolen from some unsuspecting cropduster. And they sit there waiting with a small hope that fools like us will pull up and give them enough money for more beer.

So, we fools pull up, throw some money at them, and they take us inside their tiny hut and explain that we’ll be jumping “tandem” – meaning that one of them will be attached to me by a thin cord that is tied to our waists. Apparently this is the loophole by which they can legally send us up without any instruction. As if any of this sounds legal.

Dad went up and jumped first, while we all stayed on good ole’ terra firma and watched. As Dad floated gently to the ground, I was ecstatic that I would not be left to provide for my family at the tender age of seventeen. It was my turn to go, so I made the announcement that I was going to now board the plane, unless someone wanted to just put a bullet in my head now and save some cash. No takers. I climbed aboard the plane, looked at the man whose hands I was putting my life in, and choked back a tear. There was one seat on the plane, and thankfully, it belonged to the pilot. I took a seat on the wood floor, sat up against the side of the plane, and wondered if any of my friends in California would come all the way to Hawaii for my funeral, and what my mom would serve them. I hoped she would serve her delicious homemade bread. I should have said something before getting on the plane. But it was too late now.

The plane itself didn't seem all that sturdy, and as a paying customer, I was of the opinion that I should be the one wearing the parachute, instead of the “professional” jumping with me. I looked at the other men on the plane and noticed I was the youngest person jumping. I wondered why the rest of them had decided to do this. Surely their dads were not forcing them into it.

We reached the two-mile point, and the instructor slid open the door to reveal nothing but blue. I couldn't see the ground, the ocean – nothing. And I was seated, most unfortunately, right by the door. The two other individuals on the plane decided not to jump. I now had the power of the crowd on my side. I could have easily been turned, were it not for the words of the instructor “Whether you jump or not, you still pay.” The fear of confronting my father and telling him, “Hey, thanks for the $100 plane ride, Pop, but I much, much prefer it here on the ground” overpowered my fear of jumping, and I made the suddenly easy decision to jump.

“Climb out the door and hang onto the wing,” the guide instructed me.

“Pass,” I commented.

“Climb out, and I’ll climb out after you.”

I got down on my hands and knees and inched my way out the door, holding on to the wing. I clung to that wing so tightly; I think a few of my fingernails are still attached. At this point, I decided that wearing a mere tank top and 1988-length shorts was not the smartest wardrobe selection for leaving the earth’s atmosphere. I was freezing. The instructor came out, straddled over me and snapped the belt to attach us at the waist.

“Let go of the wing, you’ll swing between my legs.”

“What are my other options?”

I let go and swung between his legs, looking again at the big blue space beneath me. I sat there swinging, not knowing when he was going to jump, when I was going to fall, or when I was going to wet my pants. Actually, I had a pretty good idea of when I was going to wet my pants.

Suddenly, I was falling. I felt my stomach fall all the way back to the earth and wait for me there, under a palm tree. Somewhere around the falling rate of 90 mph my adrenaline kicked in, and I started getting really excited. I felt immortal, like I had somehow, in this single act, conquered life. Life, I was fairly sure, would never mess with me again.

After several moments of falling at over 100 mph, the parachute opened and the overpowering noise from the wind disappeared. I was floating, peacefully, and I was in no hurry to land. All my senses were alive and they were having a “come as you are” party. I was the host. They loved me.

We got closer to the ground and I heard the instructor yell “Uh-oh.” This is never a welcomed announcement, but even less so when you are in such a vulnerable position.

“Uh-oh…start running – there’s no wind.”


“There’s no wind to slow us down – we need wind to slow us down – we’re going to have to hit the ground running.”

Apparently there needs to be a strong wind to slow down the chute and land you gently on the ground. And we had no such wind. I hadn't taken physics, but I didn't see how “pre-running” was going to somehow store up a reserve of “running power” so that when you hit the ground you were actually ahead of the game because, hey, you were already running. But who was I to argue with Mr. Professional Skydiving Dude Man? I started Fred Flinstone-ing in the air. It made no difference. I hit the ground, landed on my face, and slid fifteen feet or so, with an instructor on my back.

We got up off the ground, shook off the dirt and the willies that come with sliding 15 feet with a grown man on top of you, and … hugged. It’s what dudes do, don’t you know. I then declared that I needed a drink, and the instructor informed me there was a hose behind the shed. I walked behind the shed to also find something the instructor failed to mention – a large crop of your average, garden-variety marijuana, flourishing in the tropical Hawaiian weather. That was very reassuring, I can tell you. My instructor may or may not have been stoned, whilst I put my young life in his dude-ish hands.

So, nice try, Dad. But I’m still here.