Falling nine thousand feet out of the sky takes almost no time. In fact, it doesn't feel like falling at all. There's more sensation of gravity to be found in stumbling down the stairs or stepping off a ladder. At about three miles from the ground, being in midair feels like soaring.
But not peacefully. The rush of wind is thunderously loud, and powerful enough to pull your lips from your teeth. If skydiving mimics flying, it's like becoming a jet, not a seagull. Zipped into a jumpsuit, fitted into webbed strapping at the shoulder and crotch, with goggles and helmet and nylon gloves to protect from windburn, a jumper looks more like a fighter pilot than anything that might soar freely.
It took about as much time to struggle into a flight suit, pull straps across my thighs and shoulders and snap goggles to my face than it did to go through the lengthy release form that made sure I understood that if I was injured or killed in this endeavor, I couldn't sue anyone at the jump club.
But I doubt anyone jumps out of a plane without knowing they're doing something a little bit crazy. My husband questioned me thoroughly when I told him I wanted to jump to celebrate my most recent birthday. A leisure pilot himself, he is absolutely confident in the air, but understands that the smartest place to be when aloft is securely inside an aircraft. No jumping for him.
"Well, that's one off the bucket list," my mother said when I told her.
But no. I don't really have a list of must-do's-before-I-die, and if I did, skydiving wouldn't be on it. It's not something I've always wanted to do. The idea came to me in a bolt from the blue, as it were.
Here I am, having passed the half-century mark. I now know that there are things I will likely never do or see. But there are life-affirming, spectacular, singular experiences available to me, here, now. I may never drink fresh pomegranate juice in Athens, visit the Great Wall of China or sail to the Galapagos Islands. But I can drive to Orange, Va., where a jump club invites newbies to give skydiving a try.
Improving my odds for a good landing meant attaching myself to an experienced jumper, who had leapt from an aircraft 8,000 times before he tethered himself to me. In a five-minute instruction, he told me that at the moment we exited the plane, I should arch my back like a banana, and that when he knocked my right arm with his, I was to assume a spreadeagle position. I practiced once or twice.
The jump club was like an extension of some fraternity house, if it were quartered in a metal Quonset hut furnished with garage-sale castoffs. A horrible, old sectional couch filled one side of the space, which was festooned above with nylon parachutes. Outdoors, an enormous bonfire pit attested to what jumpers do after hours, and a small warren of beat-up campers nearby offered seedy shelter when sleep became necessary.
There was nothing luxurious about the twin-prop aircraft that took us up. Two hard benches ran the length of the craft; we were to straddle one as the plane ascended to altitude. Strapped close to my jump instructor, I could barely move.
The jump hatch was little more than a garage door, which rolled up on creaky tracks to open the craft to the sky. We slid on our butts down the bench, then crouch-walked toward the door. It was my last opportunity to decide against this jump, to decide that I had no business exiting a perfectly serviceable aircraft.
I wouldn't worry what anyone would think if I reneged. Peer pressure evaporates somewhere after age 40. I didn't have to do this.
And then I jumped out of the plane. I bananaed my legs, waited for the signal, then spread my arms. I knew the chute had deployed from the jerky resistance it offered against further freefall.
Obviously, the landing was fine. Here I am.
Usually, this space is employed for essays about food. Cuisine is a way of expressing joy for life and the variety of experiences it provides. But I cannot tell you what I had for dinner after my afternoon's jump.
Instead, I can say that I have the memory of how it felt to drop freely from the sky. The immediate adrenaline spike took about an hour to abate, and I will forever know that I grabbed an experience that made my time on earth richer. Life is a banquet.
- Maggie Wolff Peterson is a community columnist for The Chronicle. Her opinions are her own and not those of the paper's. She can be reached at maggiewpeter firstname.lastname@example.org.