|First Jump Junkie|
Story and photos © 2000 by rita
There are no words in the English language that can describe the range of emotions accompanying that first jump. The whole day, segments, snippets of experience. Nonsensical things like showering in the morning, the drive to the DZ, the stop for a bite to eat. Things none of us would give a second thought. They are so entwined with daily routines. But those things take on a huge significance in the lives of that first-time jumper.
Saturday, October 21st was a chilly fall morning with a breeze scattering multi-colored leaves across the sidewalk. It was the kind of morning that begs for a steaming hot cup of coffee to warm the insides despite the chill without. It's early. 8:00 a.m. Giving a hasty turnover to the next shift, I grab my things and rush outside the office building I've been working in all night. I can't help it. I'm a first-jump addict! I love to watch people take their first foray into this sport. Love all the emotions that go along with that--the fear, the exhilaration, the doubt, the victory--the whole gamut of human feeling. Our destination? Paradise. Well, at least for me anyway. Skydive Cross Keys in Williamstown, New Jersey.
It will be a short drive just over the Ben Franklin Bridge highway driving 20 minutes tops. Our convoy is merely two vehicles: Stephen Burkhart, an AFP student who is hoping this damned wind will die down in time to let him take a stab at Level IV. "Oh, goody! You smoke! Ya don't mind if I indulge, do ya?" It's always nice to see a fellow smoker when one has been working in a no-smoking zone all night. Then there's the van behind us. Two resident doctors from Temple University, Frank King and John Lin. "No shit? Frank's an orthopedist? Maybe I can squeeze in a free second opinion while we're at it and find out why the hell I've got this persistent limp!" Poor Stephen. He just shook his head.
"So tell me about your student progression. Was it really as bad as you make out on the newsgroup?", asked Stephen. I had barely gotten through Jumps One and Two before our happy caravan rolled into the gravel of Cross Keys' ample-sized parking lot. At 8:30 it was already fairly packed. "Christ! Don't these people ever sleep?" Obviously not, for manifest was busily paging loads, and a large group of first-time jumpers was already queued up at the student manifest window, filling out paperwork and taking care of finances.
"We have an appointment, so we won't have to wait," says Stephen, as he walks up to the front of the line. And, he was right. Arrangements had already been made and everything was in readiness. John Lin's arrival was expected and everything in place. Cross Keys' experienced staff had already done many tandems with physically-challenged folks, so if anything, John's would be routine.
Holding board certification in two medical specialties, John Lin is obviously not a person to let limitations stand in his way. Paralyzed from the chest down earlier in his life, John decided that he wouldn't let that sidetrack him from achieving his goals. Medical school, internship, residency, he continued the path he had set out for himself, making adjustments where necessary, adapting to his new challenges, and letting nothing stand in his way. Maintaining a physical fitness that would rival many able-bodied individuals, John competed in wheelchair tennis with a well-known local television personality and beat him at his own game. Skydiving probably never entered John's mind until he met Stephen Burkart. Stephen worked at Moss Rehab, a facility John rotated through in his duties with Temple University Hospital. Stephen had made a few tandem jumps as part of his AFP progression at Cross Keys, and had for some time been trying to get a group from Moss Rehab together to go skydiving. John's interest was immediately sparked.
Starting with twelve, Stephen's group had slowly dwindled. An excuse here, an urgent matter cropping up there, more people fell by the wayside each day. Only John remained interested, and on this day he would turn that interest into an experience--the sort of experience that makes up a full life.
Gathering up a packet of waiver forms, John makes his way over to a picnic table. Hopefully the sun's warmth will be stronger here because the morning chill is getting downright uncomfortable. "You want a jacket, friend?" Frank asks his buddy. But, we forget--pure adrenaline is keeping John warm while it is only the rest of us who have to depend upon woolen sweaters.
As John goes in to watch the video presentation, accompanied by Frank, Stephen and I take bets. "Frank is gonna want to join him. Once he sees that video, he'll be hooked." Stephen bets me a dollar I'm wrong. Stephen wins. Oh, well.
A beautiful sleek aircraft is parked outside the Long Delay Café where we have gone in search of warm beverages. "Man, I wonder if they give rides in this," I enthused. A sleek two-seater painted a bright shade of yellow, I later learn that it is owned by one of the Cross Keys jumpers. Later learning that it's called a Pitts, a high performance aerobatics airplane, I know it's got to be a jumper who knows how to have a good time.
As the day wears on, the pace picks up around the drop zone. The FrankenOtter can no longer handle the demand, and a second Otter, "The Great Barrier Reef" is pressed into service. This is a new one to me, and it has one of the most detailed paint jobs I have ever seen featuring lizards and other depictions of a life down under. I am immediately taken by its striking detail.
It's time to play the waiting game. Cross Keys is nothing if not a bustling DZ. We are directed to a comfortable area off the sunset deck where John can watch the landings and learn a little bit about this sport called skydiving. As Stephen points out the differences in tandem landing technique, John takes pleasure in the proliferation of brightly colored canopies dotting the sky. Busily snapping pictures, I'm enjoying the time renewing old acquaintances--some of the people with whom I've shared so much of my life.
John Eddowes, the man who almost single-handedly built this DZ from nothing in a short six years. "You like the new snack bar?" he asks. I guess one look at my fat ass tells him I sure enjoy a good bite to eat. "Yeah, and they make a decent cup of java too!" John always knew my one complaint about his fine DZ: The inability to get a decent cup of coffee there..
Seeing an old friend in the hanger, I quietly walk up behind him. "Hey, honey! "Keeping those shoulder muscles strong for me?" Georgio and I embrace in a warm hug. He was always one of my favorites. He was a tough son of a bitch when he had to be but his priority was always on student safety first, and it was a priority I sometimes tended to compromise. But he is a sweetheart with a heart of gold and someone who has earned the pinnacle of my respect. We've shared a lot.
Rob, with his long-flowing hair. A pinch on the ass sure gets his attention quickly. "When you gonna take me for a tandem base jump?" I asked him. This guy, too, taught me a lot as both an AFF instructor and tandem master. I went on my first "working tandem" with him after throwing in the towel on AFF so many years earlier. He made sure I learned a lot and got more than just a wild thrill ride out of the experience.
One of the ladies in manifest, Agnes, on whose shoulder I had cried so many times. She's still there, and still such a picture of cheerfulness. I don't know how she does it dealing with so many developing crises, trying to get planes off the ground, dealing with frustrated students waiting out wind holds, never seeming to lose her cheerful demeanor, never having lost it with me during those trying years of AFF.
Flitting back and forth between John's group and other familiar faces, the minutes fly by. I seemed to have come home once again reveling in all the familiar, friendly faces. The pace, while certainly not slow, was not the normally hectic mass of bodies of a hot summer weekend, especially an event weekend, and this truly "happening" DZ. To me, this semi-relaxed pace was heaven--a chance to talk to people, people who had time to spare and stories to share.
"Hi, I'm Mark Kruse, and I'm going to be your instructor today." Shaking hands with John, I give a hearty thumbs up out of Mark's field of vision. John's lucky. He's drew one of Cross Keys' best.
After a short introduction, Mark gets some basic information regarding John's motor abilities and decides on a plan for landing, one that will offer the best margin for safety. He promises to return shortly for some pre-jump training. As soon as he disappears Stephen and I heave relieved sighs. "You can't go wrong with this guy," we both assure John. He's one of the best at handling a canopy. A CRW champion, rigger examiner, proprietor of Rigging Adventures, if anyone on this dropzone can give you a good, safe landing, it's Mark.
Intent on making this a learning experience, Mark is back a short while later. Training follows: Freefall position, reading the altimeter, aircraft procedures, the whole gamut. I seem to remember most of this being covered in an AFF FJC format. Guess they moved it to the tandem phase now. Particularly impressive to me was Mark's handling of the subject of risks. "There's always a risk, of course, that things may not go as planned, but we'll do our best to minimize those risks." No sugar-coating, just honest treatment of the situation with one's student. I liked that a lot.
Once a load number is assigned, I run off to find my buddy the DZO. "Hey, can I ride observer on John's load?" I ask. Quickly, John clears my request through his people in manifest. Just as quickly, I have a nice set of waivers to sign now too. "Oh, shit."
Time moves quickly now. John is beginning to worry. He is visibly shaking. "You're about to have the best experience of your entire life," I tell him. "In fact, try very, very hard to remember every single detail because you're gonna want to relive it over and over again!" John doesn't seem comforted. Pulling Stephen aside, I ask, "he did get video, didn't he?" I am assured that he did. John's signed up for the whole video package. Greatly relieved, I return to John's cheering section. "Man, you are gonna love this!" I enthuse. "You're gonna have a blast!", echoed Stephen.
Before long, Kruse is back with tandem harness in hand and with one extra piece of gear--a specially designed strap-like affair which will be used to elevate John's legs for a smooth sit-down type landing. Reviewing last minute procedures ("when did you say I pull?") and then it's off to the boarding area. We'll be taking the FrankenOtter for this load--a quick 13 minute ride to fourteen grand.
Things move quickly now. Waiting for the plane to taxi into position, a brightly colored jumpsuit flashes into view. Parking himself directly in front of John, camera helmet in hand, Mike Skeffington wants to get some of the pre-boarding excitement on film. "What brings you out here today to make a SKYDIVE?" he enthuses. Pointing to his good friend, Frank, "He talked me into it," comes John's somewhat weak reply.
Taxiing into position, the other jumpers wait while Kruse and Company heft John aboard. John's gonna have a birdseye view of the action seated right at the door. This is a rare treat for tandems. I grab another jumper, "hey, can I sit back here with them? I'd like to get some photos." The pilot quickly vetoes that idea and motions me to come up front with him. I'm gonna ride co-pilot. Oh, goody!
"Don't worry about me, I assure Bob, one of Cross Keys' best. "You can dive as radical as you want. I've been this route with Mike Mullins several times." This brings a knowing smile. Guess everyone's heard of Mike.
The dial on the altimeter is rapidly turning as we climb higher and higher. I'm craning in my seat and trying to get a better view of the goings-on in the back of the plane. John seems in good spirits. Kruse and Skeffington seem to be keeping him amused. All too soon I notice Bob speaking over the intercom. A definite power reduction and the cool chill of the frigid air at fourteen grand. John's goggles are in place and Kruse and Skeffington are preparing to help him into the door. They'll be next to the last out, as they watch small groups set up in the door--a 2-way here, a solo jumper there. Finally, the tandems start to go--first one pair, and then the next.
Finally, it's the zero hour. With Mike's help, Kruse gets settled in the door, as Mike swings out onto the camera step. Bob is looking back to see what's going on. "It might take them a few extra minutes, I tell him, not knowing whether he realizes John is paraplegic. A knowing nod signaled that Bob well knew the significance of this particular jump, and was taking extra care to hold the aircraft steady for their exit. Finally, I hear Kruse's count ... "Ready, Set, Go!"...a whoosh of air...and then nothing! As eagles take flight among the clouds. What an amazing thing! We're all equal out there in freefall--all weightless--all using the same set of tools--the same set of abilities--on an even playing field. I could only imagine the exhilaration John must be feeling with the wind on his face, flying free--free of any earthly bounds that fate may have thrust on him.
"Hurry up, dive!" I yelled to Bob. "I wanna be on the ground to film the landing!" I didn't notice that there was still another tandem pair left and we were going around for their exit. Oh, well. Stephen will have to get the landing pics.
Back on the ground a short while later, the next group of jumpers wait while I climb down the steps. "Ummmmm, that's the fir ... oops ... pre-second time I've even climbed down those steps here at Cross Keys. The waiting jumpers smile knowingly my "almost slip-up" there.
Back on the sunset deck, John is absolutely bubbling over with joy. "I was really scared. When it was time to get into the door, I was really shaking like a leaf, but it was so good! It was absolutely wonderful!" He was running out of adjectives to describe the experience, as Stephen and I exchanged knowing glances. "So, when's jump number two?" I asked him. "Oh, believe me, I'll be jumping again! Not right away, but soon."
Kruse is back. A quick debrief follows. "Yada yada". I mumble to Stephen. "Okay, already. He did everything perfectly." Laughing out loud, I could only admire someone capable of that feat on their first jump. Presentation of his first jump certificate, a logbook signifying that he was cleared for AFP Level II, posing for pictures. Kruse tells John that he did better than most on AFP Level I, and he'll look forward to seeing him again for Level II. "Some people continue with the program, while others prefer to enjoy the tandem phase," Kruse explained. "We have one woman well into her sixties who comes out every so often to make a jump, and is up to about ten of them by now. And, then, we have others who come out to make a tandem once a year or so. Whatever the pace, we hope to see you here again too." The look on John's face gave Kruse all the assurance he needed. He'd be back. "Thanks, man! I really appreciate it."
Heading into the hanger, we're looking for a VCR. Everyone wants to see this tape. Handing over his tape to Stephen, John is lost in his own world right now, caring little about watching the video. Time enough for that later after he's come down from Cloud Nine.
Unfortunately, none of us can figure out how to get the VCR to work. Grabbing John Eddowes, I ask him to try. "I can't figure it out," I explained. "It doesn't have rabbit ears." Laughing John finds someone with a little electronics expertise to help us bumblers out. Quickly, the jumbo screen TV fills with images of John and Kruse riding the silver wings of a FrankenOtter. Other jumpers begin coming over ... until the area around the TV is literally packed. Seems we're going for some serious ratings here, and I'm getting pissed whenever someone blocks my view. What can I say? I'm a first jump video junkie! Always have been.
Flawless exit--a couple of 360s in freefall... Skeff flies up getting in close to record the joy, the exhilaration, the sheer unbridled wonder he's probably seen on the faces of a thousand first-timers, but so unique as each one lives the experience, an experience shared by so few in the world. A glance at the altimeter...a moment more...then perfectly reaching down and pulling the cord...a gentle fluttering opening. Skeff flips over and records this as well, as the pair seem yanked upwards paused in time. Everyone gathered around the TV breaks into spontaneous applause. Might be a first jump, but it's a flawless one including an unassisted pull...total altitude awareness!
The landing...so gently...fluttering down...the yells...the whoops...the joy! "How did you like that?" Skeff asks. John can hardly answer, he's so blown away by the sheer wonder of it all. "It was great...really awesome" is about all he can manage. It's about all most people can manage in such circumstances.
Many people have criticized tandem jumping and have said it's turning our sport into a carnival ride threatening "serious" skydiving and what it should represent. But, when I see the joy on a first-timer's face from someone who may have had no other opportunity to experience the wonder of our sport, I get the feeling that perhaps a lot of those people complaining the loudest are simply selfish. No one should be denied the joy, the sheer freedom of our sport, for ANY reason. Were it not for tandem, they would be. People like John, and people like me, for whatever reason, would have no opportunity to see the sights, smell the cool crisp air at altitude, dance among the clouds, ride a gently fluttering canopy performing lazy eights, a gentle spiral, and a victorious reuniting with Mother Earth, gently seeking her welcoming arms under wings of nylon. If the price to be paid for this joy is the "carnivalizing" of the sport, then so be it. No one has the right to hug this sport to themselves and refuse to share--no one at all.
Cross Keys probably has one of the largest tandem programs I've ever seen on any dz, but they have that sort of a program because they give the customer exactly what they want--what they signed up for--what they bargained for: A fun experience, which is made just as safe as it possibly can be, with no bullshitting on the risk part. I overheard another tandem student this day ask the same sort of question of another tandem instructor: "Is this safe, will I be okay?" They were given the same answer Kruse gave John: "We'll make it as safe as possible, but NO guarantees." Take it or leave it. And, believe me, most of them take it.
I thank God for places like Cross Keys and so many other DZs that run good strong student programs. Those programs are what make it possible for the upjumpers to enjoy such nice facilities, to be able to get on a load just as quickly as they can get packed up, to get fourteen grand of altitude routinely in a plane that makes quick work of the trip, with a highly trained, highly experienced pilot at the controls to make it safer. Money is what it takes to ensure those things. And a DZ that takes care of its customers, even when those customers have maybe no natural ability, or restricted physical abilities to ever hope to become duly licensed upjumpers themselves, are the ones who will have the best to offer those lucky folks who can pursue this sport for years, jumping over and over again. Getting better and better and going on to reach milestones that others can only envy.
I thank John Eddowes and the staff he has amassed for Skydive Cross Keys/Freefall Adventures Skydiving School--for building a place where dreams are realized, and earthly limitations are discarded. Blue skies!
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