When I was a kid, spring rains were a treat. The warm gentle pitter patter was refreshing and invigorating, even though neither adjective appeared in my vocabulary at the age of 12. We used to marvel at how it could be raining on one block and dry on the next. Magic of the highest level. Where and when did this innocence get replaced with a raincoat or an umbrella or galoshes or the sundry other stuff we think we needed to stay dry?
It happened for me during the winter of 1973, but it wasn’t put into perspective until twenty plus years later.
There is nothing as invigorating, intoxicating, or as addictive as jumping out of an airplane. Sunrise or sunset, hot or cold, wet or dry – none of this mattered as long as our name was in the manifest and we had a seat on the next King Air or Twin Otter for the ride to altitude.
Before the internet you’d call the DZ (Drop Zone) at 7:00 am and ask them “How’s the weather today?” Invariably, the response was “Blue Skies!” Strictly speaking, she wasn’t lying. There were blue skies somewhere. Just not in Perris Valley that day. Since skydiving was as much a social pastime as it was a brutal defiance of the laws of gravity, standing around and kibitzing while looking for a hole in the clouds to jump through was part and parcel of just being there.
Sometimes the cloud level would rise enough to send up a hop-and-pop load. Normal one-way rides were to 12,500 feet. Perris is situated at 1500 feet over sea level, and the upper legal oxygen layer ends at 14,000 feet, so that was our jump altitude; unless clouds were present; then we had to be 1500 feet below them to be flying VFR (Visual Flight Rules) from the FAA. Pull altitude was mandated at 2000 feet, so any jump of 3,500 feet or less was considered a hop and pop (jump and deploy, almost no freefall).
There weren’t enough brave souls to fill an Otter (Canadian jump lane) that day, but there were four of us willing to climb into the small Cessna for the ride to 3000 feet. On the way up it began to rain, albeit gently. Gently is what you feel when you are standing on the ground and the rain bounces playfully off your face. Gently is not what you feel when you exit a plane at 106mph and begin falling faster than those little rain drops that now feel like cold needles burrowing into your face in freefall. The rain isn’t falling on you, you are falling on the rain.
We didn’t need cellphones to communicate the pain when we landed. It was clearly visible on each of our faces. Looked like measles, felt worse. Then, as I was picking up my canopy to slog back to the packing area, and epiphany put everything into perspective, and a small smile broke through the clouds as my mind drifted away.
I thought back to the winter after Hurricane Agnes -- I was living at my girlfriend’s home in Yonkers, NY. My mother and brother were still stuck in a HUD supplied trailer on our front lawn. Pennsylvania had bi-yearly vehicle inspections, and my Honda was due for a renewal. I took a Friday off from my job as a color printer at a small shop to drive across the border for my inspection.
It was the first week in January, and while it was cold, it wasn’t that cold for a 22 year-old. I figured I’d stop just across the border for the certification, then continue down Hwy 46 to 115 to Kingston for an overnight visit with my family. I come from a highly dysfunctional family, one that required all 1400 square feet growing up to convince me not to become NEPA’s first axe murderer. Being stuck in a 140 square foot trailer was just what I needed to make me ignore the rain which was beginning to fall lightly Sunday morning and embark on the 120 mile ride back to New York.
Back then, if foul weather gear existed for motorcycle riders, I didn’t know about it. I set out wearing a corduroy jacket more suited for a late spring ride, with a sweatshirt and a pair of Levi’s. Unlined leather work gloves and a porous pair of boots rounded out my protection from the elements.
I was about 10 miles up Route 115 when the rain began to pound me hard and cold and wet. In about 90 seconds I was soaked to the bone. Saying I was uncomfortable was an understatement of Biblical proportions. I pulled over for a moment to weigh my options. I could turn around and head back home. 140 square feet against 120 square miles. I pressed on. Riding in this sort of weather made you grab the handlebars real tightly. That muscle tension worms its way up your arms and right to your shoulder blades, creating a sensation akin to being savagely poked over and over in the neck with an ice pick. It wasn’t fun.
I stopped at every roadside diner I could find for the next 50 or 60 hours – well, maybe the next 3 or 4, but it sure felt longer. A hot cup of coffee and/or bowl of soup kept me warm and fuzzy for about the first 100 yards or so down the road, and then the madness kicked in again. I continued this self flagellation until the George Washington Bridge was in sight, at which point the rain ceased and was quickly replaced with unrelenting cold. By the time I reached Yonkers about 20 minutes later I was violently hypothermic, shaking uncontrollably.
The irony was that I was standing at the front door, unable to retrieve the door key, or, once in hand, unable to find the lock to put it in as I was trembling so badly.
Something finally guided one piece of metal into the other, and I was safely inside. I ran upstairs, discarded my clothing in a heap and dove into the bathtub, with only the hot water faucet running full bore. It was a good 20 minutes before I felt anything. After regaining what was left of my brain function I slid under the blankets and fell into a deep, avian sleep. The next morning I awoke as if nothing exciting had happened and lumbered off to work with the remnants of a tale to tell.