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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber


People tend to get overly impressed when they find out I’ve made 530 skydives. Consider this: The most intensive portion of the jump (usually from 12,500 feet) is the freefall, which lasts about 60 seconds. This is the time we perform choreographed maneuvers as a group – I’ve skydived with anywhere from one to thirty-two other individuals on the same jump.

That’s 530 minutes, or about 8.8 hours of experience. Take any other sport and imagine how good you get after around 9 hours of practice. We spend about 3-4 minutes under canopy (descending from our pull altitude of 2,000 feet, and then about 20 minutes repacking our canopy before we can make another trip to altitude. Taking time out waiting for a plane, eating lunch, or kibitzing with friends, you have room for anywhere from 3-6 jumps per day. I typically made no more than three every Saturday I was at the drop zone.

My instructor, Jim Wallace, retired with nearly 20,000 skydives. Now that’s impressive. I’ve made some spectacular skydives: two night jumps at midnight with the just the light of the full moon and a truck with its headlights turned on to illuminate the landing area; a jump from a glider at 4000 feet: where the pilot and I pushed open the canopy, I crawled out, inched down to the middle of the wing and rolled forward off the leading edge.

While these were quite memorable, perhaps the hairiest non-airplane skydive I made was my first balloon jump. I was headed east for my 30th high school reunion. My friend Tom was a balloonist and suggested I bring my rig and jump from his balloon. I only had 135 skydives at the time, but my sense of adventure said I couldn’t miss this opportunity. Tom secured a farmer’s field in Tunkhannock as a launch site. He invited me and his four man crew over to his home for a pre-launch celebration; I invited my mother and brother to the festivities.

Scott’s first wife, who I had not yet met was there also. I was a little hesitant about her presence, based on the stories I had heard. We waited on the porch as she drove up. I went out to greet her and the first thing she said to me was “You’re going to die today.” I wasn’t about to let anything spoil the event, so I let her remark bounce off me like a fart in the wind, hooked a 180 and went into Tom’s home. He was preparing delicious grilled ham and cheese sandwiches for everyone, which we enjoyed with supreme gusto.

We then set out for the field to launch the balloon. Tom filled in some details as we pulled into the farmer’s yard: He had arranged with a local radio station to broadcast the event live from the field. He enhanced the event my telling the announcer a very tall tale.

He embellished my skydiving record by asserting I was the one who taught Patrick Swayze to skydive for the movie “Point Break.” Actually, we were only a couple of points of separation out. My instructor was the man who taught Patrick to skydive, and I jumped regularly with Patrick’s brother Don at my home DZ, Perris Valley Skydiving.

It was a blustery day with the ground winds hitting a steady 10-12 mph, just a bit shy of the 15mph max for safe skydiving. The field was full of spectators and photographers, and after several false starts we managed to launch. I asked Tom for 3000 feet, way more than what I needed for a ’hop-and-pop’ (jump and deploy immediately with no freefall).

The wind blew us across the Susquehanna River quickly as we ascended. I surveyed the ground and asked Tom if his team could pick me up on a small but accessible island in the middle of the river. He nodded yes and I had my alternate landing site picked out. The whole ideal of the jump was to land in front of the spectators and DJ, but I had to make adjustments for the wind drift we were experiencing.

As soon as we reached 3000 feet I nodded to Tom. I climbed up on the balloon’s basket and rolled out into space. I somersaulted off the balloon, and as soon as I was in a face to earth position, I deployed my canopy. I saw immediately that the strength of the wind had increased, and I had to make a quick decision about where I was going to land.

It looked like I could cross the river, but I wasn’t going to make it back to the launch site. As my altimeter registered lower and lower, I began to sweat a bit. I was still quite inexperienced but had completed water landing training for one of my previous skydiving licenses – however I didn’t want to test my skills on this particular day. I breathed a sigh of relief as I crossed the river at 1500 feet. Then my ‘oh shit’ moment hit me right between the eyes. I was smack dab over a forest, one of the places you absolutely positively don’t want to have to land a parachute in.

My mind started racing, field to the left, field to the right, go back to the island. I crabbed cross wind and chose the field to my left as a landing area. It was about ¼ mile from the festivities, and clearly visible. I started setting up on my final approach, and at about 300 feet I realized the field I was about to set down in was a recently harvested corn field! When corn is cut, the stalks left behind are about 10-12 inches high. They dry out and harden quickly, and have a razor sharp edge to them.

I was preparing to land in a punji spiked acre, with the stalks about eight inches apart. Fortunately, with the large, docile canopy I was flying into the strong headwind, I could set myself down with tiptoe precision anywhere I chose. Precision landing was a skill I mastered early, and it saved my bacon on this momentous day. At about 12 feet above the ground I began to flare my canopy. The rectangular parachute has two brake lines on the trailing edge that permit horizontal movement to be turned into a vertical offset, similar to what a plane does when it lands with flaps down. It makes the final few feet of descent as soft as stepping off a foot stool. I steered carefully, placing each foot in between two of the spikes, one at a time.

The 230 square foot canopy collapsed and landed gingerly across the rest of the stalks around me. It took me about 10 minutes to carefully pick parts of the canopy up and stow it between my arms without ripping it. I then exhaled for the first time in about 20 minutes. I walked across the field to the admiration of the crowd. I think I needed to re-apply deodorant by then, but my one-piece jumpsuit hid the remnants of abject fear I experienced on the descent and landing.

The crowd watched patiently as I packed my canopy, turning 230 square feet into a precise 12 X 6 X 4 rectangle that fit neatly into the container. As I dripped with sweat, I looked around and found one person conspicuously missing – my brother’s first wife. Whether I would have danced around her yelling “Nah, Nah, didn’t die today, didn’t die today” is anyone’s guess. I was riding the adrenaline and enjoying the rush.

My brother gave me a ride back to Tom’s house where I picked up my car and headed back to the hotel. I had a few hours to kill before the reunion, and a long hot shower was the first order of business.

While I had a great story to tell, I pretty much kept it to myself that night – the reunion had its own magic, and I didn’t want to try and upstage it. I did recount my adventure to the young lady sitting next to me on the plane back to CA the following week. I was probably the only one on the plane with a skydiving rig, and after hearing my story, she asked to see it to verify that I wasn’t making up a tall tale.

Sigmund Freud’s work has been soundly repudiated for many years now, especially his notion of a ‘death wish’. People who engage in high risk activities don’t do it to die, they do it to live. Call us adrenalin junkies or whatever phrase du jour is popular. We don’t really care. The last time I saw her, around 1971, one of my muses (Irene, but she was known to us as Tinker) gave me a drawing from a magazine. It was of flowers and the sun shining and blue skies. Under it was the caption:

“Live Life unto Exhaustion”

I’ve been pretty much doing that for at least the last 50 years – and I’m not tired yet...

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