On Being Genuine (Part Two)
When I went to see my orthopedic surgeon prior to starting to skydive, he told me my legs would be ok, put I had to stop jogging – it was killing my knees. There has to be a bit of humor in there somewhere. I had major surgery on one knee back in ’72 and was concerned about stability while landing. In 1990 when I began this adventure, everyone was jumping docile canopies (called F-111 for the type of fabric). The glide ratio (number of feet forward for every foot down) was relatively benign. As we were taught during the first jump course (no, I never made a tandem, that’s for tourists), landing impact was the equivalent of stepping off the seat of a chair.
At 40, jumping off a chair was kid stuff, at almost 73 I fear it almost as much as spiders. The thing most people don’t understand about skydiving is how long it really takes you to become proficient and safe enough to jump in small groups. We exit from 12,500 AGL (Above Ground Level), which gives us about 65 seconds of freefall before our mandatory lowest safe opening altitude of 2000 feet. That number has been upped considerably these days due to the smaller high-performance canopies being flown.
In freefall we perform maneuvers called ‘points’, where we create specified formations (taking a grip on the wrist or lower leg ‘gripper’ of the other jumper(s)) and then shifting from formation to formation until we reach break off altitude (around 4,500 feet depending on the size of the group). Graduating from solo jumping to jumping with another skydiver, to exiting the plane with small groups, takes several hundred attempts to build the skills, courage, and safety habits required. It also takes a lot of money. In 1990, gear cost about $4500, proficiency training (your first ten jumps) would set you back about $1500, and the ride to altitude was around $20.
Remember now, all of this is occurring at around 120 mph, so even small mistakes can have a ripple effect and cause the formation to ‘funnel’, which essentially ruins it for everyone. Established groups of jumpers (skydiving is very cliquish, but in a good way), are very wary of inviting an untested person along for the ride to altitude.
So here I am. I’ve just been awarded by ‘D’ license (expert level) after completing 200 skydives. That’s roughly 3 1/3 hours of practice. How many beginning tennis players are competent after three hours of practice? I think you get the picture. Well, I’ve been eyeballing this group of 8-10 jumpers. They are about my age (40’s) and look a bit irreverent to me, which is my kind of party. After studying them for a while I recognize who the organizer is. He has a big loose-leaf notebook of jump plans, however the first photo in his book is for a ‘one way’, which is a very large photo of a portion of the male anatomy.
As I was able to find out later, Jack was retired military intelligence – a veteran of Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm. He was also a member of MENSA. I quietly and sheepishly inquired if they had room for me on the next load (that’s how we refer to the next plane ready to carry around 24 jumpers, in pre-defined groups, to altitude. He sizes me up, asks a bunch of questions, and tentatively allows me in.
What blew me away was how distinguished a group of jumpers I was about to skydive with. Jack took me around and introduced me to everyone. Each guy was retired military, including two colonels – one who had just turned down an offer to join the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All had actually seen combat. One (nicknamed ‘Digger’), was the guy responsible for the creation of the Navy Seals. Another was the chief engineer on the B-2 bomber. Robert, another structural engineer, supervised the design and construction of the underground tunnel that connects England with the rest of Europe (The ‘Chunnel’).
To say I was among elites would be an understatement of Biblical proportions. I did pretty good on that first skydive, and that was my ticket into a rowdy group of guys with impeccable pedigrees -- as some of the real heroes of our lifetime. I was humbled (a really hard thing for me to do) and in awe as I spoke to each and every one of them. One, a retired fire captain (who bought and ran a strip club after his public service ended) is still jumping at 90 today (https://www.wsj.com/articles/skydiving-legend-pat-moorehead-age-90-11637247529#:~:text=Skydiving%20legend%20Pat%20Moorehead%20keeps,20.)
This was one of those occasions (very, very rare) when I just kept my mouth shut and listened all the time. I was the only non-military permitted to jump with them. Through their introductions, I eventually made skydives with the “Golden Knights” (elite Army demonstration jumpers) and the Navy “Leap Frogs” (same guys, different branch of the service). They were an irreverent group – and they earned the right to be that way. Several were ex-Airborne, an area of the military that is 100% guaranteed to provide you with catastrophic back problems later in life from jumping rounds.
Military canopies are designed to do one thing only – move the jumper straight down as quickly as is possible. Our ‘squares’ (rectangular parachutes that are infinitely steerable) are not used by the military. The logistics of a military jump involves putting 30 or more jumpers out at an altitude of 400 feet. In order to prevent entanglements (which are almost always fatal) the round canopy gets you down very, very quickly. While I described my landing as stepping off of a chair, theirs is the equivalent of jumping from a 19 foot high platform – which is precisely what they do in training to learn how to perform a PLF (Parachute Landing Fall), the only way a military jumper can land without injury.
What they don’t tell the 19-year-olds who volunteer for jump school, is the continuous compression this type of landing has on the vertebrae in the spine, something that doesn’t bite back until you are usually over 50, a long time after most have retired from active military service. Out of sight, out of mind. Today, my friend Jack has so many herniated discs that surgery cannot be performed because it would involve fusing his entire spine – so he walks around with a horrible looking back brace to keep him from curling up in pain.
I don’t know what it was about myself that endeared me to this bunch of guys -- but I am grateful. They were genuine, authentic, Americans. They spoke plainly, they spoke the truth, and were as honest and faithful as the day was long. And they partied real hard.
When our cameraman turned 40 and announced his engagement at the same time, ‘Bear’ planned a little get together at the DZ (DropZone) to celebrate both occasions. He hired a stripper / hooker with a boombox to ‘perform’ near our gear bench, out of view of the families at the other end of the facility. For $10 you could lick whipped cream off of her very ample breasts, and one guy got even luckier in the privacy of the packing shed.
When I announced that I was on my way to Italy with my family to be baptized a Catholic by Phyllis’ cousin, an Archbishop with the Roman Catholic Church, my buddies organized a commemorative skydive: “Gary’s Last Jump as a Jew’. One of my colonel friends had his wife design and sew patches for all of us. We affixed them onto our jumpsuits to remember the day.
I remember these days like my biker days. Honest, hardworking, loyal individuals who would give you the shirt off their back. Each with their own unique story, each in a way helping to make me a better person for having known them.
Integrity is contagious, and I try, I try every single day, to live up to the unreachable plateau each had established for themselves to justify their existence.
“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for”