I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, August 1, 2010


Today, August 1, is known as "Lammas" to many people, the festival of the wheat harvest. The name comes from "loaf-mass," and it was customary to bring a loaf to church made from the year's first wheat on this day. It is also the day exactly between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox, the first day of fall.

Definitely an in-between day, which exactly fits my mood this Sunday morning. As I sit here listening to the birds making their normal morning racket as they gather at my feeders, the sound of a light breeze rustling through the trees, I think it's time to take stock of why I feel so in between.

I had another friend die skydiving this past week. Every year at the end of July to the first part of August, a "boogie" (a gathering of skydivers and plenty of aircraft for lift capacity) is held at a private airstrip near Kalispell, Montana. The boogie is called "Skydive Lost Prairie." I attended a few times during my years as a very active skydiver. When I lived in Boulder, a good friend, John, who has his own small plane took me and another old friend, Garl, to Lost Prairie in his plane.

I was told that it takes about four hours to fly there and that there would be no "pit stops," so I didn't have my usual morning coffee and was careful not to drink too much water the day before. It turned out to be pretty easy, actually. We all wore headsets and could talk to each other, as we flew at a low altitude across the country. It was really beautiful to see the countryside this way, and the weather was perfect.

Once we arrived, we set up our tents and spent several days jumping out of Twin Otters (a wonderful plane that seems made for skydiving) and partying at night. It gets quite cold at 3,000 feet in Montana, even at the end of July. I remember crunching across the frosty grass in the mornings as I headed to the bathrooms for my morning shower. We returned to Boulder in the same way, and the weather was again just fine. John doesn't fly when the weather is iffy, thank goodness.

Last Wednesday, Garl and John arrived in John's new plane for the boogie. After getting squared away, they went on a skydive with 14 others, their first of the boogie. At the end of a skydive, people are supposed to track away from each other to give separation for opening your parachute, and the two of them had off-heading openings, and collided. Apparently their main parachutes tangled and John was able to cut his main away and deploy his reserve. Garl was observed from the ground to be "incapacitated" for at least part of the time, and he reacted too slowly, which meant there was not enough time for his reserve parachute to deploy before he hit the ground.

I have known Garl since I first began skydiving in 1991. He was an old hand, very experienced, back then when I was first beginning. He didn't have time for me, as I was a "newbie" who didn't know much about the intricacies of relative work. (Relative work, or RW, is what skydivers do in freefall, flying relative to each other while falling.) As the years went by, we were on jumps together, and since we were both from the same Drop Zone, we got to know each other. I thought Garl was a "skygod," someone whose level of proficiency I would never reach. But within a decade, as I continued to learn, instruct, and jump, we became equals in the sky.

I got to know Garl well enough to be heartbroken to hear about this tragedy. And I also feel heartbroken for John, who was injured but had to watch his dear friend not make it. That hurts almost as bad, because I know John will never be the same. In the blink of an eye, everything changed for him.

You could say it was just bad luck, but there was more to it than that. If either one of them had spent just a little bit more time tracking away from the others, if one of their parachutes had opened turning in the opposite direction, rather than toward each other, it wouldn't have happened, and I would be writing about something else this morning. But skydivers have a saying, "track like your life depended on it, because it does."

In a track position, skydivers extend their arms and legs and push on the air to gain horizontal separation from others. This allows a good tracker to get as much horizontal separation as the distance that they fall, in a one-to-one ratio. I have had some close calls myself, and once I even had a canopy wrap with another person, but we didn't hit bodies and both were able to separate from the main parachutes and use our reserves.

Today I will head to my favorite local Drop Zone, Skydive Snohomish, and play in the air with my friends. I will be thinking of Garl and John on the ride to altitude, but once it's time to leave the airplane, I won't be thinking of anything else except the jump. And when I turn to track, I will get just the tiniest bit more impetus to track as if my life depended on it.

Goodbye, Garl! I hope you are flying free up there in the blue blue skies of heaven.


Anonymous said...

oh, how unspeakably sad for Garl's friends and family! But, you know, he died while doing something he really enjoyed. Blessings.

#1Nana said...

So sorry about the death of your friend. It does cause one to reflect, doesn't it? I hope the joy of skydiving this weekend will help you with the feelings of loss.

Gigi said...

DJan - I was sorry to read about this. What a terrible accident.

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Sorry to hear about the death of your friend. But I often wonder when I read stories like this - is it better to die doing what you enjoy?

TechnoBabe said...

It is almost like you are saying your friend would want everyone to continue jumping and keep enjoying skydiving. By now you have already come home from your skydiving. I hope you had a great day.

The Retired One said...

How awful...!!! I couldn't jump in the first place, but after hearing about a friend's demise that way? I could never ever jump again.

Far Side of Fifty said...

I hope your jumping today helps to clear out the inbetweensness that you were feeling. I am sorry about your friend Garl..and I am especially sad for John..he must be feeling some guilt..it is inevitable.
If you die while doing something you enjoy at least you die happy:)

Kathryn said...

It takes time to process a death. I find that I feel a little numb while my mond tries to grasp the repercussions. The fact tahe you are feeling in-between means that this person meant something to you. Hope your own jump(s) today help clear your mind and put things into perspective. I can't say if I'd quit jumping after the death of a fellow jumper, since I've never tried skydiving before. Sounds like you're going to be even more careful than usual, which is a good thing.

Nancy said...

RIP, Carl!
You be careful, DJan!

Donna B said...

Oh man. I cannot even imagine the horror, especially, with one so talented and experienced to have that last thought of, "Well, this is a big price to pay for a mistake". My husband is terrified of heights. I am not afraid of heights, but I would NEVER jump from a plane! My brother has. He was with the 82nd Airborne. Over Granada, he collided with another, but they were both able to deploy their reserves. The collision broke his glasses and cut his face, but that is minor compared to what could have happened.

I admire your bravery, but I am so curious to ask, what would you do if you had been in Garl's situation and saw the ground rushing up at you? Would you be glad you were dying doing something you enjoyed? Is that really true? How does dying doing something one loves make death any more welcome?

When my narcotics detective fiance was killed on a drug bust, everyone told me, "At least he died doing something he loved". Those comments gave me zero comfort. Especially, since I had dreamt of his death before it happened and warned him about it...

I could not shake the fact, maybe in some way, I contributed to it...

I am so sorry for the loss of your friend. I can only trust, hope and pray, his death, will in fact, make you even more cautious and careful. God Bless you!!!

Whitney Lee said...

Tragic. I'm sorry. Yet life itself is a risk, is it not? Perhaps he would have been satisfied to go while doing something he loved. Of course, that doesn't make it any easier to bear for anyone right now, particularly John. You are both in my prayers.

Star said...

Sad, but almost inevitable, I would say. I'm sorry for your friend but mostly I feel 'you take the risk, it's your choice'. Does that sound heartless? There are so many ways that life kicks us in the teeth, so why do something so dangerous? Of course, if it was left to people like me, not a lot would be accomplished. I know that, but I am the one who stays at home with the sticking plasters!
Blessings, Star

Robert the Skeptic said...

When I was in training, an instructor gave me a gad signal which I misinterpreted. I turned and tracked but then realized I was below pull altitude. I pulled my main rather than reserve, luckily it opened. I was at 1,200 feet.

When I bought my own rig my wife insisted I have it retrofitted for an AAD. I never needed it but was glad it was there nonetheless. But I have had that experience when you open and the chute whips you around 180 degrees and you are heading for someone. I was never big on RW anyway.