|Sun breaking through the mist|
That was more than two decades ago. It simply amazes me to realize that I am seventy and still skydiving. I was 47 when I made my first jump, and now here I am at seventy and still at it. The intensity and excitement has faded to a gentle appreciation of a familiar activity, and even that amazes me. How can jumping out of an airplane begin to feel that ordinary?
I suppose that jet fighters who have thousands of flying hours must begin to have that same sense of familiarity, a routine sortie into danger. But for those who don't know what skydiving is all about, that it's much more than the sense of falling into the air from a great height with no control, it's very scary. But you see, I know better. I know that I have two parachutes on my back, and that once I reach terminal velocity (after 9 seconds), I can fly! Usually we skydivers play together in the air for close to a minute before we have to separate in order to have clear air in which to deploy our parachutes. If for some reason the main parachute fails, we have a backup. I've used my reserve only twice (knock wood) in more than 4,000 skydives, so it doesn't happen all that often.
But that isn't what I wanted to talk about this morning. Yesterday I met a young skydiver, Chris, who has 35 jumps and is still learning to pack a parachute. I remember how confusing it was myself, and he stood there uncertainly and was asking other people to check his work. It's terrifying to go through the process of learning, because everything seems very complicated. But it's not, really. There are only a few techniques that require attention to detail, and now I don't even think twice about it. I was able to impart some of my techniques to him, but he seemed dubious that it could actually be that simple. As he began the last part, stuffing the parachute into the deployment bag, it began to get away from him. In the midst of packing my own parachute, I turned around to see him giving up, thinking that he would need to start all over again, from what looked to him like a real mess. "No, no! Don't give up now; you've almost got it in the bag!" I said.
I went over to him and showed him that it was possible to wrestle it into the bag from that point, even if it seemed like a lost cause. I knew that the important aspects of packing had been followed, and that the recalcitrant nylon was the only part that wasn't under control. All the lines were not being disturbed. So he continued, with my help, and then went out to jump it. I watched him busy practicing his reserve procedures, just in case.
Well, I was packing up from yet another jump when here comes young Chris, a grin as wide as the sky on his face. He said, "It was perfect! I pulled and looked up, it opened on heading and soft, just... perfect!" I was happy, too, as I remembered being afraid to jump my own early pack jobs. I had to learn what was important and what was not, just as he is learning. He was very grateful and thanked me for my help. He didn't realize that it made me feel really good to boot. A young skydiver who is just like I was, long ago, although I was already middle-aged when I began. Chris was probably born somewhere around the time I started.
As I was walking through the Drop Zone yesterday, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a window and thought in passing that I sure don't look like most of the other skydivers. I'm old and wrinkled with white hair, but that is another aspect of this sport that most people don't realize: if I jump a large forgiving parachute and take care of my body with exercise and diet, there's nothing to stop me from enjoying a pastime that gives me such pleasure. Of course, all that could come to a screeching halt with an injury, but that is true in every aspect of my life. None of us live lives that are free of that possibility. Who would even want to?
So I'll take my chances and make sure I do everything I can to increase the odds of maybe skydiving for another few years. Maybe. There's an old saying I've heard many times: "You don't quit skydiving because you get old, you get old because you quit skydiving." These old bones sure had fun yesterday.
I wish, sincerely wish, that you have something in your life that gives you pleasure, and that you follow it today to wherever it takes you. After all, today is all we really have, isn't it?