Forum: Arts / Diaries

Exit Altitude (karma: 1)
By Heartmember has saluted, click to view salute photosPremium member
On Tue Apr 28, 2015 10:29 AM
Edited by Heart (21721) on 2015-04-28 10:35:26 Formatting
Edited by Heart (21721) on 2015-04-28 10:39:14 More formatting. Last time, this better work.

Hi, my name is Heart and I almost died this weekend.

It was different from most of the other times I’ve almost died. After all, everyone’s almost died lots of times. Heck, you probably almost die at least once a day. This time was different. This time, I crashed into a building.

No, I wasn’t in a car. I was hanging from a parachute.

The whole point of skydiving, I told my coworker when I told him this story, is that you might die. It wouldn’t be as much fun if you didn’t. The whole point of the sport is to defy nature, to spit in the face of death. Skydiving is the only sport where, if you do nothing, you are 100% guaranteed to die. It’s a risk you accept if you are in the sport. It’s pretty hard to escape that reality when you’re climbing out of an airplane.

I guess I just didn’t expect to come face-to-face with my mortality so soon. It feels weird. I don’t want to second-guess my decision to join this sport, but I can’t keep myself from doing so.

One of the first things you realize after your first student skydive is how the brain functions in panic scenarios. After your first jump – and I mean after ground school; you won’t get this experience with a tandem instructor – your instructor sits you down and asks you what you remember.

When you try to think back, you realize that there are lots of holes. You are in a traumatic situation. Your body is hurtling towards the earth at 120mph. You remember the wind in the face, your inability to scream, the feeling of the air, a palpable force, beneath your limbs.

You probably won’t remember pulling. Did you reach the hackey? Did your instructor? What signs did they flash you? No idea. The tumble of deployment, yes, looking up at the tangle of your parachute and praying, praying, praying, that it opens. Then you’re under canopy, you can finally breathe.. for a few seconds, and then you have to think about landing…

You instructor will ask you prying questions. You’ll be surprised at the holes in your memory. You’re not used to it, they’ll explain. Your brain is busy processing too much input and isn’t recording everything that happens. Each skydive you make, you’ll remember a little bit more, until you’re able to accurately account for everything that happens while you’re in the sky – since you’re so used to the sensation of being there.

I don’t remember the impact. Well, no, I do – I remember hitting the cable. I don’t remember hitting the building. Someone else had to tell me. I thought I was going to make it. I was on my final approach, and I thought I was going to make it, I really did. I was too high. I should’ve turned earlier, but I thought I was too high. The last time I landed, I turned too low and slammed into the ground. You see, when you turn a parachute, it dives. It gains speed and loses altitude. That’s when you “pound in.” Low turns are a no-no.

So I was scared. I didn’t think I could turn. As I got closer, I realized I wasn’t going to make it, but my only option to turn would’ve been to hit the pavement. That wasn’t happening. And then I was crossing the pavement, and there was nothing to do.

I hit the “heckle deck,” where those not jumping sit and watch everyone else land. Next to the deck is the video room, where videographers edit the films for tandem jumpers. There’s usually an awning covering all this, but they haven’t put it up yet this season. I primarily hit a cable that holds up the awning; it clotheslined me across the chest. I kicked the video trailer and then fell to the deck.

I saw the cable, and my last thought was “god, I hope that’s not a power line.” There was no avoiding anything. I flared my canopy and hit.

Nothing hurt. It’s all adrenaline and nothing hurts. I collapsed to the ground, and in seconds instructors were rushing over to me. My instructor expertly pulled my RSL and cut away my canopy. I scrambled away from the cable, marveling that I hadn’t been electrocuted.

“Are you okay?”

The only thing I could say was “I’m fine, I’m fine,” even as I was attempting to take inventory of everything and make sure I was fine. I seemed to be able to feel all my body parts. I pulled off my goggles and helmet and stood up. My canopy was hooked over the video trailer, with four different people disentangling it from the awning supports – metal bars that certainly would have hurt much more than the cable I’d pulled from the wall. I couldn’t believe what I had just done.

“Come here,” a female instructor put a hand over my shoulders as I stood there trying not to cry. Shockingly, I didn’t. Not a single tear. “I want you to go into the student trailer and just breathe. Sit there and breathe.” She pointed to my jumpsuit, where I was surprised to discover a large rip in the fabric. “In incidents like these, you might not feel any pain at first, but you might have some internal bleeding. I want you to go inside and sit down and drink some water. We’ll come and talk to you later.”

Eventually, I started to feel a bit of pain in my chest. When I took off my jumpsuit I realized I’d hit the cable so hard that I had ruined the underwire of my bra.

What do you do? What do you make of something like that?

I could tell you all the mistakes I made, but you wouldn’t understand them, and it has more to do with inexperience and lack of knowledge than any really glaringly stupid errors on my part. Despite my choice of a pastime, I am actually a very risk-averse person. Skydivers like our sport because we’re in control. It’s the ultimate in personal responsibility. Skydiving accidents don’t happen because your gear fails or your parachute fails to open – deaths happen in skydiving due to user error. If you die, it’s likely because you screwed up. And make no mistake – I didn’t crash into a building because my parachute didn’t work. I screwed up.

“You’re going back up again today,” Stephanie said. Petite and blonde, she’s the “mom” to all the student skydivers, and the instructor who ran over and pulled my RSL. (Reserve Static Line – this is what connects your reserve parachute to your cut-away cord. If you cutaway your main parachute, when your RSL is connected, your reserve parachute will automatically deploy. Because I crashed, they cut away my main canopy, but did not want my reserve parachute to deploy.) “I want you back in the air right away.” I didn’t have any problem with this initially. I wasn’t scared of skydiving.

I’m scared of landing.

“Do you want to go up?” Dana was the instructor assigned to teach me how to land again. “I’ve heard a lot of things, but I don’t want you to feel pressured.”

I said yes. Of course I did. I knew I had to.

I wasn’t going to come out here and only jump once.

But I hadn’t thought about it. I still haven’t. I don’t know how to process it. I don’t’ know how to begin to think about it. After all, I’m only 26. How am I supposed to process my own mortality?

But the choice is simple, and the reason I boarded that plane again is as simple as the reason I started skydiving in the first place:

I don’t want to live a life where I’m scared of death.

It’s more important for me to live the life I want to live.

Skydiving is the most empowering thing I’ve ever done. It’s a choice my heart made the second I stepped out the door on my first tandem jump. It was never really a choice, for me. It was obvious. Of course I was going to skydive. Of course I was going to jump again.

Death is always there. When you’re sitting in that tiny plane, climbing up to 13,000 feet, you’re aware that not everybody might make it to the ground. There’s a saying skydivers have: “blue skies, black death.” Skydivers love life. We live it to the fullest. Every day is a crazy party. Our lives are amazing! We get to jump out of airplanes! And we could die at any moment.

The beauty of life is in its impermanence.

I went up again a few hours later. I was jumping with an instructor I didn’t know. He looked younger than me; I don’t know how old he is. He could certainly be younger than me (and god, how weird is it that I’m old enough that that’s a thing? I still feel like a teenager). I trusted him; instructor training is rigorous. Everything in skydiving is rigorous.

We went over the dive flow maybe 10, 15 minutes before the flight. Simple stuff. Swoop to dock. My flying is fantastic anyway. Former dancer, you know. Body awareness.

I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t excited to be going up in the plane. I was dreading it. I forced myself to smile, but I didn’t feel it. What if I didn’t land? I was put back on radio. Dana would be standing on the ground, watching me under canopy, telling me how to land. Everyone seemed confident I would be fine.

Except me.

Ryan asked me in the plane. “Do you want to skydive?”

“Wrong answer,” one of the fun jumpers said.

You can stay in the plane. They tell you you can’t, but you can, of course. No one is going to make you jump if you don’t want to. You can stay in that plane until it lands.

“Door!” The door went up.

“Exit exit exit!”

The first few groups of belly fliers jumped out.

“We can’t go until I hear a yes,” Ryan said, almost apologetically.

I was frozen. I couldn’t move. The freefliers left, and then the tandems, and then we were alone in the King Air.

It was quiet. I could think.

“Come around.” Ryan told the pilot.

“I’m only going to come around once! We can’t stay up here forever!”

I looked into Ryan’s eyes. I thought about the possibility of staying in the plane. Of landing. Would I ever go up again, if I did that?

I was scared to leave the plane. “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” That’s what they teach you in therapy, in DBT. Being afraid doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do something. Yes, jumping out that door would be scary.

But I was more afraid of who I would be if I didn’t do it.

“Do you want to skydive?”


2 Replies to Exit Altitude

re: Exit Altitude
By Heartmember has saluted, click to view salute photosPremium member
On Tue Apr 28, 2015 12:18 PM
My jumpsuit. I estimate I was traveling between 30-20mph before flaring.

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My bra... that is all from the impact

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re: Exit Altitude
By Heartmember has saluted, click to view salute photosPremium member
On Thu May 21, 2015 01:29 PM
Cut Away

Is there somewhere else to be?
Is there another way to feel
the lost pieces all over
getting closer?

Hold up your hands and begin again
Hold up your hands when you reach the end
We live and we work and we die for it
We know our path and we fight for it
Hold up your hands and begin again
Hold up your hands when you reach the end
We live and we work and we die for it
We know our path and collide for it

--Begin Again, Knife Party

I live in a tiny little studio apartment now, with a big bay window that opens onto the gated complex's courtyard. When you open the windows, the smell of cigarettes wafts in, because this is a cheap apartment in Philly.

I talked to my brother the other night. He is in Rhode Island, DJing and working at a health club. I told him about what my therapist tells me.

"...I need to plan out every second of every day, because I have ADD and if I don't, I'll never get anything done. But I don't know if I want to live like that, you know?"

And he said to me, "You know what, Hannah, you and me, we're not meant to live 'normal lives.' We're not meant to work 9-to-5s in normal jobs." My brother cuts his hours at his "real job" to spend more time working on music. He didn't bother finishing his BA, though he's only a couple credits away.

"You mean I should cut away and become a skydiving instructor and live in a tent on the dropzone?" I have a buddy who does that. His tent flooded.

"Yeah, sure, why not? If that's what you wanna do."

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It's a tempting thought, for sure. Maybe I shouldn't think of all my mental hangups as hangups. Maybe they're good things. Maybe I shouldn't be struggling to "live a normal life." Perhaps I should accept myself as I am, give in to my artistic side, and live the life I want to live.

I'm not ready to do that yet. But it is very tempting to think about.

For right now, though, it feels like a cop-out.

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