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Borderlines: Sketches from the Empty Quarter: One Big Step


By GK Harkness

February 1, 2023

There’s terrifying and then there’s Terrified.

Know the difference.

Last spring, my 70th birthday was rolling towards me like a tornado playing tag in a trailer park. (If you’ve ever seen one of those up close and personal, you understand the futility of trying to outrun destiny.)

That’s terrifying.

Still, the end of the seventh decade on the third rock from the sun is kinda special … you know, the whole three-score-and-10 thing. What to do to make it memorable?

Hmm.

Have breakfast on the Great Wall of China? (Nope. Too many covid hoops to jump through.) Audition for Dancing with the Stars? (Nope again. Two left feet.) Embark on a Whiskey tour of Scotland? Nope, nope, nope. (Not unless I win the lottery.)

Think hard, there must be something …

Aha! How about jumping out of a perfectly good airplane high above the Rockies from an altitude of over 18,000 feet above sea level?

Perfect! That’s so stupid no one will believe it until they see the photos. Or the obituary. 50/50 chance of either one.

I had a feeling this event might define Terrified.

And with that I picked up the phone and texted my youngest son.

“Steve, I’m thinking about doing a jump for my birthday. Remember when you and your brother Matt went skydiving a couple of years ago?” (Long pause on his end).

“Yes.” “Ever thought about doing it again?” “No.”

That was a short conversation. It picked up again about 10 minutes later when the light came on for him and he sent back his own text.

“Dad is that your way of asking me if you want someone to go with you?” “Yep.”

“Ok.” (atta boy)

Before common sense had a chance to retake control of the situation, I again picked up the phone and called my friendly neighborhood adrenaline purveyor, Colorado Mountain Skydive.

“Hi, I’m feeling like testing both my fear of falling and the carrying capacity of my underwear. Do you have any reservations left for the 23rd?”

Sir, it appears you already have some reservations … but don’t worry, that’s normal. Will this be your first jump?”

“I thought that was obvious … “

Right. Well, yes, we have space available on the 23rd. We recommend morning when the air is calmer. How many in your party?

“Great. Calm is good. Two jumpers and one observer to film our last moments.”

Nothing to worry about Sir, we’ve been doing this for twenty-five years with a perfect safety record. Please fill out the application on our website and be here at 8 AM. It’s $209 for a tandem jump with a discount for cash. We look forward to seeing you!

“Cash discount? Hah! Trust me, if I bounce on the landing so will my check.”

Too late, they had already hung up.

I made the requested arrangements, put any thoughts of my probable impending doom aside and rationalized that facing fear is always better than living in regret for not living a full life.

Fast forward a few weeks to a stunningly beautiful April morning, cool but not cold. Fresh snow on the mountains and brilliantly sunny at the airfield in Fremont County. We arrived early which gave me plenty of time for second thoughts and reflections on what it is about human nature that drives us to unnecessarily test our mortality. No answers were forthcoming.

Other jumpers joined us, like myself mostly first-timers also impatient to experience plummeting downward at terminal velocity for nearly three miles towards the unyielding floor of the upper Arkansas Valley.

The skydive staff arrives, and a lengthy intake procedure ensues, mostly involving safety and liability instruction, an overview of the flight and jump experience … and plenty of opportunities to walk away. Everybody signs, nobody walks.

Even though we are among the first to arrive, Steve and I are far back in the que and have ample time to watch numerous other jumpers receive their instructions, get fitted into their harnesses and ferried a quarter mile down the runway to the plane that will carry them aloft. We go outside and watch the first flight ascend with its passengers towards the drop zone. Up, up and up they go … until we can’t even see them anymore. Suddenly tiny blossoms appear impossibly high in the deep blue Colorado sky. It begins to dawn on me that 18,500 feet above sea level is a lot farther up than my mind can really grasp. We wait and watch, impatient and yet apprehensive. At least I am. Steve’s done this before, and although he won’t admit it, feigns some nervousness just to get under the old man’s skin. We bet lunch on whoever can touch down closest to the soccer ball on a pylon in the landing zone.

Not all those awaiting their turn are tandem jumpers like ourselves. About a third are solo sport divers. They are an interesting mix of ages and personalities. I settle into a folding chair next to one who tells me everything I didn’t need to know about what can go wrong, competing companies he has worked for, and what is exhilarating about flying without wings. Gradually it registers with me that although it’s only 10:30 in the morning, my new friend is completely zonked. To each his own. Personally, I think the upcoming journey will be sufficiently intoxicating.

Finally, our turn arrives. My jump partner helps me into the tandem harness all the while explaining what to expect, what to do and what not to do. He is meticulous in his instructions … and yet the only thing that really reaches my mind is that under no circumstances of panic or malfunction am I to reach up and grab him. He doesn’t say what will happen if I do, but like an oarsman on a raft, he carries a knife to cut tangled lines. Got it Boss, I’m good with leaning back and enjoying the descent. It’s just that first big step that has me worried.

And then our waiting is over and we’re on the mechanized cart that carries us to the plane. Aviation gas is VERY expensive and as soon as the aircraft taxis up to us we meet it and scramble aboard. The second we are all inside and lined up on the parallel benches we are airborne climbing steeply and rapidly to the drop altitude of 18,500 feet. My instructor is repeating all of his previous instructions to me and takes this opportunity to inform me that since we’re at the end of the bench, he and I will “run the door.” I give him a blank look. He explains that we’ll be the first ones to deplane, and we will need to open the roll-up door that all the jumpers exit from. Oh good. I haven’t been this nervous since a Pathan bandit in the Hindu Kush pointed the business end of his aging AK-47 at me on the Khyber Pass.

My tandem partner probably realizes this and is now busy indicating the landmarks on the horizon. It does not escape my notice that we are now four-fifths of a mile higher than Pikes Peak, our snow-clad neighbor to the north.

He taps my shoulder and we duckwalk to the door. This is a lot harder than it looks because we are cinched up together tighter than Ebenezer Scrooge and his money. No going back now. We each grab an edge and roll it over our heads and into the cabin ceiling.

Time stops.

I am totally spellbound at the thought leaving the relative safety of this airplane and entering that yawning empty space,

Terrified is not nearly adequate to describe this moment.

And yet … I’m eager to go. I want to embrace this challenge.

I’ve had weeks to ponder the fear of these seconds before entering the abyss, to wonder how it would feel to put my faith in a few square feet of fabric. In that instant I realize that my faith is not just in this bright colored canopy attached me and my jump companion. Faith always comes from a much higher power. And with that affirmation, it was time to take that leap.

“Scarecrow” by Jason Upton

“Everybody leaves the garden

Everybody’s scared of dying …

I am a child of God

Let the fear be gone …”

And then it was.

I have no memory of exiting the plane but suddenly we are falling in a way I could never have expected or anticipated. I extend my arms and imagine I am an eagle surveying my kingdom. The air is incredibly cold and the 125 mph wind is screaming in my ears, reminiscent the aggravated exhortations of an old cowboy I once worked for when I was too slow with the head gate in the squeeze chute.

There’s a postage stamp down below that is the airfield we took off from. The Sangre de Cristo range far and away to the left, Pikes Peak below us and to the right, the Arkansas River an impossibly thin line beneath us. The high plains roll east forever. There’s nothing but air to stand on for the next two and a half miles straight down.

This is absolutely sublime. The only distraction is the instant ice-cream headache I got from the cold wind against my forehead. We. Are. Flying. Pivoting left and right, steady on our downward course. All around I can see the solo jumpers maneuvering with graceful aerobatics, moving horizontally as they streak across the sky, turning summersaults and spinning in circles. That’s not for us today, but this is all I hoped for and more.

Less than a minute has now gone by (but possibly several days) and my jump partner tells me to hook my hands in the harness straps as he opens the canopy to slow our fall for the remainder of the downward descent. My headache has disappeared, and he demonstrates for me how to turn the canopy from side to side. We make a wide slow swing towards each of the cardinal directions. My minds thinks that’s interesting … but my stomach … not so much. He informs me that we are going to do a spiral 360 degree turn and swing from side to side. My stomach immediately tells me that this is definitely not a good idea. I indicate this to him and since he is upstream from me, we stop the carnival ride. He encourages me to use the control rings to move about the sky at my own comfort level. That’s an educational experience and I definitely enjoy it.

Now the ground appears to be rapidly approaching and I receive emphatic instructions on how to position for the landing. I pay a lot of attention to this because I don’t need another busted knee. We make a soft smooth touchdown and my companion offers his congratulations on a successful first jump … and then unhooks our joined harness unbelievably fast and sprints off to the hanger to greet his next customer. That rapid release factor is something I’m glad I didn’t know about while we were descending. I look around and see that Steve is back to earth as well. Neither of us landed close to the pylon but one of the solo jumpers knocked it off anyway. I’m impressed with their precision.

I volunteer to buy the hamburgers in Florence. This time.

My better half waves to me from the hanger where Zonker is still sprawled in a lawn chair. “That was really exciting to watch,” she exclaims. “I got lots of photos!”

Sure beats an obituary.

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