What you need to know first is that flying runs in my family. In fact, I am the sole member of my immediate family that hasn’t made their living between 10 and 40,000 feet in the air at one point or another.
Dad was a pilot, Mom was a flight attendant, brother Kris jumped for the West Point Parachute Team and now continues his active service at Fort Bragg and spends his weekends as a certified tandem master. He met his wife, my sister, skydiving at West Point. My mother-in-law Jody is a flight attendant, Uncle Bob is a pilot, Uncle Larry is a skydiver; you get the idea.
These birds of flight all **earn money** while soaring through the air with the greatest of ease, and the closest I’ve come to that sensation is the one time I played Tinkerbell in Peter Pan and got to wear a pimp set of fairy wings.
My Dad was an Air Force Academy grad who started skydiving as a cadet after a childhood obsessed with model airplanes, which he’d fly over the rolling hills of Marin County in California. From the time I can remember anything he balanced work as a pilot for PSA, then USAir (ways), all the while skydiving competitively in the in-betweens.
Yes, indeed, competitive skydiving is a thing. I won’t go into the rules and logistics of all that now, but I grew up on a dropzone the way an Olympic swimmer’s children grow up around a pool.
Dusty weekends and dusky evenings I would meander around small local airports in various degrees of disrepair while Dad jumped. A creaky swing set or long-abandoned sandbox set the stage for early plays with My Little Ponies or whatever found materials were about. The roar of airplane engines was as natural to me as a ceiling fan.
Sometimes I would bring a friend along. It was a rite of passage for all my true childhood friends to make the hour-long trip to Skydive Rick’s in our gold Volvo station wagon (RIP Ollie). We’d spend the day rolling in grass and pea gravel, sneaking orange sodas from the pilots’ fridge, pulling stray cats from trees, and even saving a litter of baby bunnies from a fire pit on one occasion.
His career (and my mother’s) afforded me the opportunity to travel quite a bit to parachute meets and events as a child. Flying standby was much more effortless than it is now. My Dad and the US Parachuting Team would agree to compete, and in the blink of an eye we could be off to exotic locales like Japan, Austria, or North Carolina.
Kidding aside, it was a wonderful facet of my childhood. I’m forever grateful that I started my adult life with some kind of perspective about the rest of the world around us.
Besides airports, bizarre regional delicacies, and lots and lots of souvenir t-shirts, many of my memories of these trips involve long dinners after the day’s jumping was done. I’d feel my sleepy head drooping, drooping, and falling into my dad’s lap as a cacophony of languages, laughter, smells, and sounds filled my head.
With such a glowing preface about the family business, it will perhaps surprise you that I had absolutely no interest, 0% desire, to skydive when the clock struck midnight on my 16th birthday. It wasn’t so much the familiarity of it all, like when you see children of famous actors shun the limelight and become hemp farmers. The fact of the matter is I just DO NOT LIKE HEIGHTS.
Roller coasters: ok. Elevators: ok. Bridges: ok. Looking unrestrained, unrestricted over the edge of a precipice and potentially venturing into it: NOT OKAY.
I’m that friend who FREAKS OUT when the daredevil of the group (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE) horses around at the edge of a cliff while hiking. I’d prefer not to lean against the railing at the swanky NYC rooftop bar for the perfect photo op. I actually don’t NEED to see how “tiny they all look” from “up here.” The thought of it all makes my sphincter tighten and my brain scream “XANAX.”
Let’s take a tangent moment here to discuss a few ways in which I delight and disappoint my father.
Tells magical stories in public while wearing cool costumes and singing: DELIGHT
Cannot drive a stick shift: DISAPPOINT
Navigates the island of Manhattan and surrounding boroughs with ease: DELIGHT
Cannot understand military time: DISAPPOINT
Full ride to college: DELIGHT!!!!
Will not jump out of airplane: DISAPPOINT
You see where I’m going with this.
(I will also add that my brother Kris does ALL OF THE ABOVE THINGS very well, even the magical stories/cool costumes part. He’s sent me pictures of himself during training weeks out in the field with foliage camouflaging and green facepaint that Elphaba herself would be proud of.)
Back to the jumping. I put off my Dad’s advances for a few years with the demands of high school, theater school, BOYFRIEND (which, stay tuned, backfires on me in about 10 years), and then my move to NYC for college and career.
I’m busy, said I. I don’t want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane, said I. I have rehearsal, said I. I don’t look good in goggles, said I. I have no health insurance, said I. (This one still works as an excuse for multiple things, just FYI.)
I knew deep down that my Dad was a little disappointed that I wouldn’t jump, even if he never admitted it. It was a bit of a family joke for a while. But as time flies and people grow and the number of opportunities I had to see my Dad dwindled as they always do, it felt like more of a “thing,” especially after my loving (now) husband took the plunge in the summer of 2013. He adored it.
He went up on a load with my Dad, my uncle Larry, and Kris. He might as well have taken my fingernails and cuticles with him and scattered them across Eastern Ohio like a wingsuited flower girl, because surely they were gone by the time he returned safely to Earth. He instantly became an adversary in my quest to remain on terra firma.
Travel with me now to Labor Day weekend of 2015, where my Dad is training at Skydive Rick’s for the upcoming Nationals (our country’s major qualifier for the World Air Games, i.e. parachuting Olympics.).
I have come home to Pittsburgh to do a musical and Kris has driven home with me from West Point to spend his long weekend jumping. That checks out.
We legitimately could not remember the last time my Dad, my brother, and I were all together, so I agreed to come out to the drop zone, watch them make a few jumps, relive the old times, save a bunny or two, grab dinner, and head back to Pittsburgh.
On their last load, as the sun was licking the horizon and lightning bugs were unplugging their chargers, I agreed in a haze of nostalgia to go up in the airplane with them as an “observer.”
Being an “observer” means you sit on the floor of the jump plane, just to the right of the pilot but facing the tail, wearing a big, black parachute with an extremely obvious ripcord (PULL ME DON’T DIE) in case of emergency. You have access to an over the waist seat belt- the kind you would click on your average commercial airliner, expecting to only see Netflix and your snoring neighbor for the duration of your flight. Except on THIS flight you are sitting right next to the door and you do not see The Great British Baking Show but THE NAKED EARTH BENEATH YOU.
A note about these planes. At Skydive Ricks the planes are old, well-maintained war horses. I trust Rick and his wife Kay implicitly, and would never feel unsafe in one of their planes. Yet it must be said that they are SMALL and built for FUNCTION not LUXURY. No hot towels. No snacks.
The only chair is the pilot’s, and they fit about 5 people smooshed and sitting down on the floor. The square footage is that of the average NYC bathroom, for my Manhattan friends reading this, or about the size of a rowboat, for everyone else.
So I “strap in” and sit cross-legged next to Rick. We rattle down the grass runway and lift off, heading to 3,500 feet. The load is my Dad, my brother, and a few of their skydiving buddies. We reach altitude, and someone (TERROR makes the details of the next few minutes a little blurry) opens the door. The door is small, smaller than a car door, and there is a tiny step just outside the plane from which you LAUNCH yourself. If you’re feeling jazzy you could also step on that step and jauntily hang off the wing of the plane before you hurtle yourself towards death. Your call!
The instant the wind and noise and sight of the ground below appear, I get a wave of nausea and panic, I cling to Rick’s pleather chair like a cat on a branch. I don’t see them jump. Then Rick simply rolls the plane to the left to get the door to close, and there’s a relatively nice ride back down in the enclosed rowboat.
When we land the gang is already on the ground, and we head to dinner after a few gentle jabs about how scared I was in the plane.
This is where the negotiating begins. I will spare you the details, but over cornbread and chicken salad my father and brother lob some pretty potent ammo.
“How many times are we all together these days?”
“I wouldn’t let you do it if I wasn’t 100% sure you would live.”
“Would you jump out of a plane to save Trey (husband)?” (Yes)
“Would you jump out of a plane to save Henry (cat)?” (YES)
“So we’ve established that you CAN jump out of a plane. Now we just need to find the conditions in which you’ll do it.” (Monetary bribe.)
“Here’s a completely safe way to face your biggest fear.”
That last one stuck with me.
In college, one of my favorite teachers would always encourage us to “follow your fears.” This seemed very tangible when you were 19 and your fear was a Sondheim ballad. It gets a little more esoteric when you’re staring down the barrel of your own weaknesses, complications, and even mortality.
Maybe it was that barrel that made my Dad’s words stick. Maybe it was the inordinate amount of peer pressure. MAYBE if I did this thing- this unfathomable thing- the other things that render me anxious might not seem so bad. Maybe the career panic, fear of the future, anxiety about aging, the singing of Sondheim, might feel a little more…easy?
Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s imposter syndrome.
And so I agreed. I shook on it. At 1pm the next day I would arrive, take the 15 minute tandem class, and JUMP.
My hands shook the whole way home on the steering wheel. I didn’t tell anyone. Speaking it out loud made it too real. I didn’t sleep well. The only time I could remember being this nervous in recent memory was before my first appointment for Glinda in Wicked. It should have been a breeze and I bombed it because of nerves. That was just singing and flouncing. This was real life.
So I arrived at the drop zone the next day, feeling like a zombie had gotten up, dressed, and driven on the turnpike. I then waited for two hours to begin training because of weather delays. I felt a little like Anne Boleyn on the day of her continuously delayed execution: “Master Kingston, I hear say that I shall not die afore noon, and I am very sorry therefor, for I thought to be dead by this time and past my pain.”
While we were waiting, a few of my Dad’s friends gave me their opinions about whether or not I should jump. Actually, they all said I should with the exception of Kay, Rick’s wife and co-owner of the drop zone. She pulled me aside and said, “Listen. Don’t do this to please anyone else. Not your Dad, not these dudes. Do it for you.”
And this is why women belong in places where (high-altitude) decisions are being made.
I finally proceeded to training with Jimmy, tandem master extraordinaire. He was Trey’s TM for his jump in 2013. In fact, knowing that I would be placing my life in his capable hands was the only thing soothing my nerves. That and the half a Xanax I had just washed down.
We watched a brief video. The only thing I needed to do was ARCH upon exit to stay upright and in a good position for parachute deployment (BRAIN: I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M LEARNING THIS WHY WHY WHY ABORT).
Little did I know that while all this was going on, sweet Kay was getting everything together, the rest of the load and the plane ready, so that as soon as I was done and suited up we could head straight for the plane; no time for reflections or delays or second thoughts. As I reflect, I realize it was no accident that she was my pilot.
I put on a fancy black jumpsuit, a fancy black harness, a fancy black helmet with goggles, and snapped what I thought would be the last selfie I’d ever take. We headed to the plane, squeezed in, and away we went down that same grassy runway and into the ether.
The gang on this particular plane was pretty epic and I was aware enough of that to step back and feel gratitude that the men and woman who were guiding me through the next half hour of my life were the best in the business. These are kind, generous people who were taking care of me in a very delicate way. The cast is as follows:
PILOT: Kay (won’t judge me if I abort mission)
VIDEO: Uncle Larry (will definitely show footage to Trey if I do anything embarrassing)
PAX1: Dad (doing a good job of distracting me by pointing out neat cloud formations)
PAX2: Brother Kris (no help at all)
PAX3: Tandem Master Jimmy (cool as a cucumber)
PAX4: Yours Truly (obsessively checking FitBit for heart rate while ascending.)
So up, up, up we went in our winged rowboat. (Fitbit HR 85) Now, recall that yesterday when I had been a mere “observer,” we climbed to 3,500 feet. That’s the highest I’d ever been in a jump plane. For tandems, however, you must climb to 10,500 feet because two people are heavier than one and you fall faster. The extra space is necessary. (HR 92) I assured Jimmy that I was *impossibly* thin and *surely* didn’t need the extra 7,000 feet, but upward we went.
There came a point in our ascent when I stopped being able to see the earth below. (HR 108) Then came the part when we went higher than the clouds. (HR 110) The altimeter on my wrist showed 8,000 feet and I knew the time was nigh. “Two minutes!” yells Jimmy. (HR 115) Uncle Larry holds my hands and we breathe together for a few breaths. (HR 100)
Now comes the time when Jimmy tells me to sit up and turn around so we can attach to each other. (HR 118) I sit on my knees and he attaches his harness to mine twice at my shoulders and twice by my hips. The order out of the plane is to be Larry, who will HANG OFF THE SIDE OF THE WING (remember that shenanigan?) to appropriately video my exit, then Jimmy and myself, then Dad and Kris.
Kay gives the high sign, the plane slows. Uncle Larry yells “DOOR!”
This is where shit got REALLY REAL.
The door flies open and I see the abyss. It is so far. We are above the clouds. The roar is deafening and the wind is whipping. It seems absolutely UNFATHOMABLE to be out there. Uncle Larry climbs out and hangs off the edge of the wing. Neat. It’s our turn, and an interesting thing occurs. My audition reflex kicks in.
Here’s what that is. As actors, we audition all the time. It’s never NOT scary, but at a certain point you get used to that MUST WALK IN THE ROOM moment. That flash of “It’s time!”
At auditions you’re frequently in a line waiting to be seen, or in a small seating area with a few other actors waiting for your name to be called. When that door flies open or that monitor calls your name, it’s go time. Regardless of your nerves (or level of preparedness) you must smile, stand up, and walk in that room like there is NOWHERE ELSE you would rather be at that moment. They can smell fear and desperation. Like bears. Or dinosaurs.
I knew my job at that moment was to shuffle to the edge of the door, SIT DOWN, and put my feet outside of the plane on the step. After that I would cross my arms on my chest. Jimmy would rock us forwards, backwards, and then launch us out of the plane.
So I did that. I put my butt at the edge and tried to put my feet on the step. But the wind was so furious I couldn’t get my sickle-footed sneaker out. (STICK WITH ME KIDS there’s video of all this at the end) Jimmy eventually pulled the leg of my pants to get my feet in position, and then my job was over. I had walked in the room.
In theater, we call this “The Moment Before”
Indeed, we rocked forwards, backwards, and then Jimmy shoved with love and out we went.
How horrifying was the rocking, the launch? I had long abandoned my Fitbit but would see later that my heart rate was over 170, which is higher than it is when I run.
I arched as instructed, and we did a somersault in the air upon exit. And that was the exact moment it stopped being scary. As soon as our bodies left the plane I remember thinking “OH. This is what it is.” You can see in the photos taken by Jimmy’s wrist camera that I am immediately smiling upon exit. Grinning even when we’re upside down in our somersault. It was that instant. The evaporation of expectations, the weight lifting.
I opened my eyes. We were freefalling, but it didn’t feel like falling. It felt like SUPER loud swimming, with wind rushing up my nose like water would. Weightless. Noisy. No floaties. I could see Larry, but was a little too stunned to wave. I remember seeing my Dad and Kris off to the side.
We fell for 20 seconds or so, and the last thing that happened before Jimmy pulls the ripcord is we fall THROUGH a cloud. Remember those white, puffy, billowy clouds in various shapes and sizes that we flew above? I know what those feel like. I’ve been inside one.
What does a cloud feel like, you ask? It feels cold and misty and magical. Like if you scraped your knee and God was blowing on your boo-boo.
Jimmy pulls the ripcord and my legs kick out from under me. Instantly it gets quiet. My Dad and brother rocket away below us. Jimmy can now speak to me and he points out some sights below us. I’m still grinning. The view, as best I can describe, is like being suspended in front of the largest Omnimax screen you can imagine. It’s unreal and so, so big.
Jimmy swoops us in tight circles to get a little closer to my Dad, who is below, and then we quickly approach the ground. I politely decline Jimmy’s offer to steer the parachute (even a-ha moments have their limits), and we prepare for landing; a graceful dual butt slide into the drop zone’s grassy field.
The moment comes, I lift my knees, and just like that we’re back on the ground. There are cheers and hugs and happiness. We take photos. I get a hug from Dad. He whispers, “I’m so proud of you.”
In the days following my jump, it’s pretty much all I can think about. Not in the sense that I want to do it again. I don’t. I meditate on the fact that the INSTANT I did the thing I was the most scared of the fear evaporated. It’s empowering. And even though skydiving may be a thing that is not scary to many others, it was scary to me and I did it. I feel…better. I keep going back to the rush of freedom. The letting go, the release of control.
So, let’s celebrate the things that scare us. As I revise this post in our current climate, it feels especially apt. If you are given the chance to do the thing that scares YOU in a controlled environment, DO THE THING. It will put the other THINGS in perspective. You will live better.
Now, as a thank you for your patience, enjoy this video of me mentally (and physically?) pooping my pants. May it inspire you to DO THE THING and JUMP.
P.S. If you are so inspired to literally jump, visit skydivericks.com for more info and tell them I sent you. Or head to Skydive Paraclete XP in Raeford, NC and let my brother Kris take you for a jaunt. Say hi to my Dad for me while you’re there. He looks like me but cooler and will probably be wearing a bat suit.
WHY I JUMPED: (the door opens at 1:02 and watching this video still makes my sphincter tighten, even 5 years later)