I first learned of skydiving in 1961 at the age of 6. The television show “Ripcord,” about two guys who provided almost entirely fictitious parachuting services, aired that year. My older brother and I didn’t mind the implausible events, because we didn’t watch for the stories. We wanted to see the show’s stars in freefall, and those scenes were all real, taken with helmet cameras and from airplanes.
Until I grew to a size that made it consistently painful, I jumped off things. We lived on the water in Hampton, Virginia. The seawall stood four to six feet over beach sand, so that was a good spot. In the woods, we could leap from trees into nets formed of vines 10 or 20 feet below. That was risky, and there were times when I fell through to the ground, but I was never injured. We’d leap from the tops of the channel markers in the Chesapeake Bay, too. That venue allowed us to compound the fun, because another compulsion some of us had was to reach the bottom of every body of water we swam in, even when it was impossibly deep.
While attending the University of Delaware, I discovered the skydiving club and that it only cost $35 to go through the one-day training course and jump. To my surprise, my brother didn’t want to do it. In fact, he thought it was a foolish idea, so I asked my best friend if he’d like to go. He and I were on our high school wrestling team; we’d worked together as highrise-window cleaners; and we’d spent a lot of time doing things that teenagers do, so it didn’t surprise me when he said, “Yes.” On September 21, 1975, we went to Ridgley, Maryland, to a grass-strip airport called Pelicanland, the name of which derived from the club that owned the drop zone, the Pelican Skydivers.
The ride from campus took about 90 minutes. If my brother’s reaction had come to mind, I might have turned back after seeing the place. The farmhouse that was there the previous summer had burned down, replaced by a trailer, so there were no permanent structures, and the number of crashed airplanes (two) equaled those that were airworthy. It wasn’t like the airport in the “Ripcord” TV series, but the university club and the Army ROTC sponsor deemed it safe, so I assumed I was in good hands. As it turned out, I was.
I was on the last load of the day. After the static line pulled the sleeve and parachute from the container and I found myself under a round parachute that could only drift, I was in utterly still air. Nineteen years old, suspended 2,000 feet above the world in a slow descent at sunset, I was filled with awe, a sense of accomplishment and the thrill of freedom. Hanging there like that—motionless, quiet and safe after all the noise and anxiety—was wonderful. I knew that the short freefall and canopy ride were a taste of what was still to come.
My skydiving career has been spotty. I made a couple hundred jumps in the rest of the ’70s and only a couple hundred more in the ’80s and early ’90s. In 2012, after 17 years without a jump, what I was missing struck me. I had continued to have adventures like hang gliding, catamaran sailing and flying sailplanes when my rig was collecting dust. I’d lived around the country, had scores of cool jobs and even gone to war. Four years ago, at the age of 57, shortly after AARP eligibility, skydiving once again became a breath that sustains the glow.
Because it’s there, those who would do it will. We leap through airplane doors into the sky because we can, and to live without doing it would be to live less. It isn’t that skydiving changes such a life. It’s perhaps the greatest of the many things that make it so continuously rich to live.