Tales from the Bonfire | Sep 01, 2020
Tales from the Bonfire | 1986 Is Calling

Kevin Gibson

His name is also Kevin. He didn’t even tell me until the end of the phone call. I had to ask.

I was halfway to my car on my way home for lunch in our little town of Orange, Virginia, when he rang in. My phone showed a number from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Probably that robo-insurance guy I get two or three times a day from random cities all over the country, I figured. But it’s my rigging-business phone, and I get calls from unfamiliar skydivers and pilots who need their parachutes repacked or want to buy new ones. So, I answered as usual, “Hi, this is Kevin.”

“Hey, you got a minute?” The other Kevin, for now just a disembodied voice softened by the nasal twang of an educated, confident southwesterner who I was guessing was in his 60s. Not at all like a sales call. More familiar—like someone I just had breakfast with that morning.

“Always,” I replied. The upbeat businessman, attentive, curious.

“You probably won’t remember me. I just sent you a photo on Facebook. It’s you and me in 1986 right after we landed from the parachute jump you took me on.”

“Wow!” So much there to sort through: Thirty-some years ago. The mid-’80s. Why is he calling? How did he find me? OK, Facebook, right. I stammered, “OK, well, don’t tell me. Let me guess: Texas?” I would have still been working at Skydive San Marcos or Aggies Over Texas then.

“No, sir. Davis Field in Muskogee, Oklahoma.”

“Wow!” I repeated. The USPA National Skydiving Championships. “Um, are you sure it wasn’t 1984?” That was the year I rode with Bill Booth and Connie Simpson in his van to the Nationals to help introduce the new concept of tandem jumping to the world. But we weren’t allowed to take first jumpers that year (although I did sneak my little sister in because, in a frap hat and goggles, she was a ringer for a well-known up-jumper named Nancy Dwyer).

“Nope, July 2, 1986. I have the certificate right here with the date and your signature. I came with a friend, and he took the picture right after we landed.”

Still almost clueless, I kind of remembered returning to the Nationals that year with a tandem rig I rented from Steve Van Buren to pick up some much-needed business. Texas was struggling in the middle of a price collapse on crude oil. The early days of Silicon Gulch in Austin as desktop computers were starting to catch on.

Kevin continued. “It was the best experience of my entire life.”

“Seriously?” I immediately knew how bad that must have sounded. I just subordinated this guy’s entire life’s worth of peak experiences as short of something I’ve done more than 10,000 times and engages me now about as much riding my bike on a new dirt road—forgetting that my first skydive redirected the course of my own life. It was too late to backpedal on that one, so I just left him a pause about 10 months pregnant.

“Yes, it was,” he said. “I had been pretty down. As I drove up to Davis Field, I remember thinking that if I made it, fine; if not, I’m good. I had lost my best friend due to suicide and hadn’t come out of that yet.

“You sat me down to watch a video compilation of jumps that didn’t go as planned, to put it mildly. After one minute, I turned to you and said, ‘I’ll watch your video all day, but I’m jumping.’ You said you knew all along I was serious, so you turned off the tape, took my $125—I passed on the $500 insurance policy—and off we went.

“We went in a DC-3 that used to belong to John Travolta. It was some kind of a contest with some military teams or something like that. We were the last ones out of the plane. Hey, do you remember how high we went? Do they jump at a different height for the contests than you did for the tandem jumpers?”

1986. DC-3. Golden Knights on board. Back then, we usually took tandem jumpers from only 5,500 feet and opened seven seconds out of the plane. But at the Nationals, we would have been following out teams going much higher and taking at least a half-minute of tandem terminal freefall. No drogues yet. Riskier, but tons more fun and a lot less complicated. My mind got bogged down in remembering the details and how to explain them.

Still stammering, I said, “OK, well if it was a 4-way team then it might have been 10,500 feet, but I think they probably did 4-way from Cessnas that year.” (My friend and co-worker, Ray Harper, would have been there with me in that case as chief pilot and flying the trail plane with all the videographers.) “So, we must have been with the 8-way teams jumping from 12,500 feet.” He had indeed gotten a rare and exotic experience for those days.

I don’t think Kevin really cared about any of this. He responded, “I really mean it. It was the best thing I’ve ever done. Making that jump gave me a renewed sense of hope. It was the most peaceful experience of my life, and I wanted to thank you and tell you that after 34 years, I haven’t forgotten any of it and I’m thankful I did it with you.”

I detected something of a throatiness. I really wanted to ask what life had been like for him in the last 30-plus years. More lost friends or family? Marriage? Divorce? Children who turned out great … or awful? Career success or business failure? Friends abounding? Addiction? Health tragedy? I could feel the conversation slipping away. He hadn’t called for that.

I still couldn’t connect. I could feel myself letting him down. But maybe that’s what he needed, why he called.

“Whenever a friend asks me, I tell them about our jump. I tell them to go do it. That they’ll get what they paid for. I think it cost me $125.”

“Yeah, that was about right back then,” I said. Pathetic. I owed him something of me. I grasped it out of mid-air, the first thing that came by: “Man, you made my day!” Weak, but better.

There was nothing wrong with my day. My wife and kids and I had settled into our cozy COVID pod of four. Bills were mostly paid. Things were about to bust loose for skydiving here in Virginia, and we were scrambling to get all our COVID-safe processes in place to open that weekend. Jumpers were bringing the loft some needed business.

But I was very glad to hear from him, no question. Just a few days earlier, Mario Ripa, Skydive Orange’s chief instructor, was talking with me about how cool it is to get stopped on the street or in the grocery story by people we might not even recognize—even if sometimes a tad awkward because we don’t remember them. It can be years gone by, but they just walk right up to talk about their jump.

“Well, I know you’re a busy man.” He nailed me. His turn to pause.

“No,” I said, taking command of myself. “You know, you do something like this all your life. It’s small really. Just jumping out of airplanes and teaching people how or taking them on a jump. And I guess whenever you commit to something like that, and you’re not doing something else more important, you question your choices and wonder if what you do actually means anything.

“And I’ve had this conversation with my partners and skydiving friends, professionals if you want to call us that, but I guess we are. Does it really mean anything? Should I have chosen to do something more useful? But then you call me up from 1986 to tell me that what we did together was the best experience of your life.”

“It really was.” There was something uncluttered when Kevin said it this time. A man in his 60s, at least. Happy, accomplished. But in this one compartment, a certain something he and I had shared stood above everything else.

“Wow.” I was humbled.

When I got back to my desk after lunch, I pulled our faded color picture up on my laptop. Lean and lanky, he stood almost a foot taller than me, his blond bangs and my brown curly hair still pasted back by tandem terminal. Both of us were beaming a smile to his friend with the camera, Kevin’s arm around my shoulder, mine around his waist, and a Tandem Vector I recognized instantly.

A few days later, Kevin posted his account of all this on his Facebook page. He wrote at the end, “With the events going on around me today, I can close my eyes and relive that experience and have a few moments of peace all over again. It was nice making someone’s day, 34 years after they had made mine.”

Sure was.

Kevin Gibson | D-6943
Owner, Rahlmo’s Rigging in Orange, Virginia

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