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Between Heaven and Earth

Doug Garr

Prologue: Between Zero and One

Doug Garr, a New York writer who actually considers himself a risk-averse perrson, was a skydiver for 14 years. He made 849 jumps, in several states, a few countries and from dozens of kinds of aircraft. He achieved an expert, or master, rating and jumped with many of the sport's pioneers. His memoir, "Between Heaven and Earth," is an account of those years. Garr likes to think of his book as more of a psychological rather than chronological memoir because he weaves the events and culture of the time (1969 to 1983) together with his experiences of actually leaping out of perfectly good airplanes.

Previous Installment: The Pucker Factor

When you have tasted flight you will always walk the Earth with your eyes turned skyward; for there you have been and there you will long to return.

--Leonardo da Vinci

Greene, N.Y. -- April, 1969.

We were about half a mile above the ground on a crisp, sunny Saturday afternoon, the patchwork grid of the rural landscape visible through the Plexiglas door of the blue-and-white Cessna. The Chenango River snaked through the valley between the low rolling mountains just below the right wing. Spring never looked so lovely. The whine of the engine wound down slightly, and Bill Smith, the jumpmaster, unlatched the door and slid it open. He motioned me to swing my feet out on the step, and the prop blast, colder than I expected, slapped rudely at my cheeks. I held onto the metal strut, tighter than I needed, stiff as a barnstorming wing-walker.

What was I thinking? I’m not certain. But in reviewing the blurry events of a day that occurred when I was a young man, more than two decades ago, I realize now that the operator of this skydiving center was nothing if not practical; he asked for payment in advance. I’d been through four hours of instruction, where I’d watched parachutes being packed, practiced falling off a small platform, "exited" from a wooden structure that looked like a makeshift gallows, and learned how to identify various "malfunctions." I paid rapt attention during the emergency procedures.

I was petrified, naturally. The next few moments were pure adrenal thumps, and the memory of this occasion pulses easily through my mind. I vaguely recall being ordered to go, and as I released my grip and took the leap into the vast space below me, I saw a flash of sunlight against the cobalt sky as the plane quickly receded above.

This is the critical moment. When you let go. I have pilfered this phrase from the photographer, Henry Cartier-Bresson. I know I screamed; you can’t get much more primal than an instant like this. "One thousand, two thousand, three thousand…," I yelled, my heart jumping out of my chest, and then there was the sharp report, a thwack as the static line extracted the billowing canopy.

Opening shock, it’s called. You’re relieved because you’ve just experienced the welcome pleasure of the violent jerk. Then release, like waking from a dream and realizing that all those previous thoughts, the story you had written in your mind was completely a fiction.

The brief reverie was interrupted. An anonymous voice on the radio receiver, which was tied to the top of the reserve chute, came alive and asked, "If you can hear me, kick your legs." The doctor checking for a pulse. I meekly complied, and I was ordered to pull the left or right steering toggles as I was guided toward a huge round landing pit of gravel and dirt.

The primal part was over, and for the next two and a half minutes, I merely viewed the Earth from a vantage I’d never known, one part beauty, one part the possibility of disaster. My heart was still racing, though the fear was dissipating. I peered up at the umbrella and marveled how a sheet of nylon and a group of 28 strings could actually hold you in midair. Would this old crate stay together? I drifted toward the ground, the horizon slowly rising in the periphery. The earth was slowly swallowing me. It was tranquil, with the whisper of the wind. It was like drowning your head in a pillow.

When I reached the ground, and rolled in the dirt, I laughed at the thought of what I’d accomplished, duly astonished. I’d cheated death, which I soon discovered was a popular cliché among the blessed, the sky gods, the hard core, the guys who wanted the world to know how brave they were. You mean you have to actually pay to do that? you are asked. The euphoria was palpable, and it lasted a long time, a thrill ride that was certainly worth the $25. What kind of rush could ever equal that? I wondered.

Later, I wrote an article about the experience for the sports section of my college newspaper, and the one phrase that sticks out, extracted for the headline, was "a kaleidoscope of color," which, looking back was kind of a sophomoric redundancy. I was, after all, a sophomore, and I was reaching for some kind of passage that obviously eluded my descriptive abilities. One fact not noted in that piece: I was an illegal, underage, having turned 20 just a week earlier, and I had forged the parental consent form. The waiver warned about the possibility of serious injury or death and absolved the drop zone operators of any liability. I knew that this was one form my parents would never sign.

On the ground, I was greeted by my close friend from grade school, Richard Aberman, who had traveled from Hobart College in Geneva to visit that weekend, only to be roped into witnessing what he thought was a foolish act of bravura. Informally, before the jump, I had willed to him my white Rambler American and my cheap stereo, my entire estate. It was only half in jest. I think he expected me to survive, whereas I wasn’t so certain. He must have asked me what it was like, and this likely prompted his curiosity (he later made a jump himself). I don’t remember what I said. But it had to have been something appropriately juvenile and hyperbolic. This was a feeling that was better than sex, potentially addictive. I was soon to enter this pleasure dungeon for a very long stay, about to experience how habit-forming parachuting could become. I just opened my psyche and let it happen. I had to repeat the fix.

Ten days later, I bought a used parachute for $35, a lime green military canopy with the apex dyed in gold, "modified for sport;" that is, it was clunky and it had a couple of patches, but you could steer it. It was like the VW Beetle (with a few dents in the fender) of canopies. It got you down, and kept you out of the trees, mostly. The guy who ran the drop zone brokered the sale. He explained that the jumper who owned it was dropping out of the sport (he hadn’t intended the pun, I’m sure); the guy hadn’t been around in months. This lapsed skydiver was nicknamed Sodomite, and he was a member of a loose cadre of skydivers who called themselves LAGNAF. I could jump the rig, and if I didn’t like it, back out of the deal. Try before you buy. I figured if it opened, what was not to like? If it didn’t work, I said, then the deal was off. He gave me a crude laugh; he’d heard that one only about a dozen times.

After the article about my first jump appeared on the back page of the Syracuse University student newspaper, The Daily Orange, the first girl I ever slept with, a freshman, sent me a postcard. It had but one sentence, "So how was the second one?" She apparently knew. (One thing I can say with certainty. The fear and anxiety over my first sexual event was probably about the same as my first parachute jump. The latter, however, had a better payoff. Yes, it did.)

Thus began a 13-year odyssey of small, country airports around the United States, France, and Canada, weekend relationships with many interesting and occasionally strange and manic characters, who lived for the weekends alone, lived for a lust to make dramatic leaps through the atmosphere amid the clouds. For at least a few years in my early twenties, I was very near what might be termed a skydiving bum. In all, I made 849 jumps, earned an expert license and jumpmaster rating, competed in various skydiving events, made a number of group jumps where minor milestones were claimed, and threw myself out of 24 different kinds of aircraft — including dangling from the strut of a hovering helicopter.

I jumped at night and into a lake, (but not on the same jump); I jumped naked and into a nudist camp (but not on the same jump); I parachuted into a number of weddings; I jumped for hire, too, into more pig roasts and firemen’s and VFW cookouts and country clubs than I can remember, including a fancy cocktail party in the Hamptons on Long Island, and a night jump at a luau on the beach. I was also a skydiving slut. I’d do almost anything for a free jump.

I spent six hours in free fall, perhaps another 50 hours floating to earth under an open canopy, which is remarkable when you consider that the farthest most people fall is probably out of bed or off a ladder or off a mogul while skiing. Maybe a couple of seconds at a time, a total of 20 or 30 seconds in a lifetime?

On two occasions, my main parachuted failed, requiring the use of the reserve. This is a big test, the final exam you fear and hope all the training you had prepared you well. And yes, if you hang around drop zones long enough, death eventually will make an unscheduled visit. It is an intrusion that you are always prepared for and yet are never quite expecting. Sometimes it visits someone you know, a casual weekend acquaintance, and sometimes it’s an intimate friend. Sometimes the fatality has a rote cause, or a long complex explanation, and other times, it is a matter of lousy luck. Either way, these are hard funerals, and you make a silent pledge to the deceased to get back upstairs as quickly as possible.

One of my friends, a Southern writer and novelist who lives in Mobile, Alabama, suggested I try to write about this sport that I loved for so long. He had mentioned that it had all the earmarks of the themes that form the foundations of literature. Love, sex, death, interesting characters. A lurid reputation, deserved or not. I told him I’d tried in the past on a number of occasions and had come up with nothing but clichés and shaky prose. The sport just reeks of its own excitement, accompanied by a smugness among its practitioners. The result was an overcooked stew, shrouded in the conventions of the skydiver. Eavesdrop on a drop zone, any temple of parachuting activity. The lingo is not much different from any other sports cult. Skydivers get stoked, too, all the time. The dialect is different, and it’s always evolving.

I should note right away that a skydiver cannot be killed in a parachuting accident. He "augured in" or "bought the farm" or just "bought it." These expressions have their origins with military aviators and airborne paratroopers. Today’s practitioners prefer to think the ultimately botched jump meant that the victim "creamed in" or "bombed in" or "hammered in" or just plain "went in." If a skydiver "bounced," well, there is a reason such a verb has made it into the common usage. Skydivers have their crude and rotten and graphic euphemisms for death by parachute, just like any other sect. I think I know why. It comes under the rubric of humor as the only real psychological mechanism for survival. Jumpers are generally a kind-hearted group of people, even incredibly warm, but they are stoic and realistic. Like most of us, they would rather laugh. They cry but not at funerals.

Skydiving certainly comes under the heading of "extreme" sports, though while I was active, the term hadn’t yet come into vogue. It did not even occur to me until I’d read an article about America’s new proclivity for such risk-taking in the International Herald Tribune in the summer of 2001, while returning from a holiday in Spain. The quote that struck me was from a 34-year-old woman who was a regular extremist in a number of activities, including skiing, mountaineering, and ice climbing, among others. She was lamenting the cavalier use of the word extreme by the MTV-Gatorade generation. We’ve been inundated by the fairly tame "X-Games" and the "Gravity Games" on cable TV, featuring trick bicyclists and in-line skaters in baggy shorts. "I get annoyed with the general public’s perception of extreme where they look at a skateboard or a taco and go, ‘That’s extreme,’" she concluded. "I just laugh at that. True extreme sports are if you screw up, you die."

She is correct. Extreme, I’ve since discovered, has various gradations. Surfing is not normally extreme, but racing down the face of a 30-foot wave at Maverick’s near Half Moon Bay certainly looks pretty hairy. Downhill ski racing at speeds up to 90 mph? Extreme, no question about it. Solo rock climbing? If you’ve ever seen mountaineering footage of Alain Robert, the famed French free climber, on the face of sheer walls wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts, you know this is beyond extreme. This is insane.

On the other hand, bullfighting has a long, occasionally gruesome history, mostly at the expense of the bulls. I do not buy it as an extreme sport, though matadors are gored all the time. Much has been written about this glorious and beautiful ritual by authors with far greater command of the language than I can ever hope to attain. I won’t argue with their interpretation of its grand tradition. But watching a few bullfights on television during the Festival of San Fermin during that trip to Spain, I thought it was no more interesting than a televised golf tournament. No more dangerous either. That the odds are so stacked against the beasts does nothing to intrigue me.

So what are the odds that you will die jumping out of an airplane? In the last 11 years for which statistics are available (1990 through 2000), an average of between 31 and 32 people die each year in the U.S. Some 3.2 million jumps are made annually, which means that the worst-case scenario occurs about once every 100,000 jumps. This is the cold analysis after the fact and pretty good odds indeed. Only actuaries are interested in these numbers. Most skydivers do not think about the odds, but they understand the risks.

Skydiving in any form is extreme, trust me. Today’s parachutists are somewhat more extreme than those in my era. (And we were pretty extreme.) A group formation reached a world-record 300 skydivers on December 12, 2002. These jumps are known as mega-blots or big-ways or just plain blots. Skydivers now routinely "fly" head down, sitting down, standing up, at greater free fall speeds, they strap boards to their feet and whirl around like gymnasts while video cameramen, free falling nearby, document their performances (called "sky surfing"). "Freestyle" skydiving is the sport’s equivalent of performance art, and there are plenty of new adherents, solo or with others.

The latest fad is "pond swooping," where jumpers compete in various events by flying their chutes across small bodies of shallow water. It is causing a new breed of fatalities — sudden turns just off the ground, or collapsed canopies causing violent impacts. Skydivers now regularly jump off buildings, bridges, and mountains with abandon. Sometimes with reckless abandon and at considerably greater risk than anyone who jumps at higher altitudes from conventional aircraft. Dangerous? Indeed.

As early as 1965, a stuntman named Rod Pack jumped without a parachute — he was handed one in free fall by another skydiver — and the jump was recorded on film for Life magazine. The Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, which requires two parachutes for any intentional jump, was not amused. This was the ultimate in temptation, the zenith of outlaw jumping for its time. Today, the art of free fall has been conquered -- indeed, mastered — so that stunt could easily be duplicated without much risk by a skydiver of average ability. But there are always new mountains to leap from, and hence, there are always more dangerous challenges. And those who seek them.

My writer friend said that he’d mentioned to someone at a cocktail party in Mobile that I had jumped out of airplanes. The guy responded that it sounded "dreadfully fascinating or fascinatingly dreadful." He couldn’t quite decide. That was such a glib yet interesting reply, Gothic and truthful, sly and ambiguous. You could almost see him rattling the ice in his glass of whiskey as he contemplated what skydiving meant.

Does it qualify as one of the ultimate dances with death? Does it fit somewhere in the grand design?

It is something more than he speculated, I assure you. Skydiving has all the colors in the spectrum. It has all the emotions that one can hope to experience in a life. Some measure of controlled fear, joy under pressure. Physically challenging — it takes a degree of athleticism to jump skillfully — and mentally tortuous. S&M of the mind. It is a constant test of your body and your soul and your psyche -- your very being. It is existential. It is about freedom, individual and collective freedom. Occasionally, I found it blissfully relaxing, if you found the right people and the right setting and the right time of day, usually the morning light with the dew still on the grass. Or the orange sunset load on a mild summer evening. Skydiving also has a fraternal order that might equal the kinship of soldiers in battle. Skydivers routinely trust their lives to each other every time they exit the plane together. I always felt the bond was unique. It carries over on the ground, and it lasts until death.

For skydiving to be a sport you have to get over the fear, and while the fear continues to diminish as you become more practiced, it’s impossible to eliminate completely. Like a limit in calculus, where two lines on a graph approach each other but never touch. You can reach a point where you almost overcome it, but you never truly ever get over it. It is always in a small corner of your thoughts, even though you quantify the risk and consider yourself rational and safe. A parachutist of renown, Cheryl Stearns, would attest to this. Stearns, an accomplished airline pilot, has made14,000 skydives, and she has more than 20 U.S. titles and has been a world champion. She was asked about fear. "It's there," she said. "It's a little thing on my shoulder that keeps me from doing stupid things."

Of course, to enjoy the sport, or to compete in it, ultimately you cannot be afraid of the most dire penalty, or have this fear creep too far into the slip stream of your imagination. Your brain has a divided loyalty on every jump. The maneuvers and enjoyment portion in one area, and the risk-of-death, what-to-do-in-an-emergency part in another. You try and separate them as much as you can, but despite your best efforts to form a neural chasm between church and state, they commingle a little, especially during long, prosaic plane rides to altitude. As you log more jumps, the pleasure part dominates the fear part, of course, but the second part never entirely disappears, no matter how "easy" or safe the jump is. The fear is always within easy reach of your consciousness. Just as Cheryl Stearns implied.

The possibility of death looms on any given jump, but it’s not going to happen to you. Otherwise, why would you ever get in the plane? When you gain experience in the air, and you're with other seasoned skydivers, the macho factor begins to appear. There are always jumpers who horse around in the plane, singing and jostling with their fellow leap mates. I wondered whether the vocal ones, the guys who joked, "boogie till you bounce," especially in front of the ground hogs, the spectators, were ever afraid. Were they really so confident, or were their comments meant to disguise their fear? My idea of arrogance — confidence? -- never went beyond, "See you on the ground." A little humility always made me slightly afraid. And I always thought slightly afraid made one think more clearly. Better to have a few butterflies fluttering within your gut.

Perhaps the most dangerous period in a skydiving career is between 50 and a 100 jumps. In fact, there is a name for it — the 90-jump wonder. It isn’t going to happen to me, you think, even if you just watched somebody with a lot of jumps hammer in. There is a point on the learning curve where you’re likely to be just comfortable enough to become sloppy with some of the tiny details that can begin a disaster. Your instructor hasn’t been double-checking your gear for some time at this point. You leave "Did I forget something?" and enter the realm of "Did I forget to remember whether I forgot something?" Couple that with a certain youthful demeanor, when taking chances seems as natural as cutting class. Of this, I flirted with more danger than I like to remember or care to admit. At 20 or 21 years old, especially for men (but not exclusively), I think, there is a sense that everything is a possibility and one’s mortality is simply an abstract. If there is death in the air, you cannot smell it or sense it, or if you do, then you don’t care to acknowledge it. Skydiving is exhilarating, a vapor trail of thrills into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. There is a heady feeling that you’re invulnerable. This is why an experienced parachutist does not protest very much when a novice thinks of him as a sky god.

Of course, jumpers with thousands of leaps die, as well, every year. And an unknowledgeable person might conclude that fate was tempted one time too many. But this is fallacious thinking, like assuming the odds on the roll of a dice change depending on what happened on the last roll. It is possible to be a thousand- or two-thousand jump wonder, too. I’ve always liked the anonymous airman’s adage: "There are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots." Perhaps the same can be said of skydivers.

I recall an old greeting card I received one Christmas, though from whom I cannot remember. It featured a photo of seven or eight skydivers in free fall, linked together. It was made late in the day, and the formation was passing alongside a group of cumulus clouds, with the sun blinking through them, spraying I-beam-like shadows. The picture is so captivating, so magnetic. You’re thinking, that’s a nice place to be. The caption read, "Peace Is Where You Find It."

There is something quasi-religious or spiritual about skydiving, I suppose, perhaps because you practice this sport in that great void between heaven and earth. There is certainly some adhesion to faith. Faith that the equipment will function properly, faith that you can handle whatever situation arises, and faith in the skill and safety of others in free fall. I may be reaching here, I confess. Plenty of agnostics and atheists jump out of planes. But the older one gets, the more one reflects about these things. Here’s a curious contrast: I never saw a skydiver cross himself before a jump, yet you see this all the time at home plate in major league baseball.

Skydiving can be explained with basic math and physics, of course. I used to do this when I tried to convey what actually happens to a falling human body in a controlled position. But the weird science is what attracts the curious. A skydiver compresses time and space. Other than the gear itself, and a platform to leap from, be it fixed or moving, gravity and the clock are the two most critical components of every skydive. Because there is little time for contemplation, and the act itself is so short, the data processing that goes on in one’s brain occurs at light speed. Micro-time really, because you are condensing the essence into small clicks on the stop watch. And when you land on the ground you sum up all the joy and fear and mental chaos into a couple of lines in a log book. The fragments of the terror and the excitement rattle around your memory, and sometimes appear in your dreams.

* * *

In writing this memoir, I’ve had the help of my logs, four small volumes of diaries that are a formal record of my parachuting experiences. (I was surprised to discover that I still have my "first jump certificate." To show my grandchildren what a daredevil I was?) A dollop from an entry, a single word or phrase, a date, the weather, prompted my memory of wonderful or harrowing events — sometimes both at the same time -- that took place many years ago. And when these recalled moments were a bit fuzzy, I’ve tried to recreate them so they were as accurate as possible. This is not a new literary technique, of course.

At the beginning of his Paris memoir, "A Moveable Feast," Ernest Hemingway wrote, "If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact." This was a disclaimer about his recollection of certain events, and also a challenge to the reader to try and discover what he disguised or made up. When one reads that book, it is an exercise to search the prose for the pure fiction. I’ve recently found instances where I am certain he created or exaggerated a story because the actual event just wasn’t as good.

Jump stories, like others, are more refined when the teller of such tales has enough distance to reflect, and perhaps even to exaggerate and yet still impart the truth. Most of the characters in this book are still alive, and the names are real. But I did not want to cause any discomfort to anyone still alive, so in some cases, I’ve slightly altered the stories as a matter of discretion.