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Austin's Excellent Adventure

A fan of terra firma is goaded into skydiving, and the flight of the loony bird ensues

Last winter I survived my first parachute jump, no thanks to me. Afterward, when the cashier at Skydiving Adventures in Hemet, Calif., handed me a certificate, she said, "Everybody gets one." The document proclaimed: "I set aside man's traditional fears to experience a new dimension in life." A more truthful assertion would be: "I collapsed like a house of cards to peer pressure to experience abject terror and humiliation."

Though accustomed to living somewhat dangerously—if famished, I do not bother rinsing grocery-store produce; when driving on vacant highways, I sometimes forgo the use of turn signals—I have never harbored the least desire to skydive. Right up until the day before I stepped gingerly onto the itty-bitty platform welded to the Cessna's right wing, marshaling every iota of self-control to keep from screaming, "Mommy!" I had no intention of ever jumping out of a plane.

I was in California, enjoying a pleasant dinner with my brother-in-law, Greg Noyes, a shaggy, 28-year-old free-lance cameraman from Manhattan Beach. I was springing for the meal, so Greg had invited along his apartment-mate, Don Levine, who shares Greg's disinclination for refusing free food. Sometime after Don had asked me if he could order a "couple desserts," I asked Greg and Don what was on the next day's agenda. I was thinking in terms of sunscreen and sand.

"We've got something in mind a little less passive," said Greg.

"A bit more exciting," added Don.

"That must be the kind of snappy one-two dialogue that makes you guys the most eligible bachelors in Manhattan Beach," I said. These two couldn't pick up girls with tranquilizer darts and a forklift, and all three of us knew it. "Mind telling me what you're talking about?"

"We're going skydiving," said Greg. "You're perfectly welcome to join us."

Having determined that they were serious, I told them, "Thanks but no thanks." I blustered something about it being a bad idea to "tempt fate."

But the words rang false. If I was that concerned about tempting fate, I wouldn't live in New York City, where I've survived three mugging attempts and—more harrowing—six sessions of Opera in the Park.

"You could always come along and just watch," Greg suggested. "No one would have to know you wussed out of the adventure of a lifetime." It was his way of promising to phone all of our friends and tell them just that, the instant he touched down.

They picked me up at five the next morning. We then picked up Beverly McGrath, a coworker of Don's who seemed preternaturally calm about the prospect of her first jump. The four of us headed for Hemet, 60 miles east of L.A. Upon arrival, we noted approvingly that the grounds of Skydiving Adventures were well kept and free of wreckage and suspicious maroon stains.

Our first duty was to view an introductory video. On tape a lawyer assured us that no matter what grisly mishap befell us, suing Skydiving Adventures would only add to our suffering. Ah well, we had come this far: We signed our lives away and then met our instructor, Don Balch, the founder of Skydiving Adventures.

Balch is a commercial pilot and the veteran of 6,500 jumps. We wouldn't be real sky divers like him, he told us, until we jumped solo. For today's tandem jump, each of us would be harnessed with an instructor who was trained to handle emergencies. Said Balch, "If you forget to pull your rip cord and the instructor has to do it for you, you owe us a case of beer."

The most important thing to remember, Balch emphasized—short of pulling one's rip cord—was "holding a hard arch," i.e., arching your back with arms and legs extended. Said Balch, "Occasionally a student assumes a position we call the Catman." He performed a splendid impersonation of a cat flung from a second story window. "If you do the Catman," Balch continued, "you will go for a trip we call Mr. Toad's Wild Ride."

We found this quite droll, until Balch elaborated. At the beginning of a tandem jump, the instructor unleashes a drogue, a small parachute that stabilizes and slows a sky diver during the free-fall. "If you do the Carman and those drogue lines start wrapping," Balch warned, "you'll end up in a headline tomorrow, for sure."

If we did the Catman and lived? That was easy. "You owe us a case of beer."

We would exit the aircraft at 10,000 feet. After four seconds in the hard arch position, we would assume a modified arch. We were to periodically check the altimeters strapped to our chests. After approximately 35 seconds of free-fall (at 174 feet per second), we would pull our rip cords. Then we would look up and tell our instructor the color of our parachute. It all seemed so elementary—as we sat in our folding chairs on terra firma.

Next, Balch reviewed our equipment: bodysuits, helmets, goggles, altimeters. He was a stickler for keeping the gear clean. "If any of these items touch the ground..."

We finished for him.

"Very good," he said.

Balch produced a large aerial photograph of the surrounding area. He pointed out the proper landing site and explained hazards we needed to avoid: an 1,100-foot mountain, a drainage ditch and high-voltage wires that bordered the field. Balch's presentation was crisply military; the only thing it lacked was one of those wooden pointers with a rubber tip. I had an inkling, during his instruction, of how it must have felt to be one of the Dirty Dozen. I looked with added fondness at my fellow divers, with whom I was beginning to feel a special bond.

Then Don, my erstwhile friend, bleated, "Mr. Baaaaalch, look—his goggles are touching the ground."

"Case of beer," Balch said to me. I considered sabotaging Don's chute.

We boarded the planes, Beverly and I in one, Greg and Don in another. It would take 15 minutes for the planes to reach the drop zone. We had been advised to use that time to review the morning's lessons and enjoy the view. This was impossible for me. I was crammed into the back of the Cessna with a man named George Foreman, who was not the George Foreman but nevertheless took up some room. I came to know George as Captain Video. With the camera that was affixed to his helmet, he would tape my descent.

"You got nothing to worry about," he said. "Last year there were 2.4 million jumps and just 23 fatalities." These statistics might have reassured someone less accustomed to beating long odds. For instance, though I live in a city of seven million, I regularly run into that fraction of acquaintances I least want to see. When a wager's not worth winning, I win it.

I felt nauseated.

Soon—entirely too soon—we were two miles high. My tandem instructor, a patient, kindly, consummate pro named Albert Champagne, asked if I could see the landing site. I nodded, but I was lying. Up front, Beverly could see the landing site just fine. She was nodding, smiling, giving the thumbs up. When her time came to bail out, she practically dragged Balch from the airplane.

Our turn. Albert and I scuttled toward the door. With my left hand—it was trembling, I am not ashamed to admit—I grabbed a strut, then swung my feet onto the plane's postage-stamp-sized, jumping-off platform. Albert commanded, "Go!" and we went.

Mine was a hard arch for the ages, a textbook hard arch, a hard arch that left me with a crick in my neck for three days. And it worked! We were face down, as Balch had promised. No Catman, no Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, no imminent doom for us! Just the euphoric, superhero sensation of free-fall.

But what's this? An intruder in our airspace! Albert, lock in photon torpedos!

Wait—it's O.K. It's Captain Video, with his tape rolling. We're live!

It's all there on the video, every damning second. I waved, grinned and whooped it up. Profoundly relieved to find myself not too terrified to mug for the camera, I went overboard with the "Look, Ma, no hands!" routine. I ignored Albert, who, after 10 seconds of this nonsense, pointed at my altimeter, which I might as well have left on the ground. Then he waved his hand in front of my face. Then he pointed at my altimeter again, then at my rip cord. As the video shows, I actually craned to look around his hand, into the camera. I actually pushed his hand away.

Next thing I knew, we were jerked heavenward with a whoompf, and Albert—who, miraculously, was not furious with me—asked, "What color is your parachute?"

"Yellow!" I yelled.

Although I had got this last bit right, shame washed over me. I had forgotten everything—to go into a modified arch, to check my altimeter, to pull my rip cord. I apologized profusely. I asked Albert, "Guess that happens all the time, right?"

"Well," he said politely, "it happens."

We beat everyone else to the ground by a hefty margin. Presently, Beverly and Balch floated into view, landing gracefully on their feet. Greg and his instructor came careening in, and Greg flared hard on the hand brakes, which tilted the canopy backward and made for another stand-up landing. Lastly, Don. I watched with deep satisfaction as he plowed up a small tract of earth with his nose. (He was O.K.)

The 10-minute ride to the airstrip, in the back of a truck, was a time for yet more bonding, as we rehashed our shared adventure. For me, the bonhomie dissolved shortly after. At the offices, Captain Video screened my disgracefully absentminded free-fall. Hooting and ridicule ensued. Albert's fellow instructors patted him on the shoulder sympathetically. Balch approached me.

"I know," I said. "A case of beer."

"Two," he corrected.

I shook hands with Balch, and he invited us all back. Right. Like I'm in a big hurry to cross the country, fork over another $145—not to mention beer costs—and subject myself to further embarrassment.

Truth is, I can't wait. And next time, I'll pull my own rip cord. I promise, Albert.



Our hero—the fellow with the What? Me worry? expression—has already forgotten about his rip cord.