(Ed.–Since posting Elizabeth’s recounting of her and Caroline’s skydiving — The Coolest Thing I’ve Ever Done — I have been told by at least a half dozen folks about experiences they had that were similar. This morning, I found the following in my email, written by long time friend Leslie Lierman.)
“I want to thank Beth for sharing her story! I have not shared the details of this
experience with many and even though few may read through it, it was fun for me to relive it and capture the story if even for my own amusement.”
Singing in the Sky
By Leslie Lieman
I have lots of wonderful memories of doing things with my dad. He liked to “chalk things up to experience.” I learned later in life that he would do a tremendous amount of research and pre-planning to make sure the activity was safe, but as far as I was concerned – off we went. This included skiing once a year in jeans and whatever socks we owned (no chilly-brand thermals, wool socks or goggles) to spelunking (cave exploring) to hiking Mt. Katahdin to canoeing around the island of Manhattan (lots ofstudy about the tides in Hell’s Gate) to a houseboat trip up the locks to Lake Champlain and more. Needless to say, I grew up knowing that there were some experiences worth
doing at least once.
He had mentioned at one point that he would like to go skydiving or in a hot-air balloon, but as a father of four, he drew the line – or my mother did, and we never did it.
So when I saw a sign posted at college for skydiving, I did not hesitate. Back in the late 70’s kids were not in touch with their parents as they are today. I did not speak with my parents often, but I knew no matter what, this was not information I was going to share until I was done.
I did not try to convince anyone to join me, I knew they wouldn’t and I didn’t want to be talked out of it. I don’t remember the cost or the exact location. I did not do research. I knew nothing about the campus organizers of the activity or the planes. The only preparation I did repeatedly was to step over a seam in a sidewalk and say, “This is land – this is air,” and then take a step. My heart raced as I thought about it, but when the morning arrived, I just got on a yellow bus from the Binghamton University campus and took a long drive to somewhere with flat space, a barn and cornfields on the side.
Yes. I had my father’s love for “chalking up experiences,” but I did not have one adult ounce of pre-planning and safety research in my 19 year-old mind. [I know my 21 and 18-year old kids are going to have a field day with this!]
It was a Saturday. We trained for five hours for one jump. In the barn we were hooked to large bungee cords that hung from the ceiling with a large net below and were “let go” from the ceiling so that we would get the feel of falling. We learned that the heaviest part of our bodies was from our chest to our head. Thus, to prevent nose-diving when we first “jumped” from the plane, we would need to spread our arms and our legs out and thrust our chests forward. This would also mean we would not tangle up in the parachute and it would open easily from our backs – an important consideration. We practiced the specific move to open a parachute, but on this first jump we would be tied to a ripcord just in case we missed the move in time. As I recall, in 1979, there was a recommendation of five jumps with a ripcord before jumping without it.
Outside the barn we learned how to “hit the ground” by not looking at our feet and collapsing our legs so they crumpled under us. The bodily injuries we were likely to suffer were made crystal clear if we did not follow this direction. We practiced by jumping off the top of a refrigerator to the ground below. We were told the impact would feel like jumping from the height of 11 feet. The refrigerator was not that high.
Our small college contingent was joined by a large group of other people, so much of the time we were each waiting for others to finish various turns. My brain was on overdrive. I was going to do everything EXACTLY as taught. I was going to be the perfect student – my life depended on it. I was listening carefully to everyone else’s instructions and corrections and incorporating them into my “perfect jump”. I was going to land bulls-eye in the middle of the large sand circle designed for landing. I listened to every instruction and practiced every scenario over in my mind.
We were divided into groups of five to six people and taken up into a small plane. I was in the 3rd or 4th group, which gave me a chance to watch the others land before it was my turn.
We were all standing outside the barn around a large circle of sand. An instructor was in the middle of the sand circle with a bullhorn. We looked into the sky and waited. Then I saw the parachute and the first jumper! The man on the bullhorn shouted, “If you hear me, kick your feet.” Sure enough the little figure in the sky, kicked. The man on the bullhorn shouted, “Pull your left toggle” or “pull your right toggle” to help guide the person to a sand landing. He missed, but got up happily and excited. The man with the bullhorn was already calling to the next person in the sky to help guide them down.
By the way, these parachutes were dome-shaped with two large oval holes in the back. You traveled at six miles per hour forward assuming there was no wind. If you pulled the “toggle” or rope on your left shoulder, you curved to the right and vice-versa. There was a big windsock at the top of the barn so that you could see the direction of the wind. Obviously, if the wind was traveling five miles per hour and you were going 6 miles an hour with the wind… well, you can imagine the impact that would have on your landing. I understood the math and the potential effect to our bodies perfectly. Yes, I remember all these details 32 years later.
At one point, the man with the bullhorn was shouting for the person to kick his feet if he heard the bullhorn, but the little figure in the sky made no movement. Usually the calls on the bullhorn were casual, even playful, but this time he repeated his commands in succession trying to get the person’s attention. Still no response. As the person came into clearer view, although still far away, I realized it was the largest gentleman on the trip. I was the smallest person on the trip and was in decent shape and here was this big man floating over us, floating over the road and power lines, and clearly missing the sand pit. We saw activity from the barn as people ran towards the cornfields.
The man on the bullhorn just shifted his attention to the next person in the sky.
I think the organizer of our college expedition landed in the sand. Lots of applause.
We learned the big man broke his leg and did not see him again.
When it was my turn to gear up, they had trouble finding me a suit and boots that fit. It was the first time I got a little worried. Although I had signed away my life on the dotted line, no one had put up a measuring stick or scale to say I was too small to do this. But what if I was? I galumphed towards the plane and was ready to do this. The metal steps that were lowered from the plane did not reach the ground. With all the gear on, I could not lift my leg high enough to reach the first step. Literally, two men grabbed me on either side and chucked me onto the floor of the plane. The thought, “I’m too small,” again crept into my conscience.
We were all sitting on the floor of the plane. We were all excited and eager to take our turn. We flew with the side of the plane open. I watched as the people in front of me sat in the open doorway next to the instructor who was looking out the opening and telling the person when it was time to jump. Jump was a relative term, as none of us actually jumped from our feet out the open door, but rather scooted off our butts in a sitting position out the door. There was a small window of opportunity for a person to take a jump and if they did not leave the plane, it would mean the plane would need to circle around again to that general location (which the pilot did not want to do).
My turn. I scooted to the opening. My mind was alert – I am going to be the A+ student who thrusts my chest forward, free falls perfectly, acts to pull the parachute cord in good time and toggles my way to the bulls-eye. The instructor took my ripcord and hooked it to the plane. I sat on the edge, but had trouble moving my legs off the opening of the plane. Why would we do this if our brains were working correctly? Mine was telling me there is no way you should put your legs out of this plane. The instructor told me there was a metal bar just outside that I could rest my feet on and use to propel me off the plane. All the training in the world did not prepare me for this moment. When I put my feet out of the plane, they did not reach the metal bar.
So what do you think happens to a pair of legs in over sized, heavy gear when they areput out a plane moving over 200 miles per hour? They flail and pull in the oppositedirection the plane is moving. They were pulling me out of the plane and now I was fighting hard to stay in. When my window of opportunity to “jump” came, I could not go… I could not shuffle my butt off the side… I know there was some conversation between the instructor and me. His hand was putting pressure on me. Was it gentle encouragement or a real shove, I do not know… but I was out of the plane.
Perceptions: If you are on a plane moving at over 200 miles per hour do you really know it is moving that fast? No, because you are too. But if you abruptly leave the plane, it takes off at 200 miles hour and is out of your view in seconds. With the air hitting my body and now the repeated notion that I was too small, I had the perception that I was moving equally as fast in the opposite direction of the plane. I was clearly too small and must have been picked up by the wind and was literally being blown away and would land somewhere in Canada. Before I could finish my thought, the ripcord jerked me 180 degrees from my nosedive (not one bit of grace in my position) and my parachute opened!
I was still traveling at a good speed, but it felt controlled and exhilarating. I of course chastised myself for not exiting the plane more perfectly, but they did not prepare us at all for that part of the journey. Ok. I am safe. Now check the parachute. Look up overhead and if the parachute is a perfect dome you are good. If there was some problem and it did not open properly (a “streamer” or a cord caught over the top), you would need to consider ejecting that parachute and opening the back-up. You would not have much time to make that decision. I was greatly relieved to see my parachute was a full dome.
Now. Look down to the earth for the red barn. Those were our instructions.
You know the satellite images of Google earth? Would you be able to find a red barn?
The earth was gorgeous. Green, beige, blue spots of water, slight topography. Were they grand lakes or ponds, I couldn’t tell from this distance. It was a view of the earth we all have come to take for granted, but in 1979 there were few images or opportunities to view our earth and sky this way. I did not recognize any landmarks, just took in the beauty.
I traveled a bit, still no red barn. No problem. I will just enjoy the ride and will wait to hear the man with the bullhorn ask me to kick my feet.
I sang at the top of my lungs and periodically looked for the red barn. I toggled a little left and right to test that they guided the parachute correctly.
I marveled at the beauty of the earth. Did I see the curve of the horizon? Yes, I think so.
I continued to sing.
I couldn’t wait to tell my Dad that I had “chalked up” this experience.
I loved every second of my trip down.
I looked for the barn a few times, but still to no avail.
I was getting to the distance that I thought I would hear the bullhorn. Features of the earth were coming into focus. I could see trees and houses.
I repeated all the instructions about landing. Watch the horizon, do not look at your feet… do not look down.
Then I heard the bullhorn. I heard, “You are going to have a long walk home.”
Upon reflection my parachute opened up perfectly, which meant I was traveling at 6 miles an hour forward. Since I did not toggle much throughout my trip, I was going one direction from the point of the plane down. I sung my way down the hypotenuse of the triangle between the plane, the sand circle and my landing place. A good landing would have needed a zig-zagger.
Okay. The landing. I’ve got this. I forced my eyes forward to “watch the horizon.”
I saw a row of trees go right under my feet, and ground came up rapidly and my legs perfectly crumpled below me as I slammed (thank goodness for the helmet) to the ground.
I laughed. I smiled. I was alive and thrilled. I didn’t care about my quarter mile walk back! When I lifted my head, I noticed I had landed just shy of a large puddle and in between two garbage dump piles – one of old mattress springs and the other of car parts. I couldn’t believe it. I smiled. Luck. Lucky. Life.
I folded my parachute as we were taught. And with an extra hop in my step, started the long walk back.
The only memento of this trip was a T-shirt. Long after college, when it was time to get rid of all my T-shirts, I decided to cut out the logos. I imagined someday I would sew them all together to make a quilt – a quilt that told a story of concerts or events or experiences I had and places I had visited. After writing this story, I went searching for it. I found a red swatch of cloth with the Seneca Sport Parachute Club logo in a bag that most people would think was stuffed with old rags.
Armed with the company name, I then went online to learn more about this parachuting club. The only mention of the club is a legal case written up in the New York Times magazine section in 1978, a year before my jump. Albert Wurzer, in Wurzer vs. Seneca Sport Parachute Club was allowed to sue for back injuries sustained after his jump despite the fact that he signed a waiver. It seems “signing on the dotted line” did not hold up in court. I also learned the cost of a “parachute lesson” was $50.00.