“Dream as if you’ll live forever…
…live as if you’ll die today.” ~James Dean
Blue Skies, Black Death My Friend, Jimmy Horak.
This weekend was my “last” chance to skydive for probably a very long time. There is no sport jumping on Okinawa, and the jumping in Japan is expensive and a substantial airline flight away from where I will be living. Most of my skydiving while overseas will be during my international travels and visits home. So, in honor of this last ephemeral chance, a group of us traveled to a dropzone over in Mississippi that we visit often to partake in a full weekend of skydiving.
I have an adventurer’s heart, if not budget, and “discovered” skydiving quite by accident. I was in that post-separation-martial-destruction thousand-yard-stare-through-the-haze daze in 2005, on a business trip (from Okinawa, where I was stationed at the time) to Hawaii, and started thinking to myself. I was always interested in skydiving, and actually physically was seated on a parachute all those years I flew ejection seat-equipped aircraft in the Navy, but never seized the day to try a jump. My brother-in-law Harvey (who was airborne with the army back in the day) actually took me to ground school and was paying for a static line jump back when I was in high school (and my parents still don’t know, so let’s try and keep in that way!), but a low overcast prevented me from jumping. And, to be completely honest, there was always that nagging, annoying question rattling around my consciousness – could I actually do it?!? I can still remember the relief I felt when I wasn’t able to jump from the plane, especially after being in the open door fixated on the clouds one thousand feet below me. Besides, after truly falling in love with technical (decompression) scuba diving in Miami in 2001, and having the world-class reefs of Okinawa literally at my doorstep between 1999 and 2005, I didn’t need too much more.
Or so I thought.
So I take an excursion one day after a very light schedule of “work” to Dillingham airfield on the island of Oahu and sign up for a jump. I found the dropzone (DZ) amazing laid-back considering what they were doing. Having been overly-indoctrinated in the military’s ways, means and methods concerning high-risk activities and training, I’ll admit this was a welcome relief. And there were so many happy people. Truly joyful and glad, smiling directly from their eyes, complete with an infectious enthusiasm that seemed to be at once addictive and contagious. I make my jump, and – words have always and will always continue to fail me here – *WOW*. I literally could not stop smiling the rest of the day. Skydiving is the most exhilarating thing that I can contemplate, perhaps, besides spaceflight. The experience was a complete euphoric high that quite literally can come only from what I call “cheating death….” It is something that WUFOs – “what ‘foe you do that,” or, the what jumpers call any non-jumper – will never and can never fully grasp or begin to understand…until they too make that leap of faith.
I was hooked.
So I learned shortly upon changing duty stations from Okinawa to Pensacola in 2005. And Jimmy Horak was my instructor, and he was to most jumpers in the greater Pensacola area over the last decade or so. He also was my skydiving and instructor mentor. But more importantly be became my friend.
After 754 jumps, and 719 minutes and 50 seconds of free-fall, which, if you’re interested (and I am), that’s just ten frickin’ seconds short of 12 rounded hours of *REAL* flying during free-fall (and the coveted 12-hour free-fall award from the United States Parachute Assocation), each and every jump still makes me smile, beam, and giggle like a giddy boy and adrenaline-pumped man who…again…cheated death.
But what I didn’t count on in becoming an avid and regular skydiver was the *FAMILY* that would adopt and envelope me, and the one I would accept, gladly and gleefully, into my life. There is a certain bond, stout ties that bind that come from being a skydiver. There is a spontaneous camaraderie that connects skydivers, no matter their culture, country, or creed. I have traveled the world skydiving in foreign countries with foreigners foreign even to the country in which I jumped, and jumped with peoples of all types, shapes, and sizes. It is exactly the nearly instantaneously bonded brotherhood (and sisterhood) between skydivers which has become one of the more precious commodities in my own personal life. I simply can’t imagine my life without skydiving, but more-so and more to the heart of the matter, without my skydiver friends and family. In fact, the hardest part of leaving America for Japan this time around is leaving this facet of my family, a group of like-minded people who happen to share such a durable and lasting love of a communal sport.
In the jump plane at the two-minute warning prior to jump, we skydivers in the aircraft do all our last-minute checks of gear and cameras and whatnot, and then we do something habitual and ritualistic: we literally say “goodbye” to each other. Most people may think our gestures of swiping fingers of one hand against another’s and then fist-bumping as analogous to pretty much any other other type of sportsmanlike focusing of energy and/or celebration of achievement, and that’s true.
To a point. In a “sport” where bad things can happen (and happen fast) if you don’t act faster (and properly), skydivers know…and accept…that each jump could be their last. As much as we are saying “have a GREAT jump” to each other, we are also saying our goodbyes. Yet they are goodbyes full of excitement and impulsive smiles, goodbyes emoted by an undeniable comradeship.
I had a specific ritual with Jimmy, however. Since I am an “up-jumper,” and usually am doing group skydives that necessitates me exiting the aircraft early and often as the first group out, and since Jimmy is almost always doing a tandem or has a student as an instructor, both of which necessitate him leaving the aircraft almost last, we are seldom mutually arranged to where we can say a proper and physical goodbye. For some reason, years and years ago, I adopted a ceremonial goodbye that I do whenever Jimmy and I are on the same plane, and one I only do with Jimmy. I call out loudly and with some forcefulness, “JIMMY!!!” Jim would stop whatever he was doing (usually), and look at me with a smile. I would gesture a la Meet the Fockers mime of “I’m watching you” by taking two fingers of one hand, pointing to my eyes, then pointing to him, and repeating.. Sometimes he would respond in kind, sometimes he would say something that I could NEVER hear (he was too soft-spoken), but he would, without fail, smile in acknowledgement of our shared esprit de corps.
Living out loud through cheating death (my personal characterization mind you, not the community’s), however, sometimes comes at a terrible, almost intolerable,
and utterly incomprehensible price.
My friend, skydiving mentor, and fellow veteran did not survive a mishap this past weekend. The details of what went wrong and who’s to blame are all quite inconsequential; after his death was confirmed, the wind was literally taken from beneath my wings. And although I no longer had the euphoric desire to “cheat death” again during what was my last skydiving weekend in the states, and after telling everyone I was calling it a day and packing up for the drive home, I suddenly found an inner voice and strength telling me to make a jump. For and in honor of Jimmy. I felt Jim there telling me to “make the jump,” urging me on with his smile mentally impressed upon my mind’s eye.
I believe it is and what he wanted.
So I organized an impromptu memorial jump in honor of Jimmy. After we were ensured that the local news media van, camera and reporter were buttoned up and put away, eleven of us got together and briefed a very simple jump. And we brought our hands in and I spoke a for a couple minutes on behalf of Jimmy, for his skydiving family, that we all dream today like it’s your first, but live today like it’s your last. Because it very well might be. The commentary was short; most of us were too choked up to continue.
One of my most cherished pieces of prose to which I turn during trying times like these is Desiderata, by Max Ehrmann. It helped me immensely through my divorce, through some troubles early in my relationship with Jody, and oddly enough (and the clearer connection here), it showed up one day in the absolute last place I ever thought I would encounter it – my home Dropzone where I jumped most weekends with Jim. Dropzones simply are generally not known for their cerebral acumen, nor for very high EQ quotients. Seeing it there left adrift on the counter at manifest moved me in ways that no way, less Jody, probably can understand.
So, I leave my thoughts and reflections of my love for sport and Jim who made it all so very worthwhile, let alone possible, and with Desiderata in the hopes that it inspires you to contemplate, perhaps more deeply and a bit more sincerely, your own personal experience with a profound loss. And quite possibly you’ll find a small measure of charmed comfort at the same time.
You see, in the end, and even though it may not be clear to us, The Universe Unfolds How It Should…. The Desiderata:
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be critical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.