Skydiving over Monterey, CA, May 16, 2004:
Chris Kostman and Brandon Bruce

Photos by Chris Kostman / AdventureCORPS
Tandem Partner, Steve Rafferty. FULL STORY BELOW.

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This was one of those opportunities that just presented itself and couldn't be missed. Brandon is a veteran of our Furnace Creek 508 race and a regular participant in our Planet Ultra double centuries. He and his girlfriend Tricia Mein came up from Santa Barbara to volunteer at the JDRF Ride to Cure Diabetes on Saturday, May 15, an event for which AdventureCORPS handles all of the operations. They ran the Fort Ord checkpoint all day and did a great job of it. Saturday night, Brandon invited me to go skydiving with him; he had a gift certificate burning a hole in his pocket for two to go tandem-skydiving. This is where the untrained, unexperienced, and unknowing are cinched onto the body of a very experienced skydiver and then they jointly hurl themselves out of a plane, freefall, then descend together on a parachute.

I have a very significant fear of heights, but I just knew I had to do this. So I did.

We went over to Sky Dive Monterey Bay at the Marina airport, signed or initialed a legal waiver about twenty times, then sat down to watch a video. Was it about how to do this safely? Nope! It was a video with the inventor of tandem skydiving, a guy with the beard and demeanor of a member of ZZ Top, explaining the meaning of the waiver we just signed!

After that, our tandem partner, Steve Rafferty, explained how it would work. How we'd fly up to 15,000 feet, open the sliding Plexiglas door of the plane, how we would dangle our feet out the side of the plane, how we'd lean forward and our whole body would be sticking out the side of the plane, going ninety miles an hour. Then how, a few seconds later, Steve, who was strapped to us right behind us, would shove us off into the void. We'd freefall for about a minute, then he'd pull the chute and we'd fall from the sky for about five minutes.

We had to wait for the sky to clear, so that gave us time to consider all this. Steve also spent a lot of time talking about staying in the moment, breathing, soaking it all in, and just enjoying the whole experience. He's my kind of human being: capable, insightful, helpful, encouraging.

So I have to say, Steve Rafferty is one of the nicest people I've ever met and he made me feel incredibly comfortable with what we were doing. I recommend him highly to anyone interested in this opportunity.

Brandon went first and we went over to the landing zone to see him and Steve, and a few other skydivers who were also squeezed into the plane, touch down. It was neat to see the parachutes way up there, but quickly and steadily plunging right down to us. They executed a perfect landing (about like stepping off a curb or a step; there was no running or slamming into the ground) and Brandon gave a full approval of the whole experience. Smiles all around.

Next it was my turn. Steve had another parachute waiting in the van, so he put that on and we got into the plane with one other skydiver. Off and up we went. After we'd climbed a bit, and it looked like we were really high, Steve said we were at 2,500 feet. In other words, we would be six times higher before we jumped! As we continued ascending, Steve told me about his profound gratitude at having his job, how he'd jumped over 9,000 times, how he'd had the privilege of taking people in their 80s, quadriplegics, blind people, and terminally ill cancer patients with him on jumps.

The other skydiver in the plane jumped at 11,000 feet and that's when my fear of heights hit me. He disappeared out that door so quickly (since we were going 90 miles an hour) and the door was just wide open, right next to me. Ugh!

But Steve reassured me and I kept taking deep breaths, and the plane climbed higher and higher. Next my teeth starting chattering. Then they alternated chattering with grinding. I kept breathing deeply, knowing that this would all be real in just a few minutes.

And real it was! Putting on gloves and goggles (I otherwise just wore sweat pants and sweat shirt, which was fine). Opening the plexiglass door. Swinging my legs out the door and tucking them under the plane. Being slid out the door until the wind was slamming into me from head to toe.

And then poof: out the door we went. As instructed, my hands were crossed across my chest, mummy-style. (I know that posture: I'm an archaeologist.)

We plunged. The wind pounded. I breathed over and over in rapid succession, sort of like a woman in labor. I saw the world from 15,000 feet, unobstructed, nothing but air between me and the entire world below. The view stretched from Big Sur to the southwest to beyond Santa Cruz in the northwest, to Soledad in the southeast, and almost to the Central Valley in the east and San Jose in the north. It was incredible, to use too weak a word.

I was plunging towards the ground at 120 mile an hour.

And that was just the first few seconds!

Then Steve gave me the pat on my shoulders to tell me to stretch my arms out wide, like a proper skydiver. And so I did, the thought in me coming immediately, "Here I am, arms open wide. I'm all yours. And you're all mine!"

It was a moment of massive sensory bombardment.

It was a metaphor for taking chances, trusting in the universe, and trusing in others, taking a leap in life, fears be damned.

I was living the metaphor and I knew it, embraced it.

We plunged towards the ground. I hooted and hollered a few times, but could just barely hear myself over the roar of the wind, the wind generated not by actual wind itself, but by two bodies falling through air at 120.

And then I felt our horizontal position shift hard upwards. I felt Steve holding my head in his hands. I felt the pressure of the wind that had been pushing up against my entire body subside and be replaced by the pull of the straps around my shoulder and legs.

And then it was calm, dead calm, peaceful calm.

Steve pulled my goggles off, asked me how I was.

And we just sat there, mid-air, seeing the world about us in yet another way.

Steve asked me to literally stand on his feet, so that he could adjust the straps around my legs. I was feeling my fear of heights again at this point and didn't really want to do this, but I complied.

And down we plunged.

Let me tell you, the ground comes up quickly. Those five minutes of floating beneath a giant parachute went by in no time at all.

But I breathed and looked around and enjoyed it and was just so happy.

So happy that Brandon invited me to do this. So happy that Steve Rafferty made it possible, almost comfortable, for me to do this. So happy that I am alive and able-bodied and surrounded by wonderful people, people like the diabetes riders from Saturday and all their supporters, people like my family and friends.

And down we plunged, the ground whooshing up towards us.

I knew we'd come down quickly, because I'd seen Brandon and other guys land just a half hour before. It was actually shocking how quickly they came down, yet touched down so lightly.

And so we did.

In fact, the landing zone has a PVC pipe square on the ground about 18" across. We came down and landed with my feet right inside the 18" square, if you can believe it.

Smiles all around: me the first-timer grinning and awed, Steve, the rugged veteran of over 9,000 jumps smiling just as broadly, Brandon and Tricia smiling back.


Thank you, universe!

- Chris Kostman

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