Good Lord Willing

There’s wisdom, and then there’s wisdom.

Back when I was working for Cottage Senior Living, I had the chance to interview a guy who was living at The Commons, the 55+ active-adult apartment community.

And while the gentlemen, Bill, was definitely in the 55+ category, he was also definitely in the active-adult category as well. Most notably, several years back, he had started skydiving for his birthday every five years. Most recently, he had jumped a couple of years ago for his 80th.

There were plenty more interesting parts to Bill’s story, like how he had built his own airplane or had the chance to fly a helicopter, and it made for a really good story for capturing the sort of people that might be interested in The Commons.

But as much as I loved meeting Bill and want to be like him when I grow up and loved his story professionally, the thing that really stuck with me was a story he told about his late wife.

One on of his skydiving adventures, he asked his wife to join him, and she agreed. She got all sorts of questions, he said, about whether she was too old and so forth.

What if something happens to you, people would ask her.

To which she would reply, “If that’s the way the Lord wants me to die, I’d better get up there and do it.”


Another Year Over, And A New One Just Begun

It’s hard to explain exactly how I felt, a mile in the air, at the moment I stopped falling toward the Earth at 176 feet per second.

When the parachute deployed and our descent slowed dramatically, the first thought to go through my head was, “OK, now I feel safe.”

But the thing is, there had not been a moment, leaving the plane or during the mile of freefall that I didn’t feel safe. I knew the chute would deploy; I knew I would be OK.

However, it was still a nice feeling when it did.

Welcome to my 2011.

That mile has been this year — a year when everything fell apart, sending me plummeting down at terminal velocity.

This, then, is faith: that while I’ll be glad when the parachute finally deploys, there’s never been a moment that I haven’t felt safe.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like to fall out of that plane without the parachute. But with the parachute, it was fun.

It would be easy to view this past year through the former filter; months of unchecked descent. But that’s the beauty of having the parachute — if there’s one thing I’ve learned working with NASA, it’s that in the right context, freefall can be kinda awesome.

When I look back on this year, there’s no question that the things I lost will stand out in my memory. But so will many many other things:

— I saw the last space shuttle launch ever in person.
— I went skydiving, twice.
— I experienced a long-standing goal of going to a Paul Simon concert, finishing my concert bucket list.
— Even if it’s still tied up in publishing limbo, I finished the manuscript of my (apparently cursed) second book.
— I fired an AK-47.
— I gave a lecture in the very cool Davidson Center theater at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.
— I went backpacking for the first time, and camped in sub-freezing conditions.
— I discovered that I have better and more awesome friends than I ever realized.
— I got to see the number-one team in the country beat my Ole Miss Rebels.
— I went (kinda) to Space Camp.

And all of that has been during “the worst months of my life.” Not bad, really.

I’m blessed. Beyond measure.

And while I would have preferred to have bill-paying employment, this season has given me the chance to do things I wouldn’t have or couldn’t otherwise.

I enjoy substitute teaching. I have loved working at the Depot. If I could make a living doing either, I would in a heartbeat. I’m looking forward to delving further into the world of Pampered Chef. I’ve made money lecturing and selling books and taking pictures and acting and teaching and freelance writing. And along the way, I’ve met some great people. There’s a lot to look forward to in 2012.

For years now, I’ve worn some variety of cross necklace. But in the last couple of months, I’ve substituted it occasionally for a souvenir of my first skydiving outing — a closing hook used on a parachute rig. I felt a little guilty at first replacing the cross with it, but realized that, ultimately, if a symbol of being willing to step out of an airplane without fear isn’t representative of what faith in God is all about, I don’t know what is.

Welcome to 2012. Enjoy the fall. I’ll see you on the ground.

Free Fallin’

I had the incredible opportunity to go skydiving again yesterday, and it was, once again, awesome. After my first experience, I received the very generous and much appreciated gift of a second Groupon, and so I wanted to go again as soon as possible.

I had two goals the second time around: I wanted, now that I knew the logistics of how it worked, to go again while all of that was still fresh in my mind to be able to focus more on the actual experience, and I wanted pictures under the parachute.

I had a photographer the first time during the dive, but since he was jumping with us he only got pictures of the free fall portion and the landing; none of the parachute portion of the descent. This time, my dad was kind enough to come with me and get pictures from the ground, and, as you’ll see, did an incredible job.

The picture at the top isn’t me, by the way, I went on Saturday and took some pictures of my friends the Thomsons and some other people just so that I could talk my dad through the best places to stand, etc., for my jump yesterday. The picture above is my favorite of the ones I took that day.

The ones below are what my dad took, starting with one right after we came out of the plane with the drogue chute deployed, and going through landing.

It was a somewhat different experience this time; at least as awesome but in a different way. I jumped with the same trainer, so I knew how he did things, but he also changed things up a bit since it was my second jump.

One goal we both had in common this time was that he also wanted me to relax more and focus on the experience. On the “downside,” it meant that my second jump didn’t have quite the same adrenaline rush that the first one did. I remember shaking a little while standing right after landing the first time; that wasn’t the case this time.

After we jumped this time Jamie turned us over so that we watched the airplane for a little bit before turning face-down again. At times I would close my eyes and just focus on feeling it, looking for an awareness of g-forces, but really the wind is all you’re aware of. Not as peaceful as other free-fall experiences I’ve had, but awesome in its own right.

Another diver stayed near us for a while, but then fell another half-mile after we opened our chute before deploying his. It was freaky watching from above as he plummeted to the ground; it gave me a perspective of the speeds involved that I didn’t have before.

The instructor did a bit more while we were under canopy this time, including some corkscrew turns, which were a lot of fun.

I’m hugely blessed that I got to go again and grateful for the opportunity, thankful to my dad for the pictures, the Thomsons for sharing their passion with me, Skydive Alabama for an incredibly professional operation and Jamie for being an awesome instructor

In case I haven’t mentioned it lately, it’s an incredible experience, and I highly recommend it.

Falling And Flying

Coincidentally, Groupon started running the same offer I bought this morning. Between now and Thursday night, you can buy a deal to go skydiving for less than half price! I strongly recommend it!

“Funny how falling feels like flying, for a little while.” — Bad Blake, “Crazy Heart”

“Never mind, hey, this is really exciting, so much to find out about, so much to look forward to, I’m quite dizzy with anticipation …
Or is it the wind?
There really is a lot of that now isn’t it?
And wow! Hey! What’s this thing suddenly coming towards me very fast? Very very fast. So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide sounding name like … ow … ound … round … ground! That’s it! That’s a good name – ground!
I wonder if it will be friends with me?” — Douglas Adams, “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I’d been working for NASA a little over half a year when I took my first business trip with the agency. I’d only flown three times in my entire life at that point, the first when I was too young to remember it. So I was a little nervous. Not scared, just nervous.

As a result, I prayed wholeheartedly as we were preparing to take off, and then again as we were preparing to land. Praying for safely, commending my soul, praying for those who loved me, and so forth.

Over the years, I’ve become a little more confident, and, while I still pray both prayers any time I fly, they’ve evolved to three words each — “Lord, safe flight” and “Lord, safe landing.”

It was very weird Saturday being in an airplane, saying “Lord, safe flight” and realizing that I wouldn’t be in the plane still for landing. OK, that’s different.

This, then, is my skydiving story.

I’ve been thinking about going for quite a while, almost two years now. I tried on and off last year to get someone to go with me. Then, earlier this year, Groupon ran a half-price deal that needed to be used by the end of the year.

My friends Henry and Cydney Thomson said they were going this past weekend, so I decided I’d waited for the perfect time long enough, and it wasn’t getting any more perfect than that.

We met at Skydive Alabama early that morning, and I went through the brief training. I was going to be doing a tandem dive, strapped to an experienced skydiver, so there was very little you need to know. I was constantly surprised during the course of the day at how easy it was.

That’s our airplane. I’ve heard people say of skydiving, why would you want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. Well, if you’ll notice, that’s not a perfectly good airplane. It has a giant hole in the side!

(And, yes, it did have a transparent door that rolled down during flight when we weren’t jumping.)

Next, we suited up in our flight suits and put on our harnesses. For the Thomsons, who are experienced solo divers, that included their parachutes. My harness, on the other hand, only had the connections where I would be hooked to the trainer. I joked with them as they were putting on their ‘chutes, “Hey, should I have one of those?” So we decided we needed a picture of us from the rear, with their parachutes and my empty harness.

“Two out of three people who skydive would do it again!”

Finally, it’s time to board the plane. And, let me say, the skydiving flightsuits (“Jumpsuits”?) were about as flattering an outfit as I’ve worn.

I don’t think I have any pictures from the inside of the plane, but we were rather tightly packed in. Of course, you’re *very* closely connected to your trainer, strapped together at the hips and chest.

I had known that one of my former coworkers in the education department at Marshall was a skydiving trainer, but hadn’t really given it much thought until I heard that morning that he was going to be there. By the time I found out, I’d already been assigned to someone else. And, frankly, I was OK with that. I like Eddie and all, but feel like if I were going to be that intimately connected with another guy, I’d just as soon it be a stranger.

And then, we were in the air, and, soon the door was open.

And at that point, I became nervous. Not scared, but nervous. And here’s why:

Two years ago, I went camping, rock-climbing and hiking with my friends the Sneeds. And during the hiking at Little River Canyon, we came across a pool where there was a rope swing.

See the guy in the red shorts? That’s me. I thought it would be fun to jump into the water from the rope swing, and so I climbed over to it, found it, grabbed it tightly, and prepared to jump.

And couldn’t.

For the life of me, I just couldn’t do it. My excuse is that I thought I would mess it up, that I would let go to soon and fall on the rocks, or that I would let go too late and swing back into the cliff Wile E. Coyote style. But, for whatever reason, I couldn’t do it.

That moment was in my head when I started talking about skydiving. It was in my head when I bought the Groupon. It was in my head all morning Saturday, and it was very much in my head when they opened the door. OK, this is it — I have to go from being inside an airplane to outside the airplane, over two miles up. Can I actually do it?

And the answer is, I didn’t have to, thankfully.

When it was our turn to go, we made our way to the door. I sat in the door with my legs hanging out of the plane, and my trainer was behind me. Basically, he sort of lifted up so that, since I was strapped to him, I was still on the plane, but no longer touching it, and he was in control.

One second we were on the plane…

… and the next we weren’t.

The first thought I remember was just relief at that; I was successfully off the plane, and didn’t freeze up. It was done.

Next was the awareness of the feeling, the acceleration, the adrenaline, the wind.

Third was the conscious decision to look down and sort of process the fact that I was falling toward the ground through thin air from two miles up. That’s different, you know?

You can see our cameraman in that picture, taken from the plane right after we jumped. He took this next one just slightly later:

Pretty quickly, we deployed the small drogue chute seen in this next picture. Basically, it slowed us down so that we were falling at the same rate as the cameraman, since otherwise we would have the same drag but twice the weight. Once that was out, we were all falling at terminal velocity for a free-falling person through air — about 120 miles per hours.

I really wish I could do justice to that almost-minute of free-fall. It went by so quickly, and I was so focused on logistics, and then the cameraman, that I never really acclimated. Next time I do it, my goal is to really focus on what that experience is like, beyond being incredibly exciting.

I’ve talked to people who say they couldn’t do it because they’re scared of heights, but, for me, at that altitude, it really doesn’t register as heights. I find there’s a point where there’s a disconnect. I can get nervous driving over a really tall river bridge, but be perfectly fine flying in a plane over the same bridge. Jumping out of the plane, we were so high that it didn’t feel like we were that high, and by the time we got low enough that it registered as a height, I’d been on the chute so long I felt safe.

The camera man came right up to us to get some close-up shots of us, and got close enough that we were actually able to do a high-five as we were falling, permanently giving that term a whole new meaning for me. In fact, it’s probably safer from here on out to just never talk about high-fives to me, lest I make some snarky remark about how we need to be another couple miles up.

I love this shot, it and one taken at almost the same time are my favorites. That said, it bothered me at first how much you can see in these pictures, like the high-five one, that the skin on my face is being blown around, particularly considering that the other guy seems completely unaffected. Do I really have that much more fat or loose skin on my face? I don’t notice it normally. Thankfully, as I was getting self-conscious watching the video later with the Thomson, they pointed out that he’s in my wake, and I’m blocking the wind from his face. Whew.

And, of course, despite the fact that I’m free-falling for a mile toward the ground at 120 miles per hour, I can’t resist hamming it up for the camera. Raise your hand if your surprised.

Finally, at 5,500 feet, the trainer pops the main parachute, and we immediately slow down. At that point, I feel completely safe. I mean, I felt safe before, having faith that it was going to work, but that was the point where I felt like, “OK, it worked.” The funny thing was, he had told me ahead of time that when that happened, he was going to loosen me up a little bit from him. Until then, we needed to be very closely and tightly attached, but at that point, we could be a little more comfortable. That said, even though he told me ahead of time, and I intellectually knew it, it still took me a bit by surprise when the chute deploys, we slow, and he starts unhooking me. First thought, “OK, we’re safe.” Second thought, “Uh, well, he’s safe.”

The descent from there was pretty nondescript. I had wondered ahead of time whether skydiving was parachuting down from a minute of free-fall, or free-falling for a minute so that you can parachute down. And I would imagine that for most people, it’s parachuting down from a minute of free-fall, that the first part is really the focus. Certainly that was the case for me.

One of my regrets is that I don’t have any really good pictures of me under the parachute, the pictures pretty much skip from when we’re deploying the chute to when we’re landing. I’m wanting to do it again — possibly this weekend — and hope to be have somebody go with me that could take some pictures from the ground. If you’re interested, let me know.

I was impressed by the precision of the landing. That was kind of the focus during the parachute descent, was getting closer to the landing spot. I had figured it would be much more of a “somewhere in this area” thing than it was.

As we were coming down, I looked up, but because of the way we were attached, I couldn’t turn my head to look straight up. So I asked my trainer, “OK, since I’ve been looking for a job, a friend of mine gave me a book I need to read on finding a new career, and I’ve gotta know — What color is my parachute?

Answer: Green and gray.

I took that last picture, by the way, with my first-generation iPhone, which I carried inside my flightsuit during the jump. I wanted one with me in case I wanted to take pictures before or after the jump (I don’t think I could do it during), and I took my first one instead of the current one for two reasons — it would be less of a big deal if something happened to it, but also because I had carried that one on my Zero-G flight four years ago, making this the second time it had been in free-fall. (I’ve been asked how the two experiences compare, and my initial reaction is, they don’t. Despite the fact that they’re basically the same thing — free-fall in the sky, the only difference being which side of the airplane wall you’re on — they feel completely different, presumably largely because of the air resistance.)

After we were done, the Thomsons invited me over to their house to watch each other’s videos, and while I was there, I also got to swing on the trapeze they have in a barn behind their house. I mention this solely because I got to fall out of an airplane and fly on a trapeze on the same day, and that’s kind of cool, and gave this blog post its “Crazy Heart”-inspired title.

It was kind of amusing, though, that I was relieved that they said they didn’t let other people use the trampoline from the raised platform that Henry swung from; relieved because I didn’t want to have to be chicken if they offered. It was very odd, though, being too nervous to want to climb to and leap from the platform — wearing a safety harness, no less — after having just fallen from an airplane two miles up. But, there’s that height thing I was talking about. Fifteen feet, scary. Two miles, no problem.

Last night, I watched videos with my friends the Sneeds; Jill having gone skydiving for her 21st birthday a while back.

Her video ended with this quote, which I loved:

If riding in a plane is
Then riding in a boat is
To experience the element
Get out of the vehicle.

I made my jump using Skydive Alabama in Cullman, and I heartily recommend both the experience and them. I was amazed at how easy and safe-feeling they made the whole thing.

Skydiving Playlist

OK, while I’m getting ready to jump out an airplane this morning, what songs should I be listening to?

For example, I’ll start with the obvious:

Tom Petty — Free Fallin’

Whatcha got?


Wednesday Roundup

OK, I used to the Weekend Updates, way back when, but haven’t in a while. I figured this was a good opportunity to catch up on some things that haven’t made it into full blog posts yet.

Gearlog blogged about the Angry Birds fanfic I wrote a while back. This makes me happy.

• I’m taking a class at church with Heather to get Christian counseling certification. This also makes me happy.

• My List that I made a while back has largely sat ignored for a very long time, but on Friday, I bought a ticket to go skydiving. This also also makes me happy. Heather wrote a blog post about it.

The diet initially met with decent success — 10 pounds in two weeks — which made me happy. But I’ve plateaued already. In fact, I regained a bit over the weekend. I probably deserved that, but also really deserved to lose yesterday. Staying motivated, I’ve realized, is going to be a big challenge. It’s great having Heather participating also and supporting me.

• The U.S. Space and Rocket Center has laid off its curator and archivist, Irene Wilhite, which makes me unhappy.  I’ll admit my bias at the outset; I’ve volunteered at the USSRC for Irene; she’s helped me out several times, and is a good friend. Bias aside, a curator seems like a thing a museum should have. Irene and her staff (her son) have done a lot of work preparing and maintaining exhibits at the museum. USSRC has long had to balance the financial concerns of the museum and Space Camp, and lately has been working, with varying degrees of success, to bring in money-making non-space special exhibits. I hope that this decision is not a sign that the space museum part of USSRC is not being neglected