In 1983 when I worked selling industrial safety equipment, Jed, one of my customers in New Jersey, told me about having done a parachute jump. I listened with rapt attention because it had always been a secret fantasy of mine to try skydiving.
I'd flown in dreams and loved it, and despite a real-life fear of heights, did not feel intimidated. Deep down I knew that I would function well under the stress of a jump. I have a thirst for adrenaline and knew a chance to skydive would quench it like nothing else.
Jed told me there was a place in New Jersey that would train you and have you make your first jump that very same day. For under $200, you'd be able to get the job done at Lakewood Skydiving Center.
I called and spoke with a guy named Joe D, who gave me pricing and made a reservation for the school's one-day program. It was $150 if memory serves, and while it represented a lot of money for me at that time, I knew I could scrimp a little to make it work. What's a few weeks of eating hot dogs and tuna for living out a dream?
I told no one I planned to do a jump. I didn't want any bad feedback to put me in a negative state of mind. A local weatherman and skydiving enthusiast, Jim O'Brien, had recently been killed in a skydiving accident in Pennsylvania and I knew I'd never hear the end of it from friends and family. Besides, I rationalized, his accident was an oddity in a tandem (two man) jump. Though I have read a few varying accounts of how it happened, the story I heard then was that Jim's main chute failed. Supposedly his jump partner had suggested they go in together on his manueverable main chute, where they'd possibly sustain minor injury but would have good control. It was said O'Brien apparently wanted to use his reserve which offered less manueverability but was less likely to result in injury. It was said that he'd argued midair with the other fellow he'd jumped with, losing valuable time and falling too low to allow his reserve to do its job once he'd decided on this course of action. A nicer later version was that O'Brien's chute was fine and that he'd helped his partner whose chute had become tangled, but in so doing did not allow his own chute time to inflate fully. No matter how it actually happened, skydiving and death were wedded in the minds of many local folks. My rationale: "They do this all the time with rookies and nobody's died yet."
At this time I lived in Philadelphia so the drive to Lakewood that crisp October Saturday seemed interminable. Much of the road was "pass when you can" single lane through New Jersey scrub and pine barrens. I was young and had never driven so far from Philadelphia on my own (indeed, this was only the second year I'd owned a car in the city), so my heart raced and I smoked like a fiend. I recall little more of the trip than being amazed to see my first "Leisure Village". What is THAT?
Finally, my sad little car (the Mercury I called the "Caprick" because it made my driving life hell) pulled up to the Center. I cannot tell you what buildings were where, but my overall impression was that it was rat-shack comfy. As I got out of the car, I saw a diver with a colorful squared-off chute come down gently and expertly on his feet. A sighed "Wow" was all that came to mind. Gimme some!
Somewhere in the wreckage of my memorabilia I have my "First Jump Certificate" with dates and names though I've not seen it for years. I wish I'd taken more notes about this day, but it seemed so much at the time just to live it, let alone record it. Names are gone and much of this time is a buzzed blur.
The first thing I recall was signing a waiver that basically said if I died or got hurt Lakewood Skydiving Center wasn't responsible. I remember the instructor was an older man who had a forceful military voice and a gruff but very friendly manner. The class was maybe 12 or 15 people and I think I was the only girl present. He took us through drills while standing on the ground to simulate what we'd do later. Arching backwards while counting "One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand, look up, check!" to see if your lines were untwisted and your chute inflated. We drilled on use of the reserve if your main didn't open, "Punch! Pull!" He had us act out how we would stand in the door of the plane, facing into the aircraft, and the commands we would hear from the jumpmaster of our flight. We jumped off wooden platforms into sandpits to practice rolling upon landing. It was a cool, breezy, sunny autumn day and doing this outdoors was a pleasure. Unfortunately it was these same lovely conditions that led to cancellation of our jumps that day, the winds becoming too strong and too unpredictable, so we were sent home to come back at the first opportunity to do our jumps.
For me, this was the next day. I would wait all day for the right conditions. Whatever, I was ready.
I think it was going on 3 pm when things were good to go. Some, but not all of my class were present. A radio was playing "Major Tom (I'm Coming Home)" over the P.A. system. (I took this as a nice omen because at the time I thought it described the feeling of a skydive: "Earth below us, drifting falling, floating weightless, coming home..." I later read all the lyrics and found it was about an astronaut's death in space. Swell. If you want to listen to it while reading this page, play Major Tom here. ) I remember going to some little shack with a counter where I got issued some gear, I think it was a jumpsuit, a main chute, a reserve chute, boots, helmet, and I recall some guys helping me into it all, along with a one-way radio that was strapped to my chest. I remember thinking with this device that they could give me orders and I couldn't argue, and that they'd not hear my screams.
I don't recall who said it, or when, but we were told essentially "You think you know it all now, but for virtually every first time jumper, everything you learned goes out of your head when you let go of the plane, you'll forget the drill, but that's okay because the system won't let you screw up and your chute will open."
The methodology and chutes we got are different than what is used today. When I look at websites of places offering instruction for first-timers I see mostly tandem jumps being offered where you are attached to your instructor back-to-tummy and utilizing a very-manueverable square chute. When I jumped, Lakewood offered a solo "static line" jump, where after you jumped and were a certain distance from the aircraft, your chute would be yanked open automatically by a cord attached to the plane. (Thus, even the rookie who froze would not merely drop like a stone.) The chutes were the stereotypical round and white variety, not the squared-off cool colored ones that allow you to steer with great accuracy. You could steer these round ones in an elementary way through two toggles that hung down, one above each shoulder. If you wanted to go left, you pulled the left toggle. This pulled the left side of the chute down, made air rush into the higher right side and spun you left. We were not much encouraged to diddle with these however, because based on the day's winds, the aircraft would pretty much drop you right into the drop zone, a nice, big, soft, safe circle to land, carved out of the scrubby woods of the area.
Other than two commercial jetliner trips, I'd never flown much before this, so getting on the small plane and going through takeoff and flight was exciting. It was loud and packed with people. If memory serves, there were maybe 9 students, a jumpmaster and pilot. It was this experience that later led to me take flying lessons for fun three years later, logging time in C-150's and C-172's, little Cessnas.
When the plane was at the right altitude and coordinates, the jumpmaster selected the first student to jump. The more experienced guys on the flight would go later from a higher altitude. The door was opened and the noise doubled from the engines and the wind. The rookie stood with bulging eyes and approached the jumpmaster who gave him some direction on how to get set up, but he stood there, locked in place. Some verbal exchange I couldn't hear went between the two men, the rookie shaking his head clearly now, "no" and walking away and sitting back down. Damn, that put a fear in front of me I'd not considered. What if I backed out? Someone else just did.
"Okay!" hollered the jumpmaster, "Fine! You're next!" I noted he was pointing at me. No way could I let this spook me or let two chicken-outs in a row happen. Perhaps the jumpmaster was shaming the previous guy by showing him a girl could do it. I made myself stand up and approach him. I got situated in the door. The feeling was amazing, the contrast of fear with total clarity of purpose. I never thought or felt so clearly in my life.
I think the standard commands are "Stand by! Feet on the step! GOOOOO!" but I seem to recall a countdown that went, "Three! Two! One! Juuuuuump!"
Whatever was said, I remember thinking in a fleeting moment that there was no room for argument or discussion here. I seem to remember one foot back, one on a step, one hand in the doorway, another to balance touching a wing support. This was 20 years ago, so I may not have these details right. What I am totally sure of, however, is that when he uttered his final command I looked him square in the eye, threw myself back from the plane and yelled at him, "One thousand! Two thousand!" and then he and the plane were gone and I was more alone than I had been in my life.
"Three thousand! Four thousand!" and I looked up, pleased as punch to see my chute opening. "Five thousand! Six thousand!" and I looked up again to see if the chute was now fully inflated. It was, but something looked wrong. I did not have a Mae West (line looped over the canopy dividing it into two billows), just twisted ropes, but a voice came over the radio telling me to reach up and untangle the lines. They didn't need to ask twice. I used all ten thumbs to diddle around and suddenly all looked okay, and I had a sense of swinging around and opening, much like a kid on a swing that he has twisted up and then allows to spin open.
The radio voice acknowledged all was now well. I hung there and realized there was nothing left for me to do... but enjoy the ride. I felt a huge wave of relaxation and exhilaration wash over me and for the first time I saw how beautiful it was.
I think I could see forever from there. It was Earth, with all its beauty and none of it's noise or drawbacks, just as it was meant to be. So many details, sensory overload. By now it was close to 4 p.m. and the sun was low in the fall sky, creating deep shadows and making everything stand out in bold relief. I think I saw the ocean, and I marvelled at the silent highways and faint scrubby brush below. It was all yellows, reds and oranges with some green pines and so far away, surely I'd never reach it. Way off, I think to my left, I could see the drop zone.
I felt alone and revelled in it. I spoke out loud to see what my voice would sound like with nothing to bounce off of, and my words disappeared in front of me into nothingness. I felt completely free. It made me laugh.
Someday I have to find out again what the height was from which I jumped and how long the ride down was. I am guessing it took only some three or four minutes. When you are floating it seems like forever, but conversely, it is over too soon as well.
I noted I was getting very low, yet the drop zone seemed quite far yet. The mantra returned to my head "It's okay, they do this with rookies all the time."
An absurdly calm voice came over my radio. "Why don't you try a right turn, Sue?" I thought "Cool! I'm going to get to try a turn!" so I pulled my right toggle and voila, I turned. Wow, I was not merely, passive I got to DO something. "Okay, let up" said the voice.
A moment later that composed "this is your captain speaking" voice said, "Okay, how about a left turn, Sue?" Excellent! I did as told and turned, loving the sense of control. The radio silence resumed.
The thrill of doing the turns had distracted me, and I was alarmed to look down and see the drop zone was still "over there" yet I was some yards away from my feet touching the trees. Even I knew now I wasn't going to reach it.
The radio popped on again, with tranquilizing Mr. Rogers simplicity... "Okay, Sue, you're going to make a tree landing, keep your knees and feet together, slightly bent."
It was so absurd I almost laughed... of course! It's a "tree landing"! They have a term for it! It happens all the time!
I looked down. The trees that grew there at Lakewood were not mighty by any means, but they took on massive proportions in my head, and every cartoon I'd ever seen with the poor guy dangling from the tree popped into my mind. But what if I took a pine barrens pine up the patootie? Suddenly I remembered that we'd been advised that while landing we should not look down, that the oncoming ground creates a head-rush. I took a last look and spotted a clear area to my right. I didn't know jack about my relative rate of descent or how hard to turn, I just knew I wanted to land there so I did a tiny turn. To this day I do not know if it helped. Then I raised my head and made myself look straight out at the horizon.
It seemed like forever. My feet felt like radar instruments, sending out vibes, looking for clues on how close the ground was. Forever, I watched the sky go by, and then it went green as I passed through the trees. Needles shot through my feet as I hit the dirt, and I remembered to roll. The stun of impact made me tingle all over and I laid there a second, uncomprehendingly. I felt a momentary fear, then joy, and I got up right away to prove to myself I was fine. And I was. I felt great, never better.
The voice on the radio said to stay put, a truck was coming to pick me up. I recall thinking that I did not want to look like a helpless newbie, so I did my best to pull in and wrap up my lines and chute, though much of it was in the trees.
So jazzed was I that I recall nothing of the truck ride except the driver explaining there'd been a shift in the winds and what was supposed to carry me to the drop zone just died. The orders to do turns were attempts to find a breeze to bring me in. I'd done so little that was active during the jump that I'd assumed this landing was not my fault, but it was good to hear. If I could handle a funky first jump with twisted lines and a tree landing, how much cooler would the next jump be?
I don't recall if we were in a tent or building, but that night I got to stay for beer and munchies and had a great time, made very much to feel at home as we watched videos and chatted. The only awkward moment was when a taped "Primetime" segment came on with Jim O'Brien teaching a blind guy to jump, and the room went kind of quiet, and a few voices said "Jimbo was a great guy, but he f*cked up" and there were quiet echoes of "Yeah, he f*cked up." I remember it sounded like they were divorcing themselves from him because they would not f*ck up. It was the "Right Stuff" mentality, well before I'd read the book.
The fun parts were the "home movies" people had made of their own jumps, (video was relatively new then) and I remember a lot of friendly razzing, people intoning "Skyyyy gaaaawd". I drove back to Philadelphia that night with a tummyful of pizza and a head full of happy thoughts.
And that cool next jump, where everything would go right? Never happened. Couldn't tell you why, just never made the date.
In January 2002 I located one of Lakewood's former employees. He told me "Lakewood is just a memory, having closed in 1986 when the landowners would not renew the lease." Though it had been a fast love affair for me, it hurt to learn Lakewood was no longer operational, no longer there. In my mind, those Lakewood folks haunt the pine barrens more than any Jersey Devil ever could. I am sure they are still there, partying and jumping, we just can't see them.
There is a gent in Australia, Thom Lyons, doing a site about the history of Parachutes Incorporated which ran skydive centers. Apparently Lakewood used to be part of this system and it was the first facility built expressly for the purpose of recreational skydiving. If you would like to learn more about Lakewood you can go here or see the main site for Project PI.
Happy landings y'all!
People who read about Lakewood and my first jump have visited times since January 2002. If you're thinking about a jump, I'd sure say "do it".
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