Katie McFarren

Skyfall

Vermont Skydiving Company: not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Vermont. Many visitors plan for years to come to a place like this, and some hope they never will. I admit, once or twice I’ve thought about hurling myself out of a plane for fun, but going to Vermont Skydiving was still a rash decision for me. An opportunity arose, I said yes, and in 24 hours I had already jumped. This is my story.

Four people in the backseat of a dark grey Audi Q5 amount to an uncomfortable group of six, strangers sitting cheek to cheek on hot black leather seats. Setting a perfectly browned banana in the mesh seat pocket in front of me, light sweat beading on my forehead, I made meager, nervous attempts at small talk.

“So dude,” addressing my neighbor, Annie, who’s been an unclose acquaintance of mine for two years, “how are classes?”

We had just started our junior year at Middlebury College, so courses were new, homework felt manageable, and the new frontier was undeniably ours; it was a perfect time to go skydiving. Annie wore tight black leggings, running shoes, and a loose turquoise shirt, her straight brown hair knotted into a simple bun that kept unraveling, the classic example of a lazy Friday afternoon on the East coast. Any excuse for skydiving she produced lacked more reasoning than mine, and I didn’t have one. On our left sat a foreign couple somehow related to our driver, Sara, and the front passenger seat was occupied by a spunky stranger whose energy rose out of him at such intensity that it made his hair stand on end.

Eventually, as per usual, conversation about schoolwork and teachers stopped, so I did what I could with the surrounding nature to sidetrack myself from the newly created suction between my arm and Annie’s. The drive to Addison, VT lasted about 25 minutes, which allowed each of us to go through heightening stages of anxious; Annie twirled her hair through her fingers until they became indistinguishable, the couple whispered inaudibly to each other, the boy in the front tapped his fingers on the center consol and I realized that the only skydiving veteran in the group sat in the driver’s seat, humming quietly to Cat Stevens.

The scenery slowed as the car made a left turn and at once we all saw the sign. Plain and simply white, it portrayed a person, painted in black, falling out of the sky with Vermont Skydiving and a 1-800 number hidden below it. Next to it, a slightly obscure but large wooden sculpture shook the car into a laugh, “Ass-Pirin Acres Miniature Donkey Farm.” Behind the sign in a vast green field, miniature donkeys covered the landscape. Kept inside a two-foot high electric fence, the donkeys looked like a hybrid cross between a rabbit and a llama.

“They’re so cute!” The car echoed.

A little gas and the car bounced forward down the muddy access road, passing what seemed like miles of donkeys before it lurched to a stop in front of a massive blue barn. A few men working to keep the mini-donkeys plump and happy stopped shoveling to stare at us staring at them. We kept on, passing an airplane with reeds growing through the doors and windows, the sight relieving us from the carnival of animals. We parked in the middle of a round dirt driveway, sandwiched in between two mobile homes and a porta-potty, but no one moved because we were all stuck to each other.

September bestowed upon us a warm, sunny Friday afternoon. Finally emerging from our vehicle, a weary group of young adults sauntered over to the check-in counter inside the closest trailer, doors wide open, to learn their fates. Small wind gusts blew pictures of acrobatic divers and cartoons around the office as we walked inside. A plane made from Budweiser cans swung from the ceiling as the administrator greeted us, his voice higher than expected, and gave us a daunting collection of consent forms.

“Pay special attention to #18, proving that you can actually read the English language,” he told us.

I signed away a third party’s ability to pursue legal action on account of my death, I agreed to understand all the complications of skydiving, what it meant if things went wrong, that my family would not be compensated for funeral costs, and that I understood and accepted any equipment or human malfunction.

We all walked outside, sat down in the sun on fading blue wooden tables, doing our best to avoid reading the print, breathed in some fresh Vermont air, and signed our lives away in the shadow of a portable building called “Manifest.” Finished, we walked back to Manifest with nervous laughter to hand over the forms. Satisfied, the owner pointed us to the jump preparation area, refusing to waste words on such a simple task, and that’s where we met Olle.

Olle was a tall, blond, forty-year-old man, and the owner of Vermont Skydiving. When I met him on that sunny Friday afternoon, he was standing underneath a blue tarp nailed to a wooden lean-to that he built, called “the platform” where visitors are initiated and parachutes are packed. He wearing a partly unzipped, pale grey skydiving suit. The purple aerodynamic pads on his arms and legs were beginning to fade into a light blue, aged by the sun. He greeted us with smile lines taught as we walked into the shelter, the wood creaking under our feet,

“Welcome ladies!”

He turned to finish writing names on a “dive board,” determining what instructors would jump with us first-timers, relaxing his smile as he looked away from us but not losing it. Underneath the tarp we sat down on a short bench consisting of cement blocks and a piece of board awaiting our next instruction. I wouldn’t say we felt welcome, I’d say we felt accepted. Olle sees newcomers here all the time; our novice expressions were common to him. Skydiving is his profession, his daily work, so our excited dispositions felt slightly out of place.

The couple went first. I witnessed them getting fitted with retro speed suits and harnesses, feeling jealousy and slight relief that I had to go last. We watched them disappear into the plane, watched the plane disappear into the sky, and were left sitting on the faded blue tables again, waiting nervously for their return.

“What’s with the donkeys?” I asked Olle to pass time.

“Sometimes we like to say we have the most ass around, and when guys show up I just tell them to look around – there they are! It’s not what most of the guys expect, but it ain’t a bunch of jackasses out here.” He replied with laughter.

“Why are they here?” I continued.

“Well, if you jump five times, you get one…” he paused, “if you‘ve got $4,000 ‘cause that’s what it costs to get a pair, and they won’t just sell you just one, you have to get two.”

“Why are they so expensive?” I exclaimed, at a higher pitch than I expected, “I can get a burro in Nevada for $40!”

“Cause these ones have papers!” He jousted back.

Turns out that Vermont Skydiving leases their landing strip from Ass-Pirin acres, which became a donkey farm almost 30 years ago. The owners Michael and Marshlyn accidently developed affection for the mini fuzz balls. They began with horses but as hard as he tried, Michael could not get along with animals that big, so Marshlyn acquiesced and they went searching for one and only one miniature donkey for a pet. Now, they have almost 200. Before Michael became a donkey enthusiast, he was a pilot. Olle, in searching for a place to skydive, stumbled upon Michael’s unused landing strip and asked to lease the land for a while. That was 18 years ago.

“They were stupid enough to say yes and we’ve been here ever since!” Olle commented. The rundown plane we passed on our way through the farm was Michael’s old flyer, and because it hasn’t been used for almost 20 years, it makes a gorgeous piece of rusty art.

After almost a half hour, the plane carrying our strange acquaintances emerged into view, a tiny speck. When they jumped out I strained my eyes but couldn’t see them, although Annie claimed she could, her hair falling out of its bun again as she peered into the sun. We watched the parachutes open, emitting a sound softer but similar to a gunshot, and carry their cargo to Earth safely. After landing the couple ran forward to greet each other, lips surprisingly elastic enough to accommodate the smiles they were wearing. Heart rates rapid, movements jittery, and speech inaudible they breathlessly explained the experience to Annie and me as we sat quietly on those faded blue benches.

Next, Sara and her spunky passenger dressed up and took off. Seconds turned into minutes, so as their plane gained elevation Annie and I chatted about the excitement and nervousness we no longer felt and kicked a rusty soccer ball to pass the time. After waiting for two hours, I almost forgot I was there to go skydiving until Joe called Annie and me over to get our suits on. Our bored emotions electrified as he helped us into polypropylene suits and sat us down for a brief review of skydiving.

Joe has been jumping for 60 years. He was wearing a black shirt imprinted with a bear standing in front of the moon and a lightly graying red beard. His shirt hinted at a small beer belly and dropped down enough to cover the top of the grey sweatpants tied around his waist. Joe looked 70, his cowboy hat looked 80, and his voice sounded 15, quite odd for his “daredevil” stereotype. His slight lisp and coy smile greeted us like a friend after tragedy, and his quiet tone kept us interested.

“Don’t take us seriously until we hook up your harness to ours. Before that, no way in heck that chute is going to open” he told us, smirking. We emerged from underneath the tarp, metal hooks from the harnesses clanking around our hips, as superheroes, invincible to death and gravity.

Joe got in the plane last. A matchstick settled into the crease of his lips and he tightened my harness. He pulled a thin seatbelt loosely across my lap as the plane began to take off. Annie waved goodbye to the ground, the door flapping uselessly in the wind.

 

The altimeter reads 10,000 feet. Glancing at the cockpit door rattling an inch from left hip, I realize that the two-inch wide nylon strap some may call a seatbelt is the only thing holding me in the plane. The pilot’s eyes drift down to the Rubik’s cube shifting in his fingers.

11,000 feet. A quick look to the back of the plane I catch a glimpse of Annie’s face, her instructor holding onto her like a puppy. Her feeble attempt at a smile renders an inability for anything to curb our anxiety over what we’re about to do.

12,000 feet. Turning around, Joe connects his harness to mine, finally. It’s the tipping point. Below me the trees look painted onto an earthy canvas as miniature representations of what they actually are.

13,000 feet. The pilot reaches over, mindlessly unhitching the clasp on the door. It flies open, and my stomach falls out of it. The pilot looks at me, high eyebrows relaxed and amused, as a proud father would look watching his daughter’s first piano recital.

            Two taps from the instructor and my feet tremble, reaching into the open air. They’re blown forcefully to the side as I try not to focus on the ground 13,000 feet below me. The wind’s raucous noise and the plane’s rusty engine overflow my thoughts. One final breath.

            Weightlessness. Cold. The deafening wind blows back my hair at 120 miles per hour and all I can hear are the exuberant screams emerging from throat. I can’t breathe but the force pushes air into my lungs so I don’t have to.

6,000 feet. My eyes focus on the fields below as they’re rushing up to meet me. Joe’s gloved hand emerges into my view, pointing at altimeter and the pull string — a signal for me to release our only hope.

5,000 feet. I pull. A few seconds pass and I notice the trees growing in size. The parachute catches and my body resists the upward motion, craving to continue its journey with gravity. A dizzying silence overcomes my senses as my feet dangle safely in the air.

4,000 feet. The view is stunning. Lake Champlain lies comfortably to the west, the tree blanket over the ground looks animated, and the fields like square footsteps in the land.

300 feet. Joe reminds me to hold my knees up to my chest as the donkey farm comes in to end our play date with the sky.

0. The grass bows generously to my knees as we slide into the field. A yellow, white, and pink parachute floats softly to the ground next to us and Joe unhooks our harnesses.

 

Feet unsteady, I stumbled to get up, smiling to greet the advancing excitement of Annie as she ran up to me. I jumped into the air and she didn’t so we fell back down to Earth. Steady, hard, Earth. We waltzed back to the benches arms around each other, a victorious pair of superheroes. Heart rates rapid, movements jittery, and speech inaudible we attempted breathlessly to explain our experience to the rest of the group as they sat quietly on those faded blue benches, not amused. Their excitement had faded, but ours increased by the second.

After the jump, I was handed a certificate with pictures of skydivers on it saying that I completed a dive at VT Skydiving, and an enormous bumper sticker, saying “Fall In Vermont” in bright green. After shaking hands with my instructor, Joe, I smiled, jumped back into the animal cage the Audi Q5 had become, and left the place for good, I thought.

Back on campus, I slowly became fascinated with skydiving. What was it about this sport that made it so unique? The excitement of my experience ate at me constantly; there must be something about skydiving that made me want to do it again, and I wanted to figure it out. A few weeks later, with the attitude of a newcomer addicted to skydiving, I visited Vermont Skydiving again.

Two apples, one sandwich, and too much heavy camera gear fit into a bulging daypack, swung onto my shoulders and cycled off. One slow hour later, relief flowed in my veins as the donkeys came into view. It was a chilly overcast Friday afternoon in October. I walked up over soft wet grass to a large rock fire pit surrounded by low-sitting wood benches, camera gear banging awkwardly against my knees. Looking at Olle, slightly out of breath, I was met with a nod. He was cracking open a Budweiser, smirking behind the aluminum.

He was wearing old, fitted but slightly too short blue jeans, a long black sweatshirt hanging loosely on his skinny frame, and black cotton beanie that barely met his ears. We sat quietly on the wooden benches outside, listening to a hundred sparrows sing in the empty trees bordering the runway, as a few other skydiving instructors trickled out onto the grass, accumulating until there were 10 of us, including my jump instructor, Joe. Olle mentioned briefly that he brought some oven-dried firewood from his home pile and soon a fire was crackling, melting two used Styrofoam coffee cups that were left laying too close to the coals.

The clouds loomed overhead, and in a rhythmic fashion cigarettes were lit, burned down, and thrown into the fire, chip bags opened, meager conversation made. When I brought out my camera, the rhythm stopped. The inhabitants one by one slipped back into the office before I even noticed, leaving only a 24 oz. mountain dew sloshing back and forth on the bench, a half-empty bag of chips blowing in the wind, and the chorus of sparrows to keep me company.

“Yeah I don’t really like cameras. Ask Jack for an interview,” Olle said as he, too, departed my company.

Jack is a young 25 years of age, tall, and attractive. He was one of the young guns Olle employed to do tandem jumps and pack parachutes. When he spoke to me, wearing baggy jeans, a small green shirt, and black vans, the energy in his voice palpable, he explained that tandem skydiving is one of the coolest things he does, that the excitement of the novice diver brings out that same excitement in him. He mentioned that the tandem jumpers are so close that he can actually feel his passenger’s heartbeat through his back, and that’s what makes the jump worth it. In an extreme move, Jack quit his job in Burlington, sold his apartment, and moved to Addison to skydive for a living. Olle let him stay on the property in a tent with a fellow young gun named Katie to save money. The Ass-pirin acres owners kicked them off due to noise, so they took off camping to Dead Creek, a nature conservancy park a mile down the road. They moved to the Adirondacks part way through the year and now live out of their cars.

Jack spoke about skydiving as an addictive sport, “it’s like a drug. Once you start skydiving, this man [Olle] is worse than any drug cartel, except he’s selling something legal.”

His parents do not approve of his reckless income, his grandfather looks at him like a failure, and he lives in a tent, losing money to a job that doesn’t have any benefits.

“At that point you’re whole life is just like, well, might as well just have fun!” He laughed as he told me, Katie and Olle giggling on either side of him. As he spoke, I realized that he sounded just like any other crazed adventure addict, so I searched deeper.

Jack’s tent-mate Katie barely spoke.

“My parents don’t get it either,” she said in response to Jack’s comedic rant, “you just can’t tell them what you’re up to and they won’t care as long as you’re alive. Once they know it’s skydiving, they’ll stop paying for anything.”

Katie is short and fit, her straight brown hair reaching out of the bottom of her visor ski cap. Wearing a black hoodie underneath a forest green vest Katie looked like she should be standing at the bottom of a ski slope, and I imagined that when VT Skydiving closes for the winter that’s where she’d be. I’d only seen her eat chips, smoke cigarettes, and drink beer or mountain dew, but listening to her tell us about 12-mile adventures, rock climbing and camping in a national park for a few years made me wonder if there’s a science experiment in those foods, forget expensive power bars. Katie quit her job too, sold everything, packed her car, and left for good. To some she lives a life of ease, but listening to her slow demeanor, it seems lonely. She sat alone by the fire for much of the cloudy afternoon, but once the clouds broke and a bright blue sky smiled onto Vermont, I never saw her sitting again.

As Olle had hoped, that cloudy Friday afternoon in October eventually turned partly sunny. It enabled a stocky man named Bob to complete his first jump, “My father jumped out of a burning airplane in WWII. When he died I figured I’d try it too. This is for ‘im.” Bob’s heavy Boston accent rang out over the sound of the airplane he was about to get into. Chuckling, he added, “ Yeah, hopefully I don’t go visit ‘im today!”

Olle replied, avoiding the emotional nature of Bob’s comments and focusing on the nervous joke, “Think about this, what you did to get here is much more dangerous than what you’re about to do. Just think about that.” Bob digested the comment as Olle hit him with reinforcement. “Bob, today you’re Peter Pan, it’s human flight, you’re flying. You actually get to fly.”

Before Bob could go in to the air, however, a test jump had to be made by the experts, to check if the cloud level was high enough for a beginner. Jack and Katie jumped in to their suits and into the plane before the pilot finished tying the knots on his shoelaces. The plane started up.

“That’s one hell of a leaf blower!” Joe said.

Up in the air, Jack and Katie turned on their helmet cams and slid out of the airplane, hanging onto the wing like monkeys on a tree, their smiles broader than the horizon at their backs. The wind blew them forcefully to the side, persuading them release the wing and plummet to Earth, but they resisted until the count of three, waiting to succumb to gravity together. In the air, they gave high-fives to each other, flipped, and spun like acrobats: the pure freedom and pure joy of doing what you love.

Upon landing they laughed and played around like puppies. They gathered up the parachutes, lumped them on the ground inside the platform, and rushed inside to watch the footage as I followed on their heels.

“Man I’m sorry I messed up the count, the wind was moving so fast and my hand slipped – I just couldn’t hold on.” Katie said, as she watched herself somersault through the air.

“Olle get in here–you have to see this!” Jack replied.

As Bob and Joe put their suits on, the ecstatic skydiving duo got to work re-packing their parachutes, “It’s much more fun opening them up,” Joe told me in passing. He and Bob took off in the plane, and Olle started talking to me about skydiving.

There are “tunnel rats” who grow up free-flying in a wind tunnel, but “ that doesn’t help you with steering a parachute or the ‘oh shit’ factor of jumping out of a plane.” He told me that everything is a little safe and a little crazy, and to most, Olle lives quite a dangerous life, riding a motorcycle and skydiving for a living, but he wouldn’t characterize it as such. Olle attracted these young guns like Jack who live subsisting on the money they made jumping on the weekends to fuel a habit. He allowed them to live their dream, and I imagined he saw himself in them.

“Skydiving can be as dangerous as you want it to be. If you’re smart, it can be the safest thing. You can’t live your life on the couch all day. You’ve got to go out and do things. But don’t stick your head in the tiger’s mouth, anything that can be safe can also be dangerous if you’re stupid enough.”

Half an hour later Bob and Joe came skidding into a landing, triumphant. Bob entered the platform boiling with excitement as he unzipped his suit.

“How’d it go?” I asked him.

“It was great, ya know, nothin’ like it. And look,” he said showing me the inside of his speed suit, “Nothin’ in there!” He laughed as he returned a white wool sweater to it’s home on his back.

Stomach growling, hands turned yellow from the cold, and eyelids heavy I said my goodbyes, dodging Jack and Olle’s attempts at persuading me to sign up for a beginner class the next morning, and got on my bike. A storm threatened to pour, determined to destroy any electronic gadgets I carried with me, but fortunately I escaped unharmed.

Back at Middlebury I hobbled into the cafeteria to get a snack and sat silently in the back. Desire would have led me back in the morning to attend the training class but reason didn’t let it. Relaxing I looked back on what it’s like to be a skydiver, still perplexed as to why Jack and Katie gave up everything to do it, I realized that it’s the culture and the people that drive obsession. “Skydiving is just so fun and addictive,” Jack said. They’ve created a family around a huge rock fire pit, drinking beers, smoking, and freefalling with a hunger to do what you love in every moment possible. If quality of life is measured in happiness, these guys know how to get an A.

 

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