I used to have a fear of heights so intense that I would white-knuckle cling onto anything I could grab whenever I had to climb a three-step step stool. To be couple of feet off of the ground, less than waist-high, sent my senses swirling, and that was ridiculous. My fear of heights was an impediment and I determined to get rid of it. Safely. However...
Several hours deep into the North American Sonoran Desert south of the Phoenix metropolitan area, I had seen a small, battered sign for the Arizona Parachute Ranch (now defunct.) I determined to go there and learn how to skydive. That would cure my fear of heights! I had a sense of what I was getting into, the rusty sign had been full of bullet holes, and was so dilapidated that I wondered if they were still in business. And, the Sonoran Desert was full of saguaro cacti (saw-war-oh), some of them were forty feet tall, all of them were studded with needles. Was the parachute ranch located in a cactus-free zone, or did the experienced skydivers knew how to avoid cacti as they hit the ground? I had read about a landscaper who tried to move a 3200-4800 pound saguaro cactus only to have it fall on him and crush him full of those four-inch needles to death. Still, I called the Arizona Parachute Ranch and made an appointment to join their next skydiving class. Little did I know...and I suppose I could end the sentence there. Little did I know that just a few years later there would be commercial tandem skydiving for the novice jumper, women skydiving clubs, and huge advances in jump safety requirements, which would have made it all so much easier.
On my drive down for the skydiving class I became overcome with fear, and I stopped on the side of the road to decide whether I wanted to continue or not. I did not know if this would be a highlight of my life like the advertisements said, or the end of it. To my solitary embarrassment I actually cried out loud, “I want my mommy!” Strangely, I jest not, my mother actually telephoned me within a few moments. She very rarely telephoned me in life, and we had not spoken in many months, yet she chose that moment to call. When I told her what a coincidence it was for her to call just after I had called out for her, she gave a rare genuine laugh. I told her I was continuing on to check out the parachute ranch, and she told me to be very careful. She may have even said it twice.
Emotionally fortified and firmly committed to not falling victim to a parachuting mishap, I pulled into the dusty little office/hanger/with a plane combo that was the Arizona Parachuting Ranch in the desert. The guy that came out to greet me was wearing a full foot-to-hip cast on his leg, so my first words were “What happened to you?” He shrugged it off, and said he had had a bad landing on his last jump. I was appalled, if he was that cavalier about his own body, what about me? I said, “There are a lot of cacti around here, where do you jump?” He was puzzled by the question, and he waved a hand vaguely out into the cactus-thick desert, “Oh, there’s a target out over there, but we usually land somewhere else.” Then he wandered off. He was carrying a rifle and I had no idea why he might need a rifle during our parachuting class. That exchange was enough to make me decide not to jump but since I had made a long drive to get there I thought that I would take the class just in case I was ever in a crashing plane and someone handed me a parachute. I went into the oven-like office, paid, and was directed to go outside. Jokes about parachuting circled in my head like airplanes trailing an aerial banner that read, “DO NOT JUMP OUT OF A PERFECTLY GOOD PLANE.”
Half a dozen other students soon pulled up in various vehicles in swirls of dust. They were all large, grumpy (scared), young men. I was scared too, because I realized that I was still considering the idea of jumping. Regardless of the advertisements that I had seen of people parachuting in raptures, with great big grins on their faces, I was fairly certain that I would not like, actually not like at all, the experience of falling from sky to earth, but I wanted the experience. Once would be enough. All of the men had gone into the office to pay and come back out again, but the instructor still had not emerged, so I went to wait with the men. As a unit, they turned their backs on me. I tried talking to them, an introduction here, a joke there, but they doggedly ignored me.
So I killed time by wandering out to the scrapped line in the desert that served as a runway to check out our plane. I thought I should see what I would be flying in, if I flew. It was a fairly large and ancient plane, with no upholstery, no seats, no doors. “All the easier to jump out of, ha, ha, ha.” Said my wild inner child. “They would have to push me.” Answered my inner adult. “They might.” One-upped my wild inner child.
When the instructor finally came out, he gave us a fifteen minute lecture which did not seem long enough. Amazingly, I had not done any advance study, in those pre-internet days it had not even occurred to me, so I did not know what we were missing, but it seemed there should be more to it. The instructor demonstrated how to put on a parachute and how to pull the rip cord. He reiterated that we should not forget to pull the rip cord or we would die. I wondered if I would remember to pull the rip cord. In the 100º+ desert heat my fear overcame me, and to my shock and dismay I realized that I was going to vomit. I abruptly left the group and trotted around and behind the hanger where I tossed up my breakfast. I wanted to stay behind the hanger in the scant shade of it, but I forced myself to trot on back out to a two-story platform where the group had now gathered.
The instructor had us all climb up onto the platform, and the men parted silently to fold me into the middle of their line. It was tacit acknowledgement of my fear and their sympathy. It was yet another step along my path toward fully realizing how wonderful men truly are. I just had time to register that on the ground below the platform was a large, inflated rubber mattress, when it was my turn to walk to the edge of the platform, turn backwards, and topple off with arms outstretched. I did it. I did not speak. I just did it.
Then there was a lull while the instructor went off somewhere to do something. We had been told to stay out of the hanger, so I went over and peeked in. I saw one of the staff, she was a skinny little cutie, working on the floor of the hanger, rolling up our parachutes, while finishing the last toke of her marijuana joint. I was so relieved, and so sad, because now there was absolutely no way that I would jump with a parachute that she rolled, or any parachute rolled on the Arizona Pothead Parachuting Ranch.
I went to tell the instructor that I would not be jumping, but as I rejoined the group he made an announcement. “The evening desert winds have picked up making it too difficult for a first-time jump. You will have to do it another time.” It is very hard to get psyched up to do something difficult, scary, and risky, only to be told to come back later for it, and we all reacted accordingly, disappointed and relieved. He told us we were free to go so we did.
As I left, Ms. Pothead jeered after me, “Come back tomorrow morning for a sunrise jump, it will be free, on the house. We really want to see you jump.” But she was the only one laughing.
Not surprisingly, this truly bizarre experience completely conquered my fear of heights, which was fortunate as in several future jobs, as a technical writer of mechanical and electrical processes, I had to climb second-story exterior/interior ladders to access equipment. That was high enough for me.
Caption: Sunrise Skydive Over Desert, Never Taken
digital palette by Annmarie Throckmorton 2018