Friday, January 13, 2023

Jumping to concussions

SOLES IN PURGATORY: Firewalking reads better than it flays.
You never know who you're going to be in debt to.

I'm thinking about a woman I met on an airplane, 30-some years ago. Whoever and wherever she is, that lady has no idea how much she changed my life. For the better.

Interesting, that. You never know what you're going to take to heart. Could be a comment from a stranger; or something you tripped across leafing through a National Enquirer  at Shoppers.

Conversely you never know what somebody else is going to remember about you!

Over the years, I've collected little observations and stuf that I've picked up by accident then clung to like gospel and I've also forgotten loads of stuff that I actually paid to learn.

When I was 18, I attended ground school because I thought I wanted to be a pilot. I cannot remember one single ground-school fact. (That'd be what you call foreshadowing.)

When I was way younger, my uncle Alex told me that if it's snowing big fat wet flakes, we're looking at a light snowfall. "Big snow, little snow," Alex said. Once.  

You've probably said stuff to people they still think about and you have no idea. (Lesson? Careful what you say. It might be something you're immortalized with.)

Which brings me back to the lady on the plane.

Yesterday, a fellow I work with invited me to try skydiving at his club down near Ottawa. I said no for a bunch of reasons. But the discussion reminded me of the flying lady. (P.S. The chap yesterday had no way of knowing I'd be writing this. See what I mean?.)

I now whisk you back to 1980-something B.C. (Before children.) 

A Toronto entertainment magazine called Metropolis assigned me a story titled "Offbeat Toronto Fun" or some such. The activities involved a hare-brained allegedly motivational exercise known as "firewalking," a slightly less flaky float in a sensory deprivation tank, busking on Queen Street, and finally, skydiving.

PLAYING FOR KEEPS: Need an ego-beat-down? Try busking?
I'll save the details for another blog, but they all left scars. Walking across burning coals hurt; the salt water in the sensory deprivation tank somehow learned that I had a hangnail on my left hand and attacked it like a pain-inflicting army, and should you ever want to grind up your ego like pepper and pour  it down a gutter, try standing on a downtown corner singing. Hundreds of people don't just walk by ignoring your best efforts, they look clean through you and you feel like mud.

But it was the skydive that really hurt. A lot. And not the way you're thinking. 

Actually, it hurt that way too. I landed badly and thought at first that I'd paralyzed myself. I crumpled on to the field and lay still, tied to my parachute, which was spread across the grass in what I remember as a northeasterly direction.  

My back felt like it had been lit on fire. I was afraid to look down because I thought my legs had been splintered. Above, I could still see the airplane circling. Through my head went "I've just screwed up my whole life and I have nobody to blame but myself." 

Turns out I was fine. The sudden shock went away and I was able to get up and limp to the car and drive home, unbruised. On the outside.

But inside? The details that follow I've never before made public.

The jump was preceded by about six hours of training. The instructor assured us that -- as long as we did it right -- landing safely would be no more uncomfortable than if we leapt off a six-foot fence. So we all -- about eight of us -- practised jumping off a six foot high barn rail. It wasn't scary at all. On the ground.

A few hours later, we were airborne. Going around and around above a farm field. 2,000 feet up. 

The instructor opened the airplane door. I looked down. And thought, "Jesus."

The instructor asked who wanted to go first. One of the big, hearty, Italian-looking guys stepped up.  And out. Just like that. 

Then another. And a third. Down down down they went.

By number five, I knew enough was enough. 

Stepping out that door went against every ounce of self-preservation I had. I made up my mind: I'm not going. Nobody would ever have to know. ... then up and out went the young woman --who, it's important to know -- was about half my size. And she didn't go until she looked around the inside of the plane and smiled in my direction. Away she flew. 

I followed. 

The ride down was quick and I don't remember much except thinking "I wonder what hitting the ground's going to feel like."

I landed badly. And my legs hurt for a bit. 

But having to admit for the next 30 years that I'd chickened out would have been way worse. For some reason, ignominy is a word that comes to mind.

So thanks, wherever you are. 

Oh, another thing somebody said to me I've never forgotten? I'm talking about my late brother Tom here, and what Tom said was something like: "I could never understand why a sane person would voluntarily step out of a fully functioning airplane in mid flight." 

Smart man, Tom.


  1. Peter, absolutely brilliant story! Glad you landed safely albeit with some momentary angst. On the upside you got to tell the story 30 years on and you are still here. As a dear friend of mine said to me before I went sky-diving, "the only things that falls out of the sky are bird poop and idiots". His language was somewhat more colourful than that but you get the idea.

  2. I loved that story. I read it a while back but its so good I enjoyed reading it again. The true test of a story to me is if it can make me laugh outloud when I'm alone. Hands down. Keep'em coming.