I liked to start writing as if I was writing a letter. Partly because I lacked the ability to start from scratch and partly because my nephew Pauly had reached an age where he could read (and quite well too).
Start with the date, the time, a little ramble about what’s going on, a hello or good day and then get into it. The personal touches. The rest arrived how it needed to.
Saturday, 11:53 a.m.
January 19, 2019
Sitting at the local café this morning. Geez I love this place. The sun, the clouds. I’ve only really started to take all this stuff in over the past couple of years, really started to pay attention to the beauty right in front of me. You’re already doing it so nothing to worry about there.
Anyway, let me tell you about what happened earlier this morning.
I went in a plane.
There were 12 of us. The plane could hold 16 but 12 felt like enough. The propeller roared and we ripped along the runway.
When I say runway, I mean a flat patch of grass cut down to the roots. From far, smooth, up close, you felt every bump like a kick in the butt.
We really started to get some speed, going so fast trees started to blur. I peered out the window and saw the shadow of the plane starting to shift. Then my stomach came up to meet my lungs.
We’re in the air Pauly!
Past the treetops, then the birds, then the clouds. Usually, after the stories my dad told me, any kind of height above eye level fills my body with a slight wariness. But this was too high for that to kick in. The cars and trucks below were smaller than toys.
The pilot started speaking.
Five minutes until the drop zone!
The guy at the front nodded to the guy at the back.
Rick, the lead skydiver, tapped me on the shoulder. Then shoved his glove-covered hand with a thumb sticking up in front of my face. He leant into my ear.
Let’s fly Charlie.
Rick’s spent more time in a plane than you and I have in a car.
Sweat rolled down the inside of my goggles. You could feel the heat in the plane but this wasn’t heat sweat, it was nerve sweat.
One time I told someone I thought jumping out of a working aeroplane seemed stupid. Yet, this jump would be my 9th.
Every other time someone else strapped themselves onto my back. A tandem they called it. Someone else who’d (thankfully) done the silly thing of jumping out of a working aeroplane far more than me.
Sixty seconds! the pilot called out.
I turned to Rick.
How did you do it? I asked.
He looked at me as if he didn’t hear. I spoke louder.
How did you do it!?
He yelled back.
Your first solo!
I was drunk! he laughed.
The first six times!
How about now?!
He held his hand up towards his face, thumb and index finger spaced apart just enough so I could see his eye. Signalling a little bit without saying.
Terminal velocity for a human being is 190km/h. Almost double a car on the highway.
Once you reach this speed you don’t fall any faster. Twelve seconds after I leave the plane door, I’ll hit it then hold it for another 40 or so.
I closed my eyes, clenched my hands and took a deep breath. Thoughts rushed in.
Did I pack my chute right?
I checked it three times.
Was my altitude meter calibrated correctly?
They get tested every day.
Were my goggles fogging up too much?
Drip drip drip, you could count the sweat beads rolling off my forehead. Once the door opened, the wind would take care of it.
I opened my eyes. Looked out the window and reminded myself of my training. I’d done this before. Plenty of people had done this before me. Rick was drunk when he did it.
All I had to do was jump, check the horizon, ground, altimeter (the thing which measures how high you are). Horizon, ground, altimeter, horizon, ground, altimeter.
Once I hit 7,000 feet, stare at the needle, watch it hit 6,000, PULL, check the chute, cut the chute if necessary, if not, guide it in. Easy money.
Fifteen seconds! the pilot said.
The final warning. The jump light would come on soon.
You’re on your own this time Charlie, Rick said. We’ll be right behind you. Rick tapped my shoulder three times. Taps of reassurance.
Why do we force ourselves to do such things?
I smirked. Showtime. I’d get nervous in the build-up but when it came time to perform I always put it on.
Rick moved towards the door.
Let’s roll! he shouted to the group.
His right hand grabbed the door handle, his left pointing at each of us. At Sammy, first, then to me, second, then Pat, Charlotte, Chris.
Right in the middle. Every new soloist got sandwiched in case something went wrong.
Rick ripped up the door handle and slid the door open. Air rolled in and the plane shuddered.
Rick eyed the space behind the pilot. The jump light came on and he waved towards the door.
Go, go, go!
Sammy stepped forward. Then out. Gone. A full-sized person shrunk to raisin spec in two seconds. Let me tell you Pauly, gravity works quickly.
My turn. Rick eyed his watch carefully. At this speed, we’d need seven seconds between jumpers. He raised his left arm and my eyes followed.
Time to do the silly thing, I told myself. Time to leave a working aeroplane.
I counted down in my head.
7, 6, 5, 4, 3...
Rick’s arm swung down. He looked me in the eyes, formed his lips in a circle and let out a big...
I rolled out, left leg first. The wind caught it and the rest of my body followed. My stomach met my chest again. I saw the plane. Smaller and smaller. Another reminder. Gravity works quickly. All that potential built up, waiting to show its face.
I shouldn’t be able to see the plane.
Upside down. Like a turtle on its back in an ice-skating rink, slipping and sliding. Every attempt I’d make at rolling over, I’d lose control and slide around more.
Rick’s words echoed in my head.
You’re on your own.
Reality kicked in. 190km/h through the sky. On my own.
Twice. 190km/h through the sky. On my own.
We practised this. Laying on our stomachs whilst raising our arms and legs towards the sky until we couldn’t. I tried. Gravity had a different idea. It seemed much easier on the ground. Much easier with someone else on your back calling the shots.
Despite hurtling at nine-tenths of terminal velocity, I considered my options. Try to right myself and risk being too close to the ground when I pull my chute? Or pull my chute and hope it yanked me into position?
Rick’s words again.
You’re on your own.
Something hit me from behind. Hard.
What the f***! I shouted. Pauly, I bleeped this out. Careful with that word around your mother.
Rick hit me mid-air.
Hold on Charlie! he said through the swamp of air around us.
Rick balanced us out. Shoved his arm under mine, around my back and pulled.
The pilot chute went up. The mini-parachute before the big one. Rick let go. Purple and white exploded from my back and sucked in air. My body righted itself as Rick fell below.
I watched his chute come out, then checked my wrist. One hundred metres above the danger zone. Safe by standard skydiving measures. Time to land.
I followed Rick’s circles. A big left pull, a big right pull, left pull, right pull. I thought, hopefully he’s not actually drunk.
On the final turn, I pulled too hard to the right. I missed the target by five or six body lengths. My knees hit the ground, then my hands, then my face. I stayed there.
Rick kneeled beside me. Put his hand on my back.
I looked up, let out a small laugh.
You did well up there, Rick said. If you didn’t stop the roll, I couldn’t have helped you out. You were about to right yourself, I could tell but by then I’d already committed to coming in. I had to, he said.
Maybe I should’ve gone to The Phoenix first, I grinned. Rick’s favourite bar.
We started laughing. Rick helped me up.
In a few weeks, I’m going for my second first solo jump. I’ll pull my own chute this time. You can come and meet me at the landing zone if you want.
The letter could’ve ended here but I always liked to put a little summary at the end. In case the message or moral of the narrative hadn’t come through.
XK-1 gave me these stories to riff about and send through to Pauly. When I wrote this letter I’d never been skydiving but somehow the details spilled out of me. Things I couldn’t have imagined. I’d met a drunk called Rick whilst driving Uber to pay for my studies. That really happened. He told me his experience skydiving, doing nine tandem jumps before his first solo, drinking heavily the night before and not remembering getting on the plane and doing the same for the next five or so.
My letters to Pauly, including this one, were often a love child of mixed realities. Between the blurry experience XK-1 offered and the stories I’d stolen from people like Rick.
Before I finish, let me add something I think you should know Pauly. Jumping out of a plane is about as on your own as you can get. But you don’t have to leave a working aeroplane wearing an oversized backpack to appreciate that lesson.
Despite what anyone tells you about relationships—I will be the first to tell you how important they are—life is single player. When you look someone in the eyes, when you look yourself in the eyes, when you’re lying in bed at night, when you’re listening the words come out of your mouth. You’re the only voice in your own head.
Your memories, challenges, joys, problems, pains, pleasures, feelings, thoughts. All yours. And no one else is going to care as much about them as you.
Every time I forget this, every time I think someone is going to take on my challenges for me, complete my tasks, be as excited about my interests as I am, join me on every adventure I seek. I’m reminded.
Stop playing hide and seek with yourself Charlie.
You’re it Charlie.
And so are you Pauly.
One of the top three best feelings is self-reliance. When you know you can depend on your own skill and tact to deal with whatever gets thrown your way.
Even though I was scared, falling through the sky like a helpless bird who hadn’t learned to fly yet, I was calm.
Being a little scared is a good thing. You’re a whole different person when you’ve got a good dose of fear flowing through your veins. In fact, that’s often when you’re at your best, at least it is if you’ve practised self-reliance. Fear makes you feel alive. It turns your instincts on. Makes you realise what you were built for.
If I didn’t do things which scared me on a daily basis, I’d feel dead inside.
I’ve still got a ways to go but I’m getting better and the more self-reliant I become the better it feels. But I know we humans are social creatures. Full self-reliance doesn’t exist. If you didn’t interact with others, how would you know who you were? For you to be someone, you need others.
It’s more a way of thinking. Saying to yourself, Oh yeah, I do have the fortitude. I do I do I do. To endure whatever comes my way. Instead of being consumed by fear, I can use it. Use it as nature’s test of my abilities.
Instead of avoiding fear, seek it. Become immune to anything which questions whether you’re worthy or not. Because you are.
Love you always.
I put the pen down, folded the paper into thirds put it in an envelope licked the seal wrote out the address stamped it and sat it on the edge of my desk.
Right underneath the flamingos.
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