25 August 2009

Thyraphobia, or Purity of Heart is to Fear One Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Not Do Again (Pt. 2)

It was a July Sunday morning, hot but not too hot. We arrived at the small airstrip at the appointed hour, a carful of eager. We found the metal Quonset hangar and parked behind a small RV sitting up on cinderblocks. It had grimy windows covered over with anti-Obama and heavy metal rock band stickers. From somewhere underneath it, I could hear a cat mewing.

About thirty or so people were sitting in folding soccer chairs on the hangar's apron facing the runway, chatting, smoking cigarettes, and occasionally glancing up into the sky. As we walked toward them, I naturally looked up. Large white cumulus clouds let in patches of sky blue sky. Just at that moment, I saw something about the size of a deer tick on a Lipizzaner's rump . It was the figure of a man falling in a puff through one of the clouds directly overhead. Whoa!

I craned to see him. He grew larger and larger as he plummeted directly toward me. Soon, others came into view. Then, after what seemed like a really long time, the first man opened his chute. A black and grey canopy with some sort of military insignia unfurled above him. Right behind him the other black figures opened identical chutes, probably a jump group from the local army base. I watched them sail down, spiraling round and round toward the drop zone about a hundred yards from where I was standing, swooping in one-by-one between two lines of colorful banners fluttering in the breeze, tugging on their controls and pulling up, stopping in mid-air about two feet off the ground, and setting down gently and precisely on a marker in the grass between the runways just as the plane that had, apparently, taken them up landed. Wow!

No one there, the regulars apparently, seemed particularly moved by this incredible feat. No applause. We, on the other hand, watched the men, who were all dressed in black coveralls, land, gather their parachutes, and stride back to the hangar, our mouths agape, staring back and forth at each other in disbelief. "OMG, we're gonna' do that," Wisdaughter said, clapping her hands.

"We better go in to register," I said. My neck ached. The others in my group, Wisdoc, Wisdommy, and Wisdaughter, could hardly contain their excitement. They chattered as we stepped into a dark room, the blinds on its windows pulled tight to keep out the glare of the sun. Its walls were lined with sofas and vending machines. A young woman at a plexiglas window confirmed our appointment and handed us out some forms—kind of like at the dentist's office.

This seems like a good place to explain how we got there in the first place. Wisdaughter had just turned eighteen and had declared that the one thing she could legally do on her birthday that she couldn't have done the day before was to skydive. So, she said, that is what she would like for us all to do—as a party and her present, our last family outing (ex our long-awaited scuba diving trip) before she had to head off to college. Wisdommy, who's a tad older was gung-ho and couldn't believe he hadn't thought of the same thing on his birthday last year. Wisdoc said she didn't want to jump, but was supportive and would cheer them on from the ground. I had said, "Okay, here's what I'll do: You guys go ahead. I'll suit up, strap into the gear, go up in the plane with you, and make a decision at the door whether to jump. I can't promise anything." If nothing else, I am sufficiently self-aware to at least suspect I might seize up at the last second.

Now, before you are allowed to skydive, you have to fill out a number of CYA forms absolving anybody and everybody in the known, civilized world of any and every kind of legal liability, real or imagined, whatsoever henceforth and forevermore, including, but not limited to the airport, the owner of the land under the airstrip, the air traffic controllers, the airplane manufacturer, the parachute and parachute paraphernalia manufacturers, the skydive company (its employees, owners, subsidiaries, heirs, and assigns), the pilots, the people jumping with you, the chute packers, the owners of the Quonset hangar, etc., etc. Understandably. The skydive company, itself a limited liability corporation, by my reading, was hidden in a maze of like sixteen other limited liability corporations each with different places of doing business from like Michigan to Florida; they weren't going to make it easy if you decided to go back on your entirely voluntary agreement not to sue: it would take thousands of dollars of discovery just to figure out whom to sue and where to locate their assets.

But I'm a lawyer. I'm used to that stuff, though, admittedly, I'd never seen quite such a defensive shell game. And, from my preliminary research, in all the thirty-plus years the skydive company had been in business, they'd only had two serious accidents: one when a paraplegic flipped over and fell through his tandem harness and the other when a just-married couple's chutes had gotten tangled on the way down.

What struck me like a ball peen hammer to the temple, though, on the first page of the stack of papers we received, in something like 36-point bold font, was a centered statement reading something like: "Skydiving is an extremely high-risk activity. You could seriously injure yourself or lose your life even if everything goes right." In a slightly smaller font, but no less attention-getting, it identified the company sponsoring this high-risk company as "The Uninsured [...] Company." This got my Spidey-sense all tingly. What in the hell was I getting not just myself, but my family, into?

I wanted to get up, grab the papers from their hands, and march them out the door that very second.

[to be continued]

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