Deborah Cupples: How I learned to stop worrying and take the plunge

Published: Monday, June 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, May 31, 2009 at 12:21 a.m.

Trust me, it wasn’t planned. Intensely risk averse, I’d never even considered jumping out of a perfectly good airplane at 13,000 feet.

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Keith Creedy, Skydive Palatka.

But the opportunity arose, and I took it.

Admittedly, my decision-making wasn’t smooth.

Some friends and I went to Skydive Palatka, a drop zone an hour from Gainesville, for research. Owner and instructor Art Shaffer showed us around and answered 500 questions.

Art is a calm, powerfully built, gray-haired fellow with an engineering background, a sense of humor and 11,000 jumps behind him.

The sky was a searing blue. From a picnic table, we watched skydivers land in the grassy field bordering the runway — including UF students from a club called The Falling Gators.

Out of that searing blue, someone said, “Deb, you could do a tandem with Art.”

My eyebrows sprang up, a la Carol Burnett doing Norma Desmond: “You mean today?”

Minutes later, I started thinking things like: “Dozens of people just safely landed — it can’t be that dangerous”; and “After 11,000 jumps, Art knows what he’s doing.”

“Okay,” I said. I tuned out my friends’ laughter and began picturing myself soaring through the sky: privy to a rare, spectacular view and total freedom. The more I envisioned it, the more enchanted I became by the idea of being airborne.

To prepare, I watched a video of a student’s tandem jump. I felt comfortable with my decision ... until the instructor asked the student, “Are you ready?”

At that moment, dreamy thoughts gave way to this realization: I would soon be standing at a doorway, having to choose to take that first step off an airplane.

Doubts assaulted me like machine-gun fire. I wandered the drop zone, asking people about their first jumps, struggling to see myself taking that first step.

If I could visualize it, I could do it. At that point, all I could visualize was going catatonic at the doorway.

I let Art attach the strappy harness to me, anyway — and I explained that I would likely freeze up at the door. Art smiled and continued harnessing me.

It was a true dilemma: how could I go airborne without leaving the plane?

Eventually, a solution revealed itself. “Art, I cannot actually choose to jump,” I said. “Don’t ask if I’m ready — just do it.” Dilemma resolved.

Art chuckled, then gave me step-by-step instructions. Focusing on the process relaxed me; until Art issued this warning: “In the air, don’t grab my arms. The adrenaline surge will make it impossible for me to loosen your grip without hurting you.”

My eyebrows did another Norma Desmond.

Timidly, I assimilated into the “load” (the group of skydivers on the plane). Over considerable engine noise, these people were chatting and laughing. They did special three-step handshakes. They were eager to jump.

Meanwhile, I tried to persuade myself to eventually go past the doorway.

With eyes closed, I took slow, deep breaths. I repeatedly told my heart rate to decrease and my muscles to relax.

After reaching altitude (two-plus miles), I watched each skydiver, in turn, leave the plane, as though falling off the horizon’s edge.

“I’m hooking us up,” Art said. He attached us at the shoulders and hips.

“Is it too late to chicken out?” I asked.

“Yep,” he smiled. But I knew I could have called it off.

Instead, I let Art guide me to the door, where I stared down at a road with cars the size of cockroaches. The wind was powerful — the best air conditioning I’ve ever felt.

“Cross your arms,” Art said. “Put your foot there.” I complied.

And then I was airborne. The first word out of my mouth was “Wow!”

During the free fall (100-plus miles per hour), I heard only the wind.

Suddenly, the parachute opened and lurched us upward. Compelled to grab something, my hands absurdly seized the shoulder straps.

It was oddly quiet under the chute, enabling us to chat. Like a tour bus guide, Art pointed out Florida’s east coast and the gleaming St. Johns River. He offered to do spirals.

“No, no! Let’s just fall straight.”

With Art doing all the work, I gently floated toward the ground, like Mary Poppins under her umbrella. Halfway down, my arms dropped to my sides. Every muscle relaxed.

It was after reaching the ground that I began walking on air.

I, of all people, had jumped out of an airplane. Actually, I’d consented to being strapped to Art while he jumped, but still ... I had conquered a fear.

If I can do that, I figured, there’s nothing I can’t achieve with both feet on the ground. I couldn’t stop smiling.

Deborah Cupples is an attorney who lives in Gainesville and blogs at Buck Naked Politics.

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