What kind of bedtime stories do mothers tell to their little children? Fairy tales. Cinderella, the Little Red Riding Hood, Bremen Musicians, Hobbit adventures – yes, my brother and I had all that. But that was not all. There were other stories.
Stories about endless universe, black holes and numerous years that the starlight travels before meeting our eyes were rare and wonderfully strange, usually told at night walks when the skies were full of stars. Strangely enough I didn’t become an astrophysicist. Then there were stories about mountains standing tall, covered with pine forests and glaciers falling down their shoulders. These stories have early on set me on my way into the world of mountaineering.
But there was also one special kind of story that our mom told us instead of yet another bed-time fairy tale: the story of one single jump from a plane and few minutes in the air under a canopy of a parachute. Only one jump because but her father almost got a heart attack waiting for her return. No more skies for her since then, just a memory, just a bedtime story for her kids. That story always felt like it wasn’t really told properly, because she wouldn’t tell how she felt up there, except that it was breathtakingly beautiful, nothing compares to it and you can’t really put it into words. So I grew up with a clear knowledge: “I want to jump with a parachute one day.”
April 2007, Bremen, rain - one of those days when everything seems utterly wrong. A friend of mine says “Why don’t you try something new? You should get out of campus and have some fun to shake this off.” I suspect that she means I should go clubbing downtown and maybe get into a romantic affair for a change. Oh, please, that’s not how I feel; I’d rather be left alone… Although… Try something new and fun… Hmm… I think I’m going to take her advise but in my own fashion. Try something new, heh? Time to push the limits. The day has come. Dear Google, tell me where should I go?
Damn, I thought it would be in Bremen. Where on Earth is Ganderkesee, left alone the airport in there? The letter I’ve received nicely provides me with instructions on how to get there… By car… I mean, everyone’s got a car, right? Alternatively that could mean that it’s in the middle of nowhere, and a car is the only transportation means to get there. Well, we’ll see. As long as I’ve got my feet and enough time…
One of the things I love about Germany is the trains. Traveling by train most of the time makes me feel good, as if I’m leaving all my troubles and worries behind. I hop off at Ganderkesee, and there it is – exactly what I need – a nice big map of the area right on the wall of the railway station with the airport clearly marked. All I have to do now is to write down the names of few streets and go for a walk to get a good time estimate.
Forty minutes one way, mostly through fields. A peaceful, green, quiet landscape, a falcon gliding in slow circles, few cars and bikers passing by and a typical, low, half-clouded Northern sky above my head. The thought that in a week from now I’ll be looking at these fields from above made me laugh and startled yet another biker. Yes, I tend to do that: laugh when I’m happy. Or sing. What’s so strange about it?
I had a quick look at the place – really just passed by without saying a word, turned back to catch the next train, got caught into one of those Bremen rains that come out of nowhere exactly when you forgot to take an umbrella, tried a run when I realized I might not make it to the train station in time, missed the right turn and got totally lost in rain curtained Ganderkesee.
The next week was packed with action. We were preparing a kind of street festival for the students on the terrace of our college. Such kinds of things usually take as much work as you’re willing to put into them and a bit on top of it. We’ve decided to give this street festival a theme this year and to turn it into a pirate harbor. Hence, we absolutely needed to have a pirate ship docked at our “harbor,” which took us about 12 hours to build. Sometimes I really wonder why I am doing a PhD in political science. Might as well be a carpenter or repair bikes. I tried all the machines I could get my hands on during this construction. The best one was the one that shot staples to attach cardboard to the wooden carcass.
Apart from the ship, there were other things that needed to be done, such as posters, pirate flags, welcome signs and in general a lot of running around with little tasks here and there. So the time just flew, and before I knew it, it was Thursday afternoon with music, people dressed like pirates, a boat proudly bearing Mercator College flag, laughter, friends all around, a long talk into the night by grilling and the dawn of the next day: Friday, 18th of May. Ganderkesee, here I come again.
The skydiving school reminded me of our mountaineering club base. Same kind of atmosphere, even similar constructions like containers turned into teaching rooms or equipment storages. This sense of similarity made me feel a bit at home and a lot homesick. Mountaineering has for years been my main source of self-assertion, a world in itself with its unique human relationships, ups and downs, challenges and discoveries that I’ve been missing dearly for the past 4 years in Bremen. And now here I am, in a strangely familiar place, among people who somehow remind me of my climbing team, yet it’s a new place and new people and as always in such situations I find myself alert and holding back even more than usual. A suspicion that my average German skills are more of a problem than I initially thought starts to grow on me. Not good.
With some delays our group of eight people - Hannah, Sreeja, Franka, Jan, Heike, Torsten, Jens and myself – is complete, all the formalities are taken care of and the training kicks off.
A lot of very important information directly related to your life, condensed into one and a half day, and all of it in German. That was tough. The effort of staying focused the entire day was draining. Even in English I would have to learn a lot of new terms, but in German – forget about it. I could not remember even the basic words that were repeated over and over. They were being translated in my head or just imprinted as pictures and then vanish without a trace. Did I really understand everything that was tough, or was it just my wishful thinking? In addition to that, for good or for bad, I have vivid imagination, hence “theoretical” situations (like, your parachute didn’t open, your actions?) become much more real. I used to get adrenaline rush at first aid trainings while trying to stop a non-existing blood loss after a never-happened car accident. In short, funny as it is, I was at times very nervous and almost always tense during the entire training, except for the breaks when I’d wander off to the other side of the hangar with two little charming ladies 3 and 5 years old, who for whatever reasons had honored me with their friendship. If you need to unwind, I suggest you trying to demonstrate a head stand to a kid or hang together upside down from some kind of a metal construction. Works just fine for me.
Luckily, I didn’t have to commute to and from the airport. I was kindly offered a lift: Torsten and Jens were my company to and from Bremen. Although it’s been only one and a half days, it felt like being away from campus for a week or so – getting up before the canteen would even open and coming back after the dinner was over, quickly checking e-mails, leaving an off-line message to my parents and crashing into my bed completely exhausted. What have I gotten myself into this time? Did I bit off more than I could chew?
On Saturday evening, to my utter surprise, I passed both tests. The training was over. The time of self-doubts was over as well. A song from my childhood sprang into my mind. It has a line that says: “Only the skies, only wind, only joy lies ahead.” All I needed now was a good sleep.
On Sunday I woke up with a smile. Today’s my lucky day! This is it. Something I’ve always been dreaming about. Nothing can go wrong, not today.
And here we are again, at the small quiet airport with yet another falcon gliding over the runway: eight beginners, two instructors and a lot of sympathetic smiles from the rest. We split into two groups. As group A is getting ready, the cameras start clicking. I’ve heard that back home there’s a superstition amongst skydivers: taking pictures before the jump is considered to bring bad luck. None of that nonsense here. I’m watching the faces of my fellow “first-jumpers,” some quite noticeably nervous, and thinking to myself: “yes, that’s when it’ll probably start; when I put on that helmet and feel the weight of the parachute on my shoulders I’ll definitely get nervous.” Yet it’s so familiar! Guess what? We used to have baggy gray uniforms donated to our Mountain Rescue unit by German Red Cross. People would wear those during trainings, or if some kind of construction work was to be done at our base. Why, I still have mine in my locker back there. And now the guys are standing there in these slightly funny looking gray overalls, helmets and something that looks like a combination of a rucksack and a climbing harness. A couple of ropes and carbines here and there would complete the picture.
Last short simulation of emergency actions, and off they go. We saw them getting into the plane, we saw them in the sky, we saw them reacting (or not) to Kai’s instructions on the radio, we saw them all landing safely, laughing with excitement and relief. Well, our turn. I guess being in the second group is way easier.
A short break while parachutes are being re-packed. I find it difficult to sit still, feeling all jumpy with excitement. An old gentleman tells me that the helmet I am holding in my hands used to belong to him; it still has his name on it. He asks me which jump it is I’m going to have (wow, isn’t it damn obvious I’m a total novice?) and how comes I’ve decided to try it. I tell him about my mom and how I always wanted to do it. “So where is your mother now, why isn’t she watching?” Ah, good question. I wish my parents were here. But, hey, when I’m home – some six weeks from now – this will probably be the first story to tell and the first glass of wine to drink to.
Finally it’s our turn to walk to the plane. The lightest person jumps out last, hence is the first one to get into the plane. And that would be me. So I get to sit right next to the pilot – awesome! After a few minutes everyone is in and the flight is airborne. I flew in planes ever since I was a kid, but this is something totally different. It’s not one of those big aircrafts where you recognize an ascent or a curve because of a nasty feeling in your stomach. It doesn’t feel like a powerful machine, an isolated world of safety with thick walls and all kinds of smart devises designed to separate you from the deadly void outside, for your own safety and comfort, until you arrive from point A to point B. Sitting on the floor of the small plane while it was climbing higher and higher into the air, it felt like I was already in the sky, might as well step out of this metal carcass. My altimeter shows 1200m; the sound of the plane engine changes. Here we are.
Many things probably combined into making my first jump as easy as possible. The fact that I was the last one, that from the place I was sitting I saw the others jump but not fall and tumble through the air, that I blindly trusted my luck and was totally convinced that nothing could go wrong with me, but above all - excitement and curiosity that left no room for fear or doubt. The sky was just such an interesting world to be in! If anything I’ve done in my life comes closest to the term “adventure” it’s definitely this. And who doesn’t dream of adventures?
As far as I remember I didn’t look down at the door. Well, what do you want? After years of climbing I still get seriously scared from time to time. So I developed a habit of not looking down, unless necessary. In this case it was necessary to look at Jan-Claas, who gave me the “ok” signal. There is a sequence of simple things you do and say before you jump out, and we practiced it many times on the ground until it became something you’d do automatically. Once you start, there’s no stopping. It’s like casting a spell that will pull you out of the plane. Prop, up, down, out!
Next thing I remember is a yellow blur (probably the plane), counting in my mind, and then a beautiful white and red canopy of a perfectly opened parachute over my head. Told you nothing can go wrong today! Altitude 1100m. As I was reaching for the steering lines there came the first radio contact from the ground “Hallo Jenny, willkommen im Himmel.” This came as no surprise since I’ve heard Kai greeting every person from the first group earlier on, while we were down there and they were up here, but still – it just sounds do great! I am being welcomed to the sky; let’s see how I find my way around here. Left turn, right turn, break – wow! Breaking is really awesome, because the ground kind of swings down and then up again when you release the breaks. And the ground looks like Google Earth! That’s funny. All right, this is all great, but where am I? That construction down there looks like the airport. Yes, it definitely is, I can see a little plane standing there and the runway, but where the heck is the gray round mark we’re supposed to be landing on? There’s only grass at the end of the runway. “Jenny, 180 left turn.” Yes, sir. Not that he can here me… The picture beneath my feet turns 180 degrees and falls into the right perspective. There’s the gray circle, exactly where it’s supposed to be. I was looking in the wrong direction before. Now we’re talking! I can fly and I even know where I am supposed to fly to.
And here, my dear reader, I’ll have to disappoint you. I know the main reason you’re reading this is that you want to know how it feels to fly a parachute. This is what everyone asks: “how was it?” Well, except for saying, it was great, awesome, unbelievable, and any other similar adjectives I can come up with, I really cannot say more. I am sorry, but it looks like this indeed is a story that cannot be fully told. There are things that are simply impossible to transmit through words. At least, as far as I am concerned, this is a task beyond my skills. If you really want to know, you’ll have to try it yourself.
It felt like a long time in the sky but still I wish it wouldn’t be over so soon. One thing did go wrong at the very end of this adventure: I had a bad landing. Silly as it is, the last few seconds I didn’t look down, so the Earth suddenly jumped up and caught me by surprise, or, more precisely, it caught my left foot. There was a sudden waive of pain from the heel to the knee, a nasty moment when I realized I can’t run and am collapsing forward instead, and I landed on my hands and knees. Back to Earth indeed… Pain... Stupid…. You broke that foot once already… So damn stupid… Set your teeth together and get up. Thumb up to the instructors.
Standing on one foot I slowly coil the lines of the parachute. The pain gradually eases. It can’t be too bad. I swing the canopy over my shoulder and try waking without limping. I won’t show it if I can help it. Today’s my day, and I am not going to be a little silly cripple who got herself hurt because she didn’t expect the Earth to be there.
After 10 steps I forgot all about my foot, swept away with overwhelming happiness. There were cheers, congratulations, handshakes and hugs. We did it!!!
The nicest thing about it is that it stays with you for a long time. The flashbacks of memory make you grin unexpectedly. The thought “I was there, I’ve done it” keeps coming back and fills you with lasting joy. Next day I felt like stopping every student on our little campus and telling them, you know – I parachuted and it was great! You, guys, just don’t know what you’re missing. I look into the sky and think – that’s my element, I am Airborne – now and forever. I already miss the place, the people, the atmosphere... I am going back there as soon as I can. It’s not the end of my best adventure. It’s just the beginning…
The End of the Beginning
Bremen, May 27, 2007