Another one from my Ace Reporter days, this was first printed in 2001 in North American Pylon and another really cool website that spotlights women road racers (the kind in cars) called Thunder Valley Racing. The only reason why this relates to autocross is because my dad wouldn’t print it at all unless it had something to do with autocross. But it’s otherwise a true story, something I wish never happened, or at least the events leading up to it. You’ll see what I mean.
Ever run an autocross down at the Marina Airport (near Monterey, CA) and wonder if the parachutists landing in the nearby landing strip are having more fun than you? Well, I have, many times. Recently, I finally got to find out for myself, and here I shall share my findings.
The place was Buckeye, Arizona, and the date, March 5th, 2001. You might be wondering what I was doing in Buckeye. Let’s just say it was a memorial, of sorts, for a friend, a true lover of life, a mountain climber, a parachutist, 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force, son, and husband, who died exactly one year ago on his motorcycle while stationed in Italy. He was 27 years old. It was the tragic end to a beautiful beginning.
Lacy was his name. He wouldn’t be called by his first name. Only a real man would want to be called Lacy. I only met him once, at his wedding in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, where he wed my best friend Brigitte. It was she who planned this spectacle of a weekend to celebrate life the way Lacy would want us to. It marked one year of survival for Brigitte. She made it. And the best way to celebrate would be to do really crazy things. Fun things. Things that if you mess up, you’ll hurt really bad. That’s how you know you’re alive, you see.
“Pain is weakness leaving your body,” says Dan’s license plate frame. Dan was Lacy’s best friend. He was there to celebrate, too. Death, you might sneak up on Lacy, but you’re not going to catch us, you bastard. That’s what we were saying, only we didn’t say it with words. Instead, we rode mountain bikes in Sedona and fell off cliffs and crashed into trees, and we laughed about it, just like Lacy would. We jumped out of an airplane in Buckeye.
Buckeye is somewhere near Phoenix, off of I-10. The Desert Skydiving Center is somewhere near Buckeye. It is in this hangar type building. Walk in, there are three couches with a TV near the entrance, a back counter, and then all this parachuting gear strewn all about the building. They play loud rock music on the stereo.
They made us sign a million times this form with a million paragraphs. You have to initial each paragraph. The basic theme is, “We never told you sky diving is safe. You could die, and if you do die, you will be held accountable, not us, so don’t even bother suing.”
Then we had to watch a video telling us the same thing. They kept playing the stereo louder and louder, and I said, “Hey, I can’t hear the video!” and Brigitte said, “I think there’s a reason, Katie.”
But the main theme of the video was, “Tandem sky diving is not FAA approved. It is considered ‘experimental.’ You are merely guinea pigs. You could be dead guinea pigs in less than one hour.”
Tony, Brigitte’s instructor, later calmed our nerves. “Look, you’re our vested interest,” he said. “If you die, so do I. I don’t want to die. I don’t want this company to go out of business.”
This made me feel a LOT better.
The Nitty Gritty
What made me nervous about this Cessna 152 or whatever it was, was that I have seen ’63 Beetles in better condition than this. I verbalized that my rusty MGB GT was in much better shape than this plane. My comment came too late. We were already cramped into the tiny cabin, already 1000 feet into the air.
Tony, over the roar of the Cessna’s hamster of an engine, yelled, “Hey, did your B’s speedometer work?”
“Well, this plane’s does. Could your B fly?”
He had a point.
Brigitte, who was sitting next to the pilot, next to the front door that was nothing more than dented sheet metal attached to a frame, said that was one of the few gauges that did work. The gas gauge did not.
Brigitte yelled to the pilot, “Hey, you’re the pilot. You don’t need a parachute!”
“In this plane, yes I do!”
I focused on the breath. This is a skill recommended in W. Timothy Gallwey’s book, The Inner Game of Tennis. You can only focus on one thing at a time. If you focus on the breath, you cannot be any more “in” the moment. So, I focused on breathing deeply, and I reviewed over and over again my instructions told to me when we were once on land, about how I’m going to scoot to the front of the plane, hold the door frame, put my foot on the step (on the plane’s wheel), cross my arms over my chest, put my right shoulder to my right knee, and then Jim, my instructor tied to my back, is going to throw us out of the plane at 12,000 feet. Even at three feet above the concrete hangar floor, it didn’t seem that easy.
Still, I wanted to focus on that to keep my mind in a pro-active state, but
Tony and Jim, two ruggedly handsome men who laughed a little too easily in my opinion, thought they’d help us relax by making jokes. I didn’t think they were very funny. For example, at 7,000 feet Tony told us, “Well, I had a skydiving license. Once.” Then came roars of laughter.
“Hey, I’m sorry, I forgot to harness myself to the girl! I held on to her as tight as I could, but I also had to open the ‘chute, or we’d both die! It was just self-preservation!”
Ha ha ha, high fives between Tony and Jim.
Tony and Jim had over 11,000 jumps between them, and were still alive, they pointed out. This was to assure us that they knew what they were doing. The problem with this argument is that they say there is a one in 10,000 chance that you could die parachuting. With Tony’s 8,000 jumps already, it only seemed to me that he was nearing the end of his lifespan.
This Cessna was loud and cramped and I was very depressed. My room was and still is a mess, I have journal entries I simply must edit before consumed by strangers, my mom would just kill me if she got the call, just all these things were flashing through my mind at 9,000 feet and climbing in a tiny cabin, sitting backwards behind a pilot wearing a parachute.
I just focused on the breathing part. Deep and slow, deep and slow. Pay no attention to the lack of ground directly underneath this Coke can of a plane. Look out the window, look at the horizon, breathe in, breathe out. Brigitte and Tony were up first. The door opened, and the cold, sharp wind slammed into the cabin. Hair flew in every direction. Communication switched from yelling to pointing. Just breathe, deep and slow, deep and slow. Release your tight grip on the pilot’s seat, and put your goggles on. Keep your eyes on the horizon. At this point, Jim was fastened to my back, very tightly. “I’m going to be your closest friend for the next few minutes. How does this make you feel?” he said.
Just keep breathing. It was difficult to breathe now. At 12,000 feet, the air is very thin. Breathe in, and hold it. Release. All I could hear was the scream of the wind as Brigitte and Tony fell from the plane and disappeared from view.
Jim went through all these checkpoints with me, assured me we were connected at four points, and reviewed, again, my tasks ahead. I shan’t repeat them. Instead, I’ll say this. You put your right foot on the step on the wheel of the plane. Don’t look down, look to the horizon. The horizon was the mountains surrounding Phoenix. Focus on the mountain peaks. Keep your head up. The wind is cold and sharp, and rips into your skin. I crossed my hands over my chest. I know Jim said something, I know he counted to three and yelled GO!, but I can’t remember it. I remember the wind, and I remember the horizon, the mountains, the Arizona desert, so far below. It looked like a relief map. What it felt like, as we pushed from the plane, was like we were jumping into a huge wave. You just push off into the wind, and open your chest, hug the wind, into a swan dive, and the wind carries you away. The wind holds you up, supports you, and you’re flying, away from the plane. That’s what you feel like.
Of course, having this guy strapped to my back screaming kind of distracted me from the experience. Okay, okay, Jim, enough with the thumbs up signs. Shut up already. Smile, that’s all I wanted to do. Let me breathe this all in. I remember swimming underwater for the first time, under my mom’s legs, trying to fight my buoyancy, the quiet serenity of the clear pool water pressing into my ears as I looked all around this pool abyss, noticing the bugs and beer cans at the pool’s bottom as I’m paddling along, observing it all. Now the water was the wind rippling into me at 120 mph. Smiling was impossible, because the wind slams your lips into funny shapes. Anyway, this wasn’t a swan dive anymore. It was the biggest hug I could ever give the world. Here I am, I can see all the mountains, the rivers, the roads, the whole planet, my hair is flapping, my cheeks are flapping, I’m higher than the birds, and down there, there’s Brigitte, she’s flying too.
Forty-five seconds later, that’s when Jim popped open the ‘chute. It was a gentle opening, and soon I was dangling up right. “Welcome to my office,” said Jim.
We floated slowly down to Planet Earth, the noise of suburban traffic still miles away. We approached the landing pad, which was a large field of dirt. Brigitte was there waiting for me, with a big grin. No words were spoken. It was all understood.
How does this compare to autocross? I wasn’t shaking like I normally do at an autocross. I surprisingly felt calm. Autocross provides a better adrenaline kick. You see, it takes a long time to fall from the sky. You’re not dodging objects. You have a lot of time to think. The act in and of itself is pushing the limit of disaster, so the biggest rush is merely stepping from the plane. That was my favorite part. If you were riding in a VW Beetle with wings, you’d want to jump out, too.
Autocross, on the other hand, is a combination of many variables, such as the relative high speeds to orange objects coming at you very quickly, the competition, and the pushing of one’s limits only because of the competition. There are so many emotions and conditions, and the key is finding a balance between the rush of “success,” in whatever form that appears, and the rush of pushing yourself into a new zone. At its best, you are completely free. It is finding that balance that creates the challenge. Going through the motions, and simply driving, does not count. If you are not trying to win, if you are not trying to exceed your own comfort levels, you will not push yourself into a zone of transcendence when you finally release your ego, and relinquish control, and let whatever it is happen.
Autocross is a nebulous form of competition. Unlike other motor sports, in autocross you have no one on course with you to push you. You cannot see where time is gained or lost. You only have your competitors’ times written on the scoreboard to tell you where you are in class. You seldom have a pit crew or teammates around to advise you. You must make all decisions on your own, decisions that are also dependent upon your current emotional state and the hormones surging through your blood stream. You only have three short chances to get it right. The more you risk, the more you stand to gain. The net effect is one of euphoria. But it is a euphoria that is self-inflicted.
Compare this to jumping out of a plane: once you choose you step from that airplane, you are going to fall, you are going to reach speeds of 120 mph, no matter what. There is no choice, just acceptance. You have no control. You can die, and there’s nothing you can do about it, so you roll with it, see it for what it is, and what you experience is true peace.
I fell from the sky for all that this jump would represent, and not to simply trick Death, you sneaky bastard. I fell from the sky for Brigitte, for her sorrow, for her loneliness, and also because Tony and Jim told me I’d feel left out if I didn’t. I fell from the sky to share in this special moment of remembrance, and to celebrate the lives Brigitte and I still have, that Dan has, that we all have, that Lacy lost too soon.
Now I can see why Lacy would do this. Down on the ground, there’s always such a racket going on, all this fighting and hatred. From up above, y’all don’t know how beautiful and innocent you people look. No wonder God loves us so.
I have an update! I’m happy to report that a year ago last September, Brigitte got married to Robbert Smit on the island of Curaçao. Miguel and I were there! On September 29th of this year they had a baby boy, Christopher Conrad, and they’re living happily ever after in Boulder, CO.