I’m next. The instructor has us jumping from a rusty, desert-infected Cessna that has no engine and an owl nesting in the tail. The four people before me have all landed on the mattress. Tumbleweeds roll by like desert beach balls and bounce off the back of the plane. A government sign is duct-taped to the fuselage. Owl property of Arizona State Wildlife Conservation Unit, removal prohibited.

The mattress is bleached brick-like in the desert sun. It’s been jumped on a few hundred times too many and is covered in owl shit. I wonder if my helmet looks as ridiculous on me as it does on the others. Mary McAdams, forty-eight, housewife from Cleveland, nose like a pigeon. The helmet makes her face look as if it’s caught in a vice.

I lied during the meet-and-greet earlier in the day. Introduced myself and said I do this type of stuff all the time. Made up a story about Everest and a daring cold-weather rescue. Said a few things on how I like to live dangerously, seek out adventure and face life head on—real manly man stuff. A few people even clapped. My kid Ritchie would have been proud.

The other jumpers look like they’re part of a Superhero Conglomerate. Barry Rossmoor, eighty-five, looks like he eats push-ups for breakfast. Michael Johanson, twenty-nine and strapping from Pittsburg. He mentioned something about cages and sharks. Shirley Cross, thirty-three, three marathons and a thing called The Female X-Game Triatha-something. She’d already done two of them this year and it’s only April.

The instructor is a guy called Skinny. He weighs about three hundred pounds and I find it hard to imagine a parachute big enough to hold him. Possibly something from the Space Shuttle, or the kind they pull behind dragsters. Either way, the physics are against him. He is covered in hot sweaty dust and has a beard that requires constant licking to keep the area around his mouth clean. He’s straight out of the Old West, looks like he sleeps on the desert floor with only a blanket for company.

“Okay, Gary. Now remember, relax and think about your training,” says Skinny. “I want a big high arch.”

I step out onto the rusting wheel of the practice-plane, holding fast to the pockmarked wing support. My training? I’m scared. This isn’t even the real thing and I’m already freaked out. Maybe Donna was right. Maybe I’m spineless. A few things pop into my brain in no particular order. Feet out—arms out—look to your left—no, your other left—dangle your feet—tighten your helmet—hold on—don’t hold on—hurry up—slow down.


So I jump.

And I miss the mattress.

Not sure how. I arched. I dangled. In the end, I come up with some story about the owl and how it spooked me. Add something about damn birds and fucking government protection agencies. They seem to buy it. Michael quietly states the obvious, that owls are nocturnal, but no one seems to hear.

After everyone lands on the mattress except me, Skinny marches us into the hangar. Dusty parachute-packs hang from the ceiling on long metal talons that look like meat hooks. Airplane parts are strewn across the hangar floor. Old Barry says something about wanting to do a few bench presses with a couple of pistons, and Shirley laughs as she quietly jogs in place. Skinny gathers us around a table setup in the middle of the hangar. “Ok, so, you’ve all done this before,” he says. “I shouldn’t need to go over very much.”

The waiver and consent form signed before class had clearly stated this jump was solo. Not for first time jumpers. Where it had listed qualifications and minimum jump requirements; I checked the appropriate boxes. Where it talked in complicated terms about Automatic Activation Devices, and Accelerated Freefall Jumpmaster Certification; again, I checked the boxes. Where it asked if I had experience packing my own chute, I circled yes. The sign from the highway had seemed so innocent at the time. Skinny’s High Flyin’ Parachute School—we got the skinny on skydiving.

It had been a long trip to this point. Connecticut, Ohio, Wisconsin, all in two days. After Wisconsin, I skipped over to Montana, sped north and took in the Canadian Rockies. Then, I drove down the coast and headed inland. I stopped only to piss and eat pumpkin seeds. The thought of my wife and Daan Fontaine’s bare ass kept me moving. That’s right, Daan with two A’s and the busiest construction business in Watertown, Connecticut. Big, manly Daan Construction vehicles parked in dozens of driveways like mine throughout the city—the A’s in his logo forming an ingenious house with peaked roofs that suggested two kids and a loving wife tucked neatly inside. Daan was cool and tough. Said things like “I fired his ass,” and “My money’s on the Cowboys by seven points.” I originally hired him to install a kitchen cook-top landing. I should have known better when the project turned into granite countertops and custom overhead lighting.