Photo above by David Cherry.
On July 6, 1996, when I was just 11 years old, my entire family packed up the car and made the trip to Skydive Orange in Virginia to witness my dad make a tandem skydive. The jump was not his idea. His job was to manage a team of people, and he’d offered a special reward of their choice for them potentially reaching a quarterly goal. He’d envisioned a pizza party or dress-down day, but instead the skydiver on the team did what skydivers do: infiltrated the team and convinced each of them that they demand my dad jump from a plane with video evidence. Cornered, my dad reluctantly agreed. Of course, the team crushed the goal.
The drop zone at the time was a shabby metal hangar in what felt like the middle of nowhere, barely more than a shed and an airstrip surrounded by farmland. We were greeted by the smell of fuel and nylon and debauchery, and some of the most amazing people. The skydivers there were rough around the edges but carefree, and when manifest informed us that they were on hold while the mechanic fixed the airplane door, the jumpers took it upon themselves to keep us entertained with stories of drop zone parties and jumps gone awry. The stories did very little to calm my parents’ nerves, but I was busy falling in love.
Years passed and that love never faded. It was always at the back of my mind and I often dreamed about going back. As a child, I promised myself that I would start skydiving when I turned 18, but life happened, and my twenties came and went. And while that love never left me, life choices and adult responsibilities pushed that dream down until it seemed far-fetched and out of reach. It wasn’t until 2016, with the 20th anniversary of my first visit to Skydive Orange looming, that I decided to book my first tandem.
I returned on July 7. Twenty years and one day after my first visit, the drop zone was all grown up, but had the same soul—outwardly professional with the same fire (of burned-out cars) in its heart. I was immediately flooded with the same feelings, and that first jump was nothing short of magic. I knew immediately upon receiving my first taste of flight that I was not going to be a one-and-done, bucket-list jumper. But, I ended up waiting two years to do a second tandem and another year after that to do a third.
During my third tandem, my instructor asked the fated “What brings you here?” question, and I recited my story once again. How I had come to the drop zone as a kid and spent the entire day in the presence of skydivers, how I was smitten with the atmosphere of the sport and the people who could do it and how I was now making near-annual pilgrimages to bask in the presence of those I so admired.
Photo by Jim Kelley.
She told me, as nicely as possible, to cut it out. She made it clear, over and over, that not only was learning to skydive doable, but already within me. She shouted affirmations to me over the roar of the airplane on the way to altitude, and made it clear that some people just have skydiving in their soul. What a shame it would be to deny it.
At the end of the day, she brought me a flyer for their AFF program. “I’ll never tell you not to come back and do more tandems,” she said, “but I hope instead you’ll come back and be who you are.”
Be who you are.
And so, I did. I sat in my car for an hour, staring at that flyer, unable to leave. I walked back into manifest and prepaid for my first-jump course.
Since then, I’ve made quite a few jumps, and even more lifelong friends. I’ve attended some of those drop zone parties and earned (just a few) of my own hair-raising tales to share. It took me 25 years to get the guts to become the skydiver I was born to be, and I am so glad I finally did.
Meghan Johnson | B-55568