I'm not the brightest dude in the shed. When my parents asked what I wanted to be when I grow up, I said a horse. As a teenager, I thought that air kept the bread fresh, so I'd blow into the bag before putting it away.
Still, I knew enough to stay inside an airplane when it's flying at 13,000 feet. Only one thing could change my mind: a merciless triple dog dare by my friend Anthony.
At Taft Skydive, it was literally raining men. They reminded me of the G.I. Marine Force Paratrooper that I owned as a kid. His chute would open about half the time, a percentage that seemed suddenly unacceptable.
In the hangar I met my tandem partner, Voodoo, who only happens to be the adult film star Voodoo Child. His wife Nicole -- six feet tall, mostly legs -- also freefalls from airplanes. Now you know what porn stars do in the daytime.
Outside his tribal earrings and rockabilly sideburns, Voodoo could have been your neighbor. I mean, you wouldn't leave your wife with him, but you could trust him on your back. I mean --
"When I go up on my own," he said, "I get a little crazy. But with students, it's always by the book."
I make cheeky innuendo because I'm immature like that, but Voodoo was the best jump partner you could ever want ... if you know what I mean.
While I was suiting up, someone in the sky experienced a "malfunction," which called everyone to the tarmac. The jumper had cut away his primary chute and, proving himself to be clinically insane, tried to catch up with it like James Bond. Finally he gave up and decided to try the reserve chute, his only remaining connection to this whole life thing.
Fortunately it worked, so we put away the giant spatula.
"It happens every few weeks," said Voodoo. "That guy packed his own bag, so there won't be a confrontation."
Immediately, I wanted to meet my own packer, Saul.
"So, uh, you're on good terms with Voodoo, right?"
Saul laughed and kept stuffing a backpack much like the ones you receive on fan night at Dodger Stadium.
"And you've never lost anyone to the best of your knowledge?"
Saul shook his head.
"Then I'll consider you the Qantas of parachute packing. Please accept this generous tip."
Group Eight returned buzzing from a jump. Guys wore their hair long and said things like "no worries" and "it's all good." It was like a keg party with a purpose.
"These guys come back every weekend," said Voodoo. "They're junkies like Jester."
Voodoo ... Jester ... All we needed was Ice Man and Maverick.
Jester, on cue, ran by eating a chicken wing, his pony tail clumped into sections with colored rubber bands. He sucker-punched everyone he met and looked at you with those crazy Cheshire Cat eyes. You adored him at once.
"You get like this after 20,000 jumps," he said, sipping his coffee.
"Any final words before I go up?" I asked.
"Yeah," said Jester. "Hold on to your boys. Now let's get up there and find out why the birds sing. Woooo!"
In the belly of the plane, students held hands in a breathing exercise to find their center or conjure the spirit of Elvis. We flew so high that I, in my naive little T-shirt, got an ice cream headache. You'd think that as you approached the sun, it would get warmer. And air should keep the bread fresh! So it goes.
Voodoo sat me in his lap -- don't even go there -- and latched into my four metal loops. I took inventory one last time. Goggles, check. Altimeter, check. Change of underwear, check.
Jester, riding shotgun, poked his head in to say, "Are there any peanuts on this flight?" Then he laughed his head off and crawled back to "first class."
I was just getting comfortable when someone had the gall to open the door. That's when your brain realizes that you're actually going to leave the airplane; it's not a movie. My heart wanted out -- to hell with the triple dog dare. What if I died right there? Would they downgrade my ticket to cargo?
"It's going to be okay," said Voodoo. "Four somersaults and then the swan."
I'm not sure what happened next. It was light, it was dark, it was light, it was dark. I screamed through the freezing air, and it screamed through me.
Jester tapped on my foot, but I was in no mood. It took every ounce of my concentration to not have a heart attack.
"Arch your back!" shouted Voodoo.
My partner pulled the ripcord and Jester spun away beneath us like he had been flushed. And there I hovered in outer-space-like quiet above the birds and traffic and cell phones, a G.I. Marine Force Paratrooper.
Voodoo howled at the world. "Tell me this isn't BLEEPing fantastic!"
We banked left and right like a car speeding into curlycue on-ramps until the ground demanded our attention. Voodoo set us down in three steps, and there was much rejoicing. We gathered the canopy like kids hurrying back to a roller coaster.
"Everything is better after a dive," said Voodoo. "Food, work, sex."
I myself was too high for words, spiritual. If the Native Americans had airplanes, they would have chosen skydiving over the vision quest. You know Geronimo would've been up for it.
On the way home, I didn't talk to Mr. Triple Dog Dare. I just hummed to the radio, basking in the afterglow ... if you know what I mean.