I took another sip from the Pabst Blue Ribbon bottle as I lazily turned to my friend and fellow Marine Corps veteran, Ian.
“Man, I’m off probation now. [hiccup] I think we should do something fun next weekend instead of just continuing this hangover.”
I had been on probation for a year after incurring a driving under the influence charge. It was 2011. I completed two tours of duty overseas but felt I had accomplished little since. It was time for a change.
It was no surprise — to myself or anyone — that I was picked up for a DUI. I had been stuck in the same rut for years: Clock in for second shift, slowly feel the effects of the previous night’s indiscretion and consumption ware off, and then leave work and proceed to close the usual three bars outside of Fredericksburg in Pennsylvania on the way home.
Having heard Ian and I discussing our plans for forgoing debauchery that weekend, the bartender chimed in.
“You guys should try skydiving. There’s a place down in Maytown where I went back in the 90s. It was a whole lotta fun and seems like something you two might be into,” he said.
Ian and I looked it up online the next day and found the drop zone offered classes to learn to jump two Saturdays each month, sharply at 0900 — “Early enough to motivate us not to drink on a Friday night,” I thought to myself.
A few weeks later, after finishing up third shift on Saturday morning, I drove south towards the airport. I parked my truck in the stone lot adjacent to the runway and walked towards a 1970s era single-wide trailer that appeared to double as a skydiver clubhouse. Ian met me outside and we both looked at each other nervously.
This was not where we usually hung out.
There was sunlight.
We sat down in a small shed next to the trailer. This was the classroom — a few benches, an easel, a tv. There were also a few straps tied to the wall to simulate a harness for training in emergency procedures, which our first class session would soon reveal.
Six hours later, we had learned everything, from how to hold one’s body after jumping from the aircraft to how to pilot the parachute to the intended landing area.
After all this training we were disappointed to learn the winds had increased above 15 mph, the student limit, and we would not be permitted to jump that day. We would have to return another day if we wanted to experience all our training had prepared us for.
We waited in nervous anticipation for three days as the winds swept through town. At the first sign of calm skies, we were back.
We gathered our equipment: jumpsuit, helmet, goggles, chest-mounted altimeter. We reviewed the emergency procedures and headed toward the aircraft.
“You’re first! We like to get the big heavy guys out first in case something happens we have less weight to deal with,” the instructors said.
“Great!” I thought to myself. “I can get rid of these nerves.”
A few minutes later we were 3,500 ft above Lancaster County, Pennsylvania looking down on the Amish countryside.
“DOOR,” shouted the instructor.
The wind was now rushing in and around the cabin.
“Get Ready!” was the instructor’s next command.
I moved from my knees in the aircraft, to standing hunched on the aircraft step with both hands firmly grasping the aircraft wing strut.
“GET SET!” I moved both hands further out the strut and let my feet hang in the wind.
“GO!” My hands opened. I let go. I was in freefall.
It seemed like an eternity, but a mere five seconds later my parachute opened. I struggled with a few twists in the lines, but the voice in the radio calmly gave me directions until my feet were safely back on the ground.
After gracefully landing, our instructor John Stepencheck walked over to congratulate his new fledglings.
We returned to the trailer and were given several pieces of printed media including a First Jump Certificate showing that each of us had successfully exited an aircraft and landed safely under parachute. Next came a logbook in which we were to record our experiences. Number, date, place, altitude, maneuvers, remarks, and signature were the columns labeled in the book.
Books had not meant much to me since my time in the Marines, yet this one seemed special. The logbook entry is what makes the jumps real, I surmised. Not only do you record your jumps, but another party has to sign and confirm that you engaged in the activity — hard evidence, instead of just a tall tale to be told at the local bar.
I couldn’t wait to fill it up with jumps, or proof that I was moving beyond my past, as I saw it.
I was instructed to become a member of the United States Parachute Association (USPA) to gain the protection of the USPA third-party liability insurance. This membership also came with another perk, a subscription to Parachutist Magazine.
Inside the pages were articles on safety, events, equipment, history, and profiles on jumpers. There were pages filled with skydiver art, photographic as well as illustrated and painted. There were profiles where jumpers shared how skydiving had positively affected their lives. Every month I lit up when this magazine arrived in the mail.
“I will be in this magazine at some point,” I thought to myself. “I just need to have a story worth telling.”
As time progressed, I jumped all the time, yet the amount of time actually jumping out of aircraft paled in comparison to the amount of time I spent immersed in the literature and media surrounding it. I read every issue of Parachutist cover to cover, especially the colorful advertisements. The Skydiver Information Manual (SIM) was a document that seemed to rival the bible for heft and contained information that was meant to save not the eternal soul, but the mortal breath.
“This manual has been written in blood,” many seasoned skydivers would say with dark humor, alluding to the fact that many of the manual’s rules and recommendations were in response to fatal accidents in which lessons were learned the hard way.
Every jump had a logbook entry: It was up to the individual to record as much, or as little, information about their experience in the pages as they wanted. I was obsessive, at first, recording every little detail. As time went on though, I became more focused on the act of jumping than recording things observed or lessons learned. (I count this among my least favorite mistakes, for now so much of the history of my own activities are lost to the malfunctions of a human brain.) We record things, so we do not forget. Also, so we can share.
After a year of exploring the sky above Lancaster, it was time to see what the wider world of skydiving had to offer. I paged through the drop zone directory at the back of Parachutist Magazine. I made a map and planned a rough route that looked fun to travel by motorcycle, as well as one that provided plenty of stops at skydiving drop zones. At the time I had been reading everything of Hunter S. Thompson. Pure gonzo journalism was the life for me, I thought. I was going to experience this world firsthand, not just read about it.
My journey brought the pages of my beloved magazine to life. Instead of watching the world of skydiving through the lens of one small club, I was now seeing the pages of Parachutist in high-definition reality. Those jumpers who filled its pages with tales of how skydiving had changed their lives were now acquaintances with real experience, and I even got to share with them in return. Those drop zones that seemed like distant dreams were now places I could pitch my tent and camp out with new friends.
Along with these experiences came a growing network.
As I traveled, I met a cast of characters who would then introduce me to others. In Ogden, Utah I met Mario Richard and his wife Steph Davis. In Twin Falls, Idaho, I met up with friends who were BASE jumping off of the Perrine Bridge.
After witnessing my friends take the plunge, my draw to the next extreme sport was ensured. My next purchase from Barnes and Noble was The Great Book of Base, and I was immediately surprised. Those two nice folks I had met in Ogden were photographed and written about within the contents of its spine.
Was I really meeting the characters from printed media in real life? Yes, and a whole lot more of them to come. Eventually, I would even meet the author of the Great Book of Base Matt Gerdes.
After wrapping up the motorcycle trip, I started to explore base jump more seriously. I quickly found forums where BASE jumpers were talking about methods, objects jumped, equipment and modifications, as well as just some good old-fashioned trash talking. This was where the most up-to-date correspondence surrounding the sport took place. There were no manuals like in skydiving — just ever-accumulating pages of conversational writing. This was another place where individuals’ writing on the subject preceded our friendship.
After learning to base jump, I was convinced that Pennsylvania no longer held my interest. It was time to move to Moab. In September 2012, I loaded up the same Ford Ranger I had got the DUI in and moved west. Since then, I’ve continued to make friends, grow as a jumper and as a person and have experienced many things worth sharing.
So, I thought it was time to give back.
I enthusiastically agreed to participate in an event and organization my friend and former Marine buddy Tristan Wimmer started last year called 22 Jumps. I’m proud to say that as of May. 2021, we have raised $40,500 for the military-focused traumatic brain injury research non-profit Cohen Veterans Bioscience. Tristan and I, among others, did this by sharing our personal stories of veteran suicide with a wider audience, including dozens of news outlets in the Phoenix area and beyond.
Sadly, there is no shortage of stories on Iraq and Afghanistan War veteran suicides: Tristan, whose brother both by birth and by Corps committed suicide in 2015, and four of my own platoon mates, have taken their lives in the last 4 years. Two of those I still thank the stars at night for getting me back to safety after a nearly fatal bullet pierced my face, neck, and shoulder during a deployment in 2004.
22 Jumps continues to host events that raise money for Cohen Veteran Bioscience to help diagnose, treat and provide therapeutic relief for those suffering from traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). There is strong reason to believe that TBIs lead to an increased risk of suicide, especially amongst military personnel and veterans. A better understanding of the unique yet shared experience of head trauma may be able to help more than 1.5 million people who sustain a TBI each year.
But the truth is, raising this money helped me as well.
It’s an amazing experience to have a community of jumpers work in support of a common goal. I made 22 laps to the top of Camelback Mountain, Ariz. while a support team packed and hauled parachutes in support of myself and a fellow jumper. The help of carrying the heavy up the mountain is symbolic of the heavy burden our TBI wounded veterans carry with them every day and those who offer support. It’s the spirit of teamwork that makes the event so special for those who participate.
I don’t know what the ultimate outcome of our fundraising will be, but I was fortunate to have found parachutes as a guiding light through tough times, and I will continue to do all I can for any veteran out there who needs a little help along his or her way. I hope that at some point I might be one of those characters who come to life for some other struggling veteran who needs to find his own way out of the tough times and create the life they want to write about.