The World from Above

As I’ve spent so much time examining life in Germany on ground-level, sky-diving seemed like the next logical step.  Well, that’s not exactly how it all came about.  Two years ago, I got the idea of going for my 40th birthday and I started tentative plans.  Since I had just gotten into magazine writing, I also started researching which magazines might be interested in a pitch from me about it.  But, close to my birthday, disaster struck.  First came a deadly skydiving accident that happened somewhere else in North Carolina where we lived.  Second, I happened to see a new magazine article written by a woman who turned 40 and went sky-diving.  Bitch. So, I flung my dangerous and unoriginal plan into the dustbin and walked away in disgust.

Now two years later, as my birthday approached, Gary asked if I would consider sky-diving again.  Since my birthday last year was spent with a team of German movers unloading boxes into our house, a near-death experience this year sounded perfect. Really though, I was glad he reminded me because I had forgotten all about it.  Plus, I was unaware of any new life insurance policies he had taken out on me (kidding!!)

So, my airborne day arrived and I felt oddly calm about the whole thing.  In fact, I was pretty excited.  After a morning of meeting up with friends and feeling all birthday-princessy, I got in the car with Gary, Nora, and Jack and we drove about 45 minutes north of Königstein to a place called PullOut Skydive. The sun was bright and warm and we arrived at what looked like a couple of shacks next to some larger buildings, all in the middle of nowhere.  We headed toward the shacks and entered into an entirely different Germany. This Germany had a Zen-like calm blanketing the whole scene. Everyone seemed to have a sense of peace and purpose.  Dogs lolled about in the shade, enjoying the breeze.  Several 25-year old looking men strolled around chatting and laughing, all wearing pieces and parts of sky-diving gear, confidently waiting for the right moment to get fully ready.  You could tell they spent a lot of time together in this place. An older man, looking more official, was sitting at a picnic table with forms and he looked at me with a steady, unsmiling gaze.  This turned out to be Klaus, my tandem dive instructor.  If I had to guess, he was trying to do an immediate assessment about me–did I look like I’d be panicky up in the air and be a danger to everyone?  Or, did I look like I was ready to have fun?  I assume he agreed with the latter and I started filling out my forms.

Next, one of the 25 year olds calls me over to get started on my training.  It turns out Kris is an elementary school teacher but spends the rest of his time at this place, training, video-taping, and jumping.  He gets me started with everything I need to know.  It’s not as much training as one would need for a solo jump but there are several things you need to know and carry-out during a tandem jump.  You’re not just attached to the instructor like some barnacle. After training with Kris, he turned me over to Klaus.  “This isn’t your first tandem jump, is it?” I asked him.  I was kidding, of course.  His whole demeanor radiated that he was the Zen master.  At least when it comes to sky-diving. So, if you find him in Frankfurt, behind the wheel of a car, screaming at someone in that time-honored German fashion, don’t tell me I’m wrong. I just know he is in his element here.

As Klaus and I talked, he continued to check and re-check my gear.  I still wasn’t very nervous.  It felt like a dream at this point.  Then it was wheels up-time.  I kissed Gary, Nora and Jack good-bye and we walked to the plane.  It turned out there would be one other tandem jumper and 5 solo jumpers, all from the 25 year old crowd.  We squeezed into the hot plane and were soon up in the air.  The way things were arranged, the other tandem jumper and I had to sit facing each other, knee to knee.  He looked like he wanted to vomit. “Did you tell your mother you were doing this?” I asked him.  “Yes, I did,” he said with a hint of a smile. “Well, I didn’t tell mine,” I confessed.

With that thought, it occurred to me there was a slim chance these were the people with whom I was spending my last moments of life.  I decided to turn my head toward Klaus (who was attached to me at this point) and tell him it’s my birthday.  “Aaaah,” he smiled and revved up the others to sing Happy Birthday. It was a nice distraction.  Then the other divers started into a silent series of hand gestures and I joined in: fist bump, gentle hand slap, point the index finger and smile into each others eye. All of us in the plane managed to do this with each other, except my videographer ,Tobi, out of reach, who gave me a thumbs-up and a big smile.

Then, WHOOSH, the side door slides open and the first solo diver smiles and bails out…..backward.  At this point, I say a Hail Mary and reinforce my trust in Klaus’ 29 years of experience.  I was the last to go, along with Klaus and Tobi. When we left the plane, there was no “1, 2, 3, jump” or anything of the kind.  We just hung on the edge for a few moments and then suddenly we were falling.  For a split second, I squeezed my eyes shut at the utter shock of freefalling at 14,000 feet.  It felt like my heart stopped.  Then I opened my eyes to get the full rush.  A strange thing to be falling like that yet knowing everything would be OK.  As we dropped, Tobi effortlessly reached his arm toward me to touch one of my hands.  I strained to reach his as the air seemed to pummel my arm away.  Then it was time to pull the chutes and, surprisingly, I was sorry the freefall was done.  Now we were gliding and Klaus told me I could take off my goggles for a better view. I could have floated there a long time, feeling weightless and enjoying the scene.  Oh, there’s a huge castle to the right on that rock, farm property lines fully visible, and oh look, those little dots now look like people I know.  I waved.

Quickly, it was time to prepare for landing.  During training, Klaus had told me 3 different commands he could give, depending on the situation. Until the command, I was just supposed to position my legs up, feet pointing out.  But, then I see Tobi on the ground, right in our path so while I worried about whether we were going to run him over, I missed Klaus’ command to stand.  We still had a perfect landing but, the perfectionist streak in me wants to do it all over again. By the way, Tobi was exactly where he was supposed to be and Klaus knows exactly how to time everything so we wouldn’t run him over.

None of that mattered at the time though because it was one of the most joyful and exciting (and slightly terrifying) experiences I’ve ever had.  I couldn’t stop smiling for the next hour as we relaxed and waited for them to complete the DVD. Some of the same solo divers went up yet again while others hung out.  Separately they approached me asking how I felt about the jump. Since they’ve all jumped at least 50-100 times already,  I could see they enjoyed reliving that first-time experience.

When it was time to go, I almost didn’t want to leave such a cool atmosphere. Nora and Jack didn’t want to go either.  They had glued themselves to Klaus’ yellow labrador who was now splayed on the ground in total surrender to them.  After hugs goodbye, it was time to split.  Dinner was waiting for us at a beautiful biergarten in Kronberg called Bürgelstollen.  I felt great but I’ve never seen Nora so tired.  Halfway through dinner she had her curly head on the table. Don’t worry, she perked up when the ice cream arrived.


2 responses to “The World from Above

  1. I’ve really enjoyed your stories. I am also a American living in Germany . We moved here a year ago -Me and the Zoo: my husband , two small children (now 2 and 4). two dogs , a cat plus now a new baby in the making! It really made me feel good to hear your funny and upbeat stories. Some days it is so great to be exploring and pushing my comfort zone and some days I would really just love to understand everything said around me and get a fish taco. Thanks for posting your stories it really helped me today to not feel so alone.

    • Ellen Willson Hoover

      Hi Jennifer, it’s so nice to hear from you and I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the blog. Your comment about the fish taco made me laugh. Can you imagine finding one of those around here? Schnitzel, bretzels, brats, and more schnitzel! Well, my very best wishes to you for the new baby and I hope you enjoy the rest of your time here. 🙂

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