Skydiving for WSJ

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Skydiving
- By Shoba Narayan

With Nowhere to Go but Down, Siblings Reconnect

(This article originally appeared in June 2001)
TENS OF THOUSANDS of Americans skydive every year. Some do it to confront their fears, some do it for the thrills, and some, like me, do it to bond with a sibling. Although my only brother Shyam and I were born just a year apart, we weren’t particularly close while growing up in India.

As soon as he turned 15, Shyam joined the merchant marines and high-tailed it to the high seas. I saw him only sporadically after that, since I left for the U.S. soon after, to enter Mount Holyoke College.

One hot August afternoon, I received a call from Shyam. His ship had docked in Baltimore and he had hitchhiked up to see me. He was waiting for me outside a skydiving school in Northampton; the man who gave him a ride from Philadelphia taught there, and was willing to give us a discount. Did I want to go skydiving? I did; I always had. But I had just graduated, and blowing my entire $165 rent allowance on an afternoon of skydiving seemed wasteful. Fortunately, Shyam had enough to cover us both.

So I hopped on the bus and an hour later hugged my brother outside Airborne Adventures. Shyam and I exchanged pleasantries as we signed liability-release forms. We hadn’t seen each other in five years. Since we were both first-timers, we would each go tandem jumping with an instructor. Our instructors, Hal and Bubba, gave us an alarmingly brief preflight lesson. Bubba handed me a yellow jump suit, helmet and goggles, similar to the one he was wearing. We would be hooked together in six places: two each at the shoulders, waist and hips. Each of the hooks could hold more than 200 pounds, Bubba said reassuringly, so that even if five hooks came off, the sixth could hold us together. His backpack contained two parachutes: a red manual parachute and a black backup with a computer timer that would automatically unfurl if the main one didn’t.

The plane was small, with a seat for the pilot and a hole for the door. Shyam and I attempted to catch up over the din of the engine. I told him about my four years at Mount Holyoke, and he told me about the shipping life. He had visited Sydney, Gdansk, Rotterdam and Baltimore in the last few months. The money was good; his company paid in dollars.

Soon we were at 8,000 feet. We had decided that Shyam and Hal would jump first. As they stood up, Shyam said casually, “I’m thinking of quitting shipping.” “What?” I screamed, but they had already pushed off. I watched Shyam’s bright red suit somersault and become smaller. It was my turn. I teetered on the edge of the plane. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. Just as my body instinctively began to pull back, I fell into a somersault. Moments later, I was spread-eagled and staring down at the green and brown patches far away. There were too many sensations, and part of my mind was blocking out everything. The wind was deafening, plastering my cheeks back as I opened my mouth into a scream I couldn’t hear. Oh my God, there was nothing under me! When would the damn parachute open? This was taking far too long. “Arch! Look up!” Bubba yelled. I looked up. A photographer was surrealistically suspended in midair, clicking away through a camera attached to his helmet. With a jerk, the parachute opened.

After the furious velocity of the freefall, the parachute was anticlimactic in its gentleness. All of a sudden, everything was quiet, and we were floating down slowly. Bubba showed me how to yank the left string to make a left turn. Soon we were making turns in the air, alternately pulling the right and left strings. When we pulled both strings at once, we stopped moving. It felt eerie to stand on air.

We descended further. My body felt wrung out by the wind, squished by the elements. What had seemed like a slow glide at 2,000 feet seemed inordinately rapid once I could see the ground rushing toward us.

“Lift your feet, lift your feet,” yelled Bubba. I did and heard the thud of his feet on the ground. In spite of Bubba’s warnings to let him land first, my feet touched the ground with a speed that sent a shock up my legs. I would have fallen over had I not been attached to Bubba in six places. I grinned stupidly. We had done it! Behind us, the delicate, red-and-yellow parachute crumpled languorously on the ground. “Congratulations!” the photographer said, handing me a roll of film. Bubba and Hal scribbled on little blue books, stating that we had successfully completed our first jump. Certificates and film in hand, Shyam and I waved goodbye.

The whole thing had taken two hours. Over a pizza dinner, Shyam and I talked. He was tired of sailing from port to port and wanted to put down roots. In fact, he had already applied to several business schools in America and had been accepted by Wharton. What did I think? “Well, we can go skydiving in Philadelphia next time,” I said flippantly. Shyam slept on my floor and took off the next morning for Baltimore. Over the next few years, skydiving became our method of connecting. After a lifetime of being taciturn siblings, riding on a plane somehow opened us up. Perhaps it was the prospect of potential death, perhaps it was the din of the airplane, or perhaps it was the adrenaline that brought our emotions to the surface.

We were both closet actors anyway, and making theatrical pronouncements at 8,000 feet seemed appropriate. Shyam told me that the reason he made such dramatic announcements was to take my mind off the jump ahead. One time Shyam flew down from Philadelphia to Memphis, where I was attending art school, and we went skydiving in neighboring Arkansas. As we circled the cornfields, I blurted out that I had fallen in love with a mountain climber. “Totally unsuitable,” Shyam said before launching off. “You’ll both be air-headed.”

To celebrate our graduations from graduate school, we went skydiving in Florida. My parents were trying to arrange my marriage, Indian-style. I was beset by doubts. Shyam thought that I should give it a chance. “But what about falling in love?” I wailed before jumping off. A few years later, it was my turn. I was happily married to the man my parents had recommended, and Shyam was now in the marriage market. We were back in Northampton, discussing the woman who would become his wife. Shyam had met her several times but wasn’t sure about what to do. He now held a strenuous job with long hours; marriage seemed so daunting.

“Do you think I should propose?” he asked on cue, as we stood up.

“Yes,” I shouted, and out we went. Shyam told me later — and I agreed with him — that the quiet ride down on the parachute helped him mull over problems and reach a solution by the time his feet hit the ground.

Like my husband, Shyam’s wife thought we were nuts to jump from a plane. Skydiving prepared me for life, I explained earnestly. It taught me to trust a piece of equipment, another human being, to take chances, to confront daunting questions.

Though both our skeptical spouses indulged us in our passion, Shyam and I are in a different situation now. We have kids. The risk of a parachute not opening is not one that we are willing to take anymore. We’ve decided to try something less extreme. Like bungee jumping.

This article originally appeared in June 2001.
Copyright © 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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