Still, I knew enough to stay inside an airplane when it's flying at 15,000 feet. Until recently, when something changed my mind: a triple dog dare by my friend Anthony.
When we got to Taft Skydive, it was raining men. They looked like the little G.I. Joe 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 instructor, Voodoo, who happens to be the adult film star Voodoo Child. (Now you know what they do when they’re not cleaning pools or delivering pizza.)
Outside his tribal earrings and rockabilly sideburns, Voodoo could have been your next-door 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."
As I suited 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 insane, tried to catch up with it like James Bond. Finally he gave up and decided to try the reserve chute, his only 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. Kippy.
"So, uh, you're on good terms with Voodoo, right?"
Kippy laughed. "He owes me money."
"Then please accept this generous tip."
In the lounge, guys wore their hair long and said things like "no worries" and "it's all good." I felt heavily under-tattooed. It was like a keg party at the airport.
"These guys come every weekend," said Voodoo. "They're junkies like Jester here."
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 rubber bands. He sucker-punched everyone he met.
"You get like this after 20,000 jumps," he said, spilling his coffee.
"Any final words before I go up?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said. "Hold on to your boys [naughty gesture]. 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 while I got in touch with my religious beliefs. We flew so high that I 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 himself into my four metal loops. I took inventory one last time. Goggles, check. Altimeter, check. Change of underwear, check.
Jester, riding shotgun with the pilot, came back to say, "Are there any peanuts on this flight?" Then he laughed his head off and crawled back to "first class."
I had just stopped trembling when someone had the gall to open a door. That's when your brain realizes that it's not a movie: You're actually going to jump out of the airplane. 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, freefalling beside us, 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. Joe Paratrooper.
Voodoo howled at the world. "Tell me this isn't BLEEPing fantastic!"
We banked left and right like a roller coaster hitting embankments until the ground demanded our attention. Voodoo set us down in three steps, and there was much rejoicing. I gathered up the canopy like a kid hurrying to get back into line.
"It's better than sex," said Voodoo (coming from an expert).
I was too high for words. Spiritual. If the Native Americans had airplanes, they definitely would have chosen skydiving over the vision quest. You know Geronimo would be there.
On the way home, I didn't talk to Anthony, Mr. Triple Dog Dare. I just hummed to the radio and basked in my afterglow ... if you know what I mean.