The First Time: My Adventures in Skydiving

For you Carl Daugherty. You said you loved our story and it was OK to publish.

For my 17th birthday, my high school boyfriend, Jerry, took me skydiving. It was summer 1972 and we drove to Stormville, NY, about an hour from Northern Queens where we both lived. I did not know it at the time, (or maybe I did but don’t remember), but this ‘gift’ was intended to scare the bejeezus out of me. Jerry never thought I’d actually go through with it as we all knew I was terrified of heights. Nevertheless, there were four of us first jump students being trained rather abysmally for something our jump-master said we’d never need as none of us would ever return (thanks, asshole). He showed us how to climb out onto the strut of the Cessna, release and arch, then go through the motions of pulling a dummy rip cord all within the seconds it took for the static line to pull our parachutes open for us. That training took all of a few minutes, followed by a quick lesson in how to steer the T10 military surplus parachute that hopefully opened – left toggle to turn left, right to turn right, land into the wind. Done. Finally, we spent about a half hour on PLFs or parachute landing formations, which teaches us to land and roll, rather than take the force of impact in our legs (or, horrors, another body part). All in all, my first jump lesson took under an hour and up we went.  

1972 – first jump

Of the four of us first jump students, one guy landed in a tree, another guy sprained his ankle, the third shat himself, but I, the lone female, had a blast! While most of the exit procedure was a blur, once the huge, pale green canopy jerked open over my head and I was gently rocking back and forth several thousand feet in the air over the rolling fields of upstate New York, I was ecstatic. It was by far the most fun thing I’d ever done (in my 17 years of life) and my fear of heights never got in the way at all. I landed and rolled where and how I should and just sat there in awe of the experience. While enjoying my daze, a well-tanned, blonde young man walked over, introduced himself as Scotty (Carbone for those who knew him), helped me up, handed me a congratulatory beer, and showed me how to gather up my canopy and carry it back to the packing area. Done. When we made it back to the airport laughing, smiling, drinking beer, Jerry was so angry that I had actually enjoyed myself, he stormed off for home without me. That was the last I’d ever see of Jerry. Scotty, who it turned out lived some 15 minutes away from my parents’ house, introduced me to all the other skydivers there, and we became fast friends. I was hooked.

I got the dummy rip cord! Ready to free fall! 1972

I made another 5 or so jumps at Stormville, and then moved to Gardiner, a better place for a beginner like me. I made another 40 jumps at Gardiner that summer and sold my piano to buy my first complete skydiving rig. Once I started college in Philadelphia that fall, I continued skydiving at the United Parachute Club (home of the Herd). I was a painting major at the Philadelphia College of Art amongst very serious, artistic sorts, but spending all my time skydiving and adapting a skydiver’s rather rebellious, carefree lifestyle. This was the early 70s after all. We were the inheritors of the Woodstock generation and the first to benefit fully from a budding feminism that opened all new doors (way beyond marriage and babies, thank you Planned Parenthood!) for young women like me. Skydiving too was not just exhilarating, it also held an inherent risk. Several close friends had gotten hurt (myself included – left shoulder dislocation) and others died over the next few years. Such intimacy with danger to someone as young as I was added immensely to the euphoria of the sport. Skydiving alone was like an addictive drug (and the illegal drug supply too seemed never ending). This magical combination of sex, drugs, danger, unbelievable excitement, a heightened sense of being alert and alive, and at the center of it all, skydiving, most certainly shaped my outlook on life in astonishing ways. Not surprisingly, art school was pretty much a waste of time. I painted aerial landscapes and surreal pictures of airplanes and free fall star formations, and was not liked at all by the serious, artsy crowd at school. 

My handsome skydiver back in 1977 – the car we drove to The Nationals together in.

Throughout these college years (1973-1977), during school breaks we would drive south to Florida, usually DeLand and Zephyrhills, to get in our winter dives. My first winter at DeLand I saw a stunningly handsome man step out of his Porsche, walk past my car, and head into the snack bar. I jumped back out of the car I had just gotten into and followed him in. He was sitting at the same table with the same skydivers I had just left so I squeezed back into the bench seat next to him. I don’t remember how I got the courage or what I actually said but whatever it was he was quite amenable to being seduced. My affair with this handsome skydiver lasted throughout my skydiving years, usually in Florida but also at skydiving meets around the country. Even when we were involved with others, we always managed to sneak off and spend some time together.

1977 – Me on the left at United Parachute Club, Hanover, PA

My skydiving obsession came to an abrupt end on my 562nd jump, the 6th jump of that fateful day, 2 weeks before I was to graduate from college in May 1977. My (right) shoulder dislocated under a perfectly good canopy while making a quick turn to avoid crashing into another canopy. One wrong move, and that was that. I crash landed and managed to break a finger on my good arm too. Shoulder dislocations were not uncommon among skydivers (and I was an old hand at it from my left shoulder several years before) so we repositioned my arm in its socket and between drugs and alcohol, I felt no pain (that night). Considering how small and scrawny I was anyway, even after surgery, I could not build up the strength in my shoulders needed to keep up my skydiving habit. I spent the rest of that summer recuperating from surgery, withdrawing from a serious skydiving habit, meeting my Florida skydiver, driving to the Nationals in Oklahoma with him and finally, saying goodbye to him there while I hitched rides with other skydivers further west to Iowa, Utah and then California.

I was a college grad with a fine arts degree (useless), no skills (spectacularly useless), and no longer able to skydive (which left me feeling utterly useless). Lost, dazed and confused, I had no choice but to set out to discover new worlds. Those worlds, I thought, could never be as exciting as the world I had just left, but I was wrong.

After a few false starts, my next world was rock and roll which finally took me overseas to work as tour manager for British punk rock bands from 1977 to 1979. Following two years of bar tending in rock n roll clubs and touring, drug dealing and pimping for bands in New York and London, I emigrated to New Zealand (sheep shearer’s aide, bar-tender, then Masters in Teaching English), and from there to Indonesia (teacher), to Bahrain (teacher), back to the US (PhD studies, professor of communication), to Australia (professor of Asian languages and studies), to Africa and South Asia (social researcher), and back to Indonesia (my home and project researcher or evaluator consultant).

2021 – preparing for accelerated free fall class. Carl said he bought a second rig for me. Equipment has changed a bit!

Over these few decades, I’d continued my education exploring many new fields and possibilities eventually earning several (useful) Master’s degrees and a (questionably useful) PhD. I’ve lived and worked all over the world, learned to speak 2 Southeast Asian languages fluently, published 6 books, and have created a rather enviable life and lifestyle through the courage and confidence, sense of wonder and fun I owe entirely to the early influences of my skydiving years.

That brings me up to now and the precise reason why I am recollecting my early years as a skydiver. It’s 2021 and I am back in South Florida, my ‘base’ for a few months every year. Over the last 43 years since exiting the world of skydiving, I had kept in touch with only Scotty each time I returned to the US. With the advent of Facebook, my Florida skydiver and I were reconnected in 2008 as Facebook friends with an occasional inbox message. We shared letters and spoke on the phone over the decades. In December 2020, I messaged him to say I was driving north to Georgia and could I stop in at the drop zone in DeLand and visit. In short, despite more than a 40 year gap, my skydiver and I have slipped seamlessly back into the same exciting friendship we’d had over four decades before. And to prove you really can go back, on my next trip to Florida, he promised to get me back skydiving again.

We may be old, ugly, scarred and broken (well, him more than me) after all these years, but I still adore that crazy skydiver and his wonderful world that shaped me as a teenager and gave me the courage to reach out and grasp onto all my wildest dreams.

***Carl Daugherty died 16 May 2021 in a skydiving accident. I guess I never will make that skydive with you Carl – not in this life anyway. Thanks for the past few months of incredible fun and happiness. Such memories we share! Blue skies my love!

Hollywood FL, January 2021

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