11….ELEVEN

ITALY, Switzerland

Sir Isaac Newton did not invent gravity. Describing an isolated characteristic of the universe in terms that satisfy our intensely analytical human minds, does not constitute inventing it.  I do not mean to insinuate that Sir Isaac is undeserving of the historical fame with which he has been adorned, only that he should be part of a larger portrait of human curiosity and observation.  In fact  Robert Hooke, a contemporary of Sir Isaac, accused him of plagiarism directly following the release of  “Principie” – Newton’s great masterpiece describing gravitational forces.  Many people from many cultures around the planet have conducted their own investigations, successfully described their findings in terms the community understands, and have been doing so since they could first use words.  Gravity is a force that all human beings navigate.   Since first lifting up to continue as bipedal sapiens, we have found ways to challenge its dominance and its unbending rules.  Perhaps skydiving is the most intimate game we’ve played with gravity so far.

For my 21st birthday I bought a train ticket to Switzerland – I was going skydiving over the Alps.  The afternoon train I boarded traveled up the center of Italy reaching Milan in the early evening.  Milan is an industrial city, the very ingenuity and design of product is nearly tangible in the air.  I found a small restaurant near my hotel for dinner.  The restaurant was dim and the  table cloths had long since lost their crisp corners.  The bartender and a client were focused on a small discolored television set, there was a luxury car race flashing and it  reflected on the skin of their faces.  I ate my spaghetti facing the opposite direction… the street lights came on, and illuminated the pedestrians walking by outside.

The next morning, coffee in hand,  I settled into my seat on the train headed across the Italian / Swiss border.  The scenery out the train window that morning was spectacular… mountains, forests, small lakes- all brilliant and gorgeous shining in, warming the velvet of my seat cushions.  Arriving at the Interlaken station, I was not disappointed.  A city situated between two large lakes, Interlaken boasts the most incredible mountain vistas no matter what direction you are facing.  The air was fresh and cool against my cheeks, I decided to walk to the hostel.

When making the reservations for my skydive, I was also able to request a room in their company hostel.  Arriving at the front desk,I mused at the kitsch decor… a plastic St. Bernard with a whiskey barrel around his neck, the heavy chalet style wood work around the windows, and the ubiquitous red cross of the Swiss flag.  After settling the skydiving arrangements I was shown to the dormitory and directed to one of many wooden bunk-beds.  The reception staff working that day was a muscular woman with tattoos and long blonde hair.  Before leaving the hostel for a walk she informed me of a dance club in the basement and told me it was free for hotel guests.  It was early still and I needed to eat some dinner so I thanked her and went out to survey my vegetarian options.  Which ended up being some bread and cheese accompanied by a Kinder egg from the grocery store.

Later that evening I wound up on the dance floor, dancing and drinking with a basement full of young people.  The blonde employee from upstairs showed up behind the bar and bought me a drink, I bought her one and we clinked glasses.  The next several hours were a throb of bass and sweat and ended with a hilarious tramp through a nearby meadow with the employees after they had closed the club .  We sat outside looking up at the stars and laughing – I realized that one of them was going to be pulling the cord to release my parachute the next morning.  A mixture of feelings; anxiety, kinship, excitement…compelled me to climb the ladder to bed and rest before the sun rose.

The night’s frost was just beginning to melt off the grass as I stood in a clearing at the foot of high mountains.  A small plane was getting warmed up in front of me.  One of the staff came by and helped me into the harness I would be wearing over the jumpsuit I was already equipped with.  Next I donned a tight leather hat, clasping the leather straps securely under my chin before stretching the oversized goggles onto my forehead and into place.   Next I was instructed over the sound of the engine to climb into the body of the tiny plane. I was followed by other “jumpers” and accompanying staff members.  As it was our first jump, each of us would be attached to a professional, who would be in charge of monitoring everything during the free fall.  I had paid the extra money to have a video taken of the jump and so the camera man packed in with us as well.

There were no seats –  we were all tightly squished and sitting on the metal floor of the plane, our heads almost reaching the ceiling.  With a rumble, the plane took off down through the meadow and then up into the air.  For awhile we were moving through dense clouds and all I could see out of the oval window were patches of varying transparent whites.  After elevating above the cloud-line a sublime landscape presented itself.  The land curved out to the horizon and the snow dusted mountains encrusting it were far below us.  All in an instant the door of the plane was flown open and sound of a sudden flood of cold air caused a strong dose of adrenaline to be released into my blood stream and before it could dissipate, I was staring at my swinging feet dangling above the kaleidoscopic, white-tipped peaks. Shifting my weight forward and rounding my spine, I rolled off the edge of the plane and became a bird – a laughing bird.  My natural response was to laugh, and I did so the entire free fall.  When the parachute was deployed we were jerked upright,  it was abruptly silent.  Then we took control; flipping and swooping, the parachute became a kind of boomerang-like counter weight before depositing me safely back into a field of soft grasses.  My sneakers touched down and the rippling folds of multi-colored cloth quietly landed behind me, gravity regained it’s control of the game.

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