High On Lodi

by William J. Hughes, September 11, 2013

Parachuting.

Preparing at Zen Central.

I've got a friend Chris who's a skydiver. A legitimate one. He goes skydiving every Sunday in Lodi/Acampo at the Parachute Center.

I've got a little experience in the sky. Way back in my New York life a group of us summer lifeguards went parachuting (precondition for skydiving) in Lakeland, New Jersey where the Nazi Hindenburg blew up. That added a little spice to the jumping out of an airplane from 10,000 feet. The jump school was barnstorming, “Dawn Patrol,” Red Baron shabby, Quonset huts and a World War II DC-10 to take you up.

After the class the first parachute jump was a little shaky, stepping into the door, and jumping out. But once the static line chute opened, and with the reassuring voice from the radio on your reserve chute, floating above the Earth, floating down to the target zone was bliss, absolute.

Jump number two for the day was at twilight, darkness in the sky, still light on the ground. Bliss plus-plus.

So I'm off with Chris to Lodi/Acampo on a Sunday, not to jump, to observe, take a ride up in the jump plane. His description of the Lodi Airport Cafe got my attention, maybe shabby meets well turned out. I expect to jump again, just a matter of when.

I've been to Lodi once, taking a friend to a dialysis clinic, so this is basically my first trip. John Fogerty's song, like everyone, is all I know about Lodi.

Skydiving always gets a day in the news, the good news for some 80-year-old doing a jump or the bad news of someone not surviving a jump or more recently that amazing news of that semi-astronaut guy jumping out from the edge of space.

99 South to Lodi, sort of our Route 66, bumped and bruised but still of great use. Elk Grove, green around the edges of an abandoned shopping center. Galt, some vineyards, Little League fields and a short golf course with nobody on it. The Lodi Airport Cafe with its flying cheeseburger sign, small planes like large dragonflies, sheet metal hangers, thin white clouds like skywriting in the almost clear blue sky, cool and comfortable, first little parachutes sign for the Parachute Center.

I'm expecting ex-military types getting their Seal Team 6 on, but Chris tells me it's a lot more hacky-sack than haversack.

And sure enough, two guys in the gravel parking lot look like they slept in their truck, all their jumping gear stuffed in back, “Dead Head” gruff.

The grounds are what I expected, almost abandoned chic, sheet metal sheds and former hangers. It reminds me of a visit to the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee, overgrown and shabby where the greatest wine, uh, whiskey in the world is created. Seemed impossible.

Part of the scene here is an abandoned phone booth with a worn-out Superman costume hanging inside.

The sheet metal hanger is a “Dead Head” encampment, a slice of Woodstock, the absolute bare minimum, parachutes for curtains, broken furniture for furniture, the dedicated jumpers each with their own wall locker, video screens and computers to view their jump videos, everyone ambling or lounging around, some in jumping suits, some shirtless, shoeless, hippie chicks, rasta potheads, athletes and artisans.

I'm totally bowled over, or rather totally gently rolled over. There's a gypsy camp where I expected a fort. This is zen central. We fly, we float through the air, chill out, man.

I do, soaking in the shared apartment atmosphere, Russian commando types, surfer dudes and surfer chicks, quiet like, subdued. You can camp here if you like, Chris all familiar with all of it with over 100 jumps under his harness now.

You can pick out the first-time jumpers, something like your first day at summer camp. Again, I'm not going to jump. I'm along for the ride.

Chris has to suit up in a room reserved for the serious. $15 bucks for the observation seat which Chris tells me will be in the copilot seat of the twin engine Otter, whatever that is.

Chris is transformed into Spiderman, helmet, goggles, suit and parachute.

We pay up at the memorabilia-splattered front desk, Bill and Kathy, husband and wife owners looking like two elderly ex-pats who owned an apartment in Paris with famous works of art. Chris tells me that Bill has one billion jumps on his resume.

So we're all set, sitting on a broken couch, Chris explaining all the gauges and devices on the pier to make sure he arrived back on Earth in one complete piece.

There's a short training video for the first timers. The narrator looks like a Rasputin from Humboldt County. The wonder continues.

We'll go up in flight 12, a twin engine Otter going up and coming down, up to 13,000 feet, dropping some jumpers as low as 3,000 feet.

It ain't your old man's parachute, World War II round and white. It's all multi-colored sport chutes all the time.

We've got time to sit on another broken couch on the flight line with all the others in a busy Sunday. Now comes the good stuff. Chris gave me a taste on the way in, colored chutes appearing out of the clear blue sky like colored dandelion pods, jumpers from 3,000 feet semi-soaring-floating down to earth.

There are stories galore on the flight line, helmet mounted cameras, a woman I'm chatting with was wearing a weighted belt like a scuba diver to make sure her body weight can pop the shoot. There's a ring of coed jumpers practicing their sky ballet. There's Chris, a member of the cult-fraternity but only on a freshman level.

The first-time jumpers get attached to a pro. A $100 stand in the door at 13,000 feet. Go! Next time for me.

And the flights that are up before you. Shield your eyes against the sun and poof, those dandelion pods magically appear, one, two, three, four, five, twisting and twirling to earth, landing quietly, almost softly.

Here we go, a flight of about 15, the twin engine Otter's engines revving as we climb in, me upfront with a pilot right out of Long John Silver's locker, all the dash instruments like the first ever computer. The grizzled pilot doesn't say a word to me as I buckle in.

I'm a Vietnam vet, so I've been in my share of helicopters, both in flight and wobbling down from under fire. I feel both comfortable and uncomfortable.

I can't turn around far enough to take in all the crew behind me. Chris is back there somewhere. I've seen videos of him in-flight. I doubt if I could.

Down the runway we race. Off we go, slowly circling up to 13,000 feet, the disciplined earth of the farm field valley much more impressive and disappointing from above, Mt. Diablo earthtone clear, the plane slowing to let jumpers at 3,000 feet disappear out the door.

You can feel the cold air as we climb, human made lakes and communities below, a first-time jumper and his pilot right at my shoulder, laughing and smiling, getting ready to go.

I'm watching the altimeter. We reached the big 3 after the 0 on the dial. The pilot slows the engine. We almost glide for a few moments.

Out they go, only two packages of silk to get you home.

Now comes my own, stomach churn that it is, as the plane banks into the steep curve down. If we crash there's only one chute for the two of us. I'm exaggerating it of course, but your throat does go up into your upper throat as this somehow flying machine plummets back to earth, a glimpse here and there of the carnival chutes as we curve down, the runway somehow appearing, the landing always a bit tight in the undershorts, the plane racing along the runway. We're not going to stop, we're not going to stop! Reverse all engines and we coast to a stop.

I'm out as quick as I can, trying to catch the last of the jumpers come back to earth.

Chris has landed. He's transported to that other life of it, again. He wants up again as soon as he can. It changes things.

We do a little Ready Room debriefing on another frumpy couch, a Russian woman jumper so beautiful you'd defect for her roaming all around all in black.

That is that, for now, except for the Lodi Airport Cafe on the way out, people Chris knows from their restaurant visit where he works in Sacramento. It's a unique little place, hangar-like beside the little plane airport this Lodi family owns. It's a little too brand-new bare, in need of a large dose of flying memorabilia. I'll talk to my friend Chuck Yeager of sound barrier fame, no kidding.

We can be birds but the birds can't end the day with a salutary cocktail. The sky is not our limit.

To be continued.

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