I was greeted in the locker area by Joe, my instructor for the day. Joe told me to empty my pockets of my wallet, my phone, and my keys before putting my jump suit on over my regular clothes so that nothing would get caught or accidentally jab into him. I placed everything in my bag, but because I also had an extra set of pants and boxer shorts in there—because one never knows if skydiving will equate to wetting oneself—the bag was too large to place in the lockers they provided. I had to put it up on top of the lockers instead of inside them.
“There’s a camera pointed at those lockers twenty-four hours a day,” Joe said. “So if someone does take your bag, we’ll at least know who did it.”
“But catching them is a different story,” I said.
Joe smiled. “I’m sure it won’t be a problem.”
He provided me with a polished overview of what we would be doing up in the air, perhaps most acutely defined by the fact that he would be spooning me in the harness. Tandem skydiving, after all, was like being in an adult-sized baby bjorn. But unlike the blissful, carefree state of a toddler attached to mommy’s chest, I actually had responsibilities.
“When we jump out of the plane,” he said, “you will hold onto these loops at your shoulders. Then, after we clear the plane, you will put your arms up as if you were a cactus.”
I mimicked the arm shape he demonstrated.
“We will fall freely for fifty-five seconds.”
“We will not be able to speak during these fifty-five seconds.”
“And then you will pull the cord when it’s time.”
“Wait. What?” I said.
“Yes. You see this little orange golf ball in the side of the chute’s pack?”
“I will tap you on the head to let you know when it’s time to pull the cord. Then the chute will release and we’ll float down for about five minutes.”
I looked back down at the pull cord handle. It was small and orange, like another pull cord handle I had seen before.
But, the pull cord handle was the extent to which my situation paralleled that of the scenes that played out in the film. I didn’t get on the airplane with four surfing bank-robbers, but rather a whole group of experienced skydivers all geared up and ready to do all sorts of aerial choreography with their jump. None of them looked like they had come from a robbery-gone-wrong as what happens when they take flight for a second time later on in the film. And I was pretty sure that none of them would scream out “I’LL SEE YOU IN HELL, JOHNNY!” like Roach did to Keanu Reeves’ character as he jumps out.
I was squished in next to Joe all the way up at the front, the furthest from the plane’s doorway, as my more labored and precisely instructed experience would hold things up otherwise. As the door of the plane opened, Joe took me through next steps.
“Now it’s time for you to get into my lap,” he said. The last time I had been on another man’s lap was when my summer camp visited a theme park that had a “Santa’s Castle.” The only thing more bizarre than visiting Santa in July was that when he asked me what I wanted for Christmas that year, I told him I celebrated Chanukah. I was seven.
“When we jump out, it will help you to scream something like ‘Yeah baby!’ or ‘This is it!’ so that you force yourself to release air.”
Neither of those options sounded appealing to me, though. I wasn’t a ‘yeah baby!’ kind of guy.
The other divers started jumping out.
“Raise your arms up,” Joe said. I did.
“I will now lock you into place.” He did.
“We will now start to edge forward by sliding together down the bench.” We did.
“When we get to the edge, you will put your feet in front of you on the edge of the doorway and I will place my hands on the doorway’s frame. I will rock us once, twice, and then on the third time we will jump.
We got to the edge. Joe looked at his altimeter.
“Neil, you’re about to jump out of an airplane that’s flying at 12,500 feet,” he said. “Almost 13,000 feet, actually. Are you ready?”
“Uhhyeah…” I barely got out.
Joe started rocking. One.
I wasn’t breathing. But Joe had said something about breathing out as we jumped.
I was supposed to shout out something in order to—
The wind struck my face. I felt cold. And within two seconds of leaving the plane, with thousands upon thousands of feet between me and Southern California, and without any shred of doubt, I knew exactly what I needed to scream to remember my breath. I looked out at the horizon line, mustered up as much breath as my years of yoga enabled me to find, and said the only thing worth saying in this particular situation.
“I’LL SEE YOU IN HELL, JOHNNY!”
* * * *
Joe had me pull the orange golf ball after about 55 seconds, just like he said would happen. We had fallen about 8,000 feet in that amount of time, and—also like he had said—the remaining five minutes in the air would begin with a relatively slower descent by parachute. And here, as we steered to the right and left, as I looked at the horizon line and down below, I realized that tandem skydiving kind of made for shitty storytelling. What was I supposed to tell people when I reported what I had done this weekend? I jumped out of a plane, I felt cold, and then I didn’t anymore. For all of the goofy references to Point Break, even the scene when they all jumped instead of jerking off included far more than 55 seconds of free fall. Keanu struggles to make a physical connection with the other guys over the course of this descent, but eventually completes the five-man chain as they all hold hands in a circle. He was presented with a conflict, and he overcame it.
Conflict. That’s what a tandem skydive lacked. It wasn’t really a physically compromising adventure at all. With Joe as my instructor and spooning partner, there was more of a chance that I’d slip on a banana peel in the parking lot than something going wrong during the dive.
But this didn’t mean that the dive didn’t still totally rock the shit. It did. As we floated along, I reflected on how I had sort of crossed something off of my bucket list, and that in and of itself felt empowering. I may have lacked any real help when I made that absurd attempt to surf several years earlier, but with the proper precautions of a tandem jump I was pleased to enjoy what was turning out to be a very successful re-examination of my comfort zone.
From 4,500 feet up in the air, I felt I could take on anything.
* * * *
I stood there as my car was lifted up onto the tow truck. The man who came about an hour after I called Toyota hobbled along with a medical boot around his left leg, lowering the platform down to the ground next to my Prius and hooking up the cables to pull it onto the platform.
When I had called, I had pictured one of those classic tow trucks with a rig that would drag the car along as it faced backwards and its front wheels rolled along on the ground. But this truck had a whole bed on which the car could fit as if it was being shipped to a dealership from the factory.
And my car looked like it could have just come from a factory. I had just brought it in to get its first 6-month service the day before, and they gave it a good scrub-down when they completed the maintenance work. In fact, there was absolutely nothing wrong with the car at all.
As for the key I needed to start the car, that was a different matter entirely.
I had returned to the locker area to find my bag still very much on top of the lockers. I wasn’t relieved, really, but rather glad to know that the skydiving community wasn’t overtly larcenous, either. I took off the jump suit and went into the bag’s front pocket to dig out my stuff. I placed my wallet in one pocket, my phone in another, and then I sought out my keys. They weren’t there.
I went into the bag’s middle pocket to dig out my keys. They weren’t there.
I went into the bag’s main compartment, took out my extra pants and boxers, my Kindle, and everything else that had made it too big to fit into the locker. They weren’t there.
I looked in the side-pocket of the bag, the extra compartment intended to be a place to keep a laptop, the pocket inside of the front pocket, and this other pocket in the main compartment that looked like it might be a good place to keep a passport and a bar of chocolate. I checked in the school’s office, the whole center’s main office, and all around the locker area. I traced my steps back to my car, and back to the locker area again. I even ran into Joe on the way back, who double-checked the places I had already looked.
The keys weren’t in any of those places, either.
And I had no other places I could look—or any theories as to why they were gone.
My purchase of the Prius included a Toyota Care package that replaced any need for AAA and ensured that Toyota would take care of me. When the driver with the medical boot showed up, he said he would take me to the nearest Toyota dealership and service center in Riverside, CA, only 21 miles away.
“How is it they have you working while sustaining an injury?” I asked the driver as we headed away from the skydiving school. His limp from whatever injury he was dealing with had slowed him down a bit, but he didn’t move any slower than a person who was only mildly interested in his job in the first place. His name was Rudy.
“The work still needs to get done,” Rudy said half shrugging from the driver’s seat. I noted how fortunate it was that his left foot was the one that was busted so that he could still use the gas and brake pedals—until I realized that his truck was a standard shift.
“And how long do you have to keep the boot on?”
He held up two fingers.
“To more weeks?”
“Two more years.”
Two more years???
It turned out that Rudy had been on his motorcycle when a drunk driver hit him. The driver was an off-duty cop. The accident had completely shattered his leg to the point of being beyond repair and he had metal rods where his bones used to be. He also didn’t have any feeling in the lower half of his leg.
“And how long ago was that?” I asked.
“So what will change—wait. Is it okay that I’m asking you about this?”
“Of course,” he shrugged again. “Everyone asks me about it.”
“Oh, okay. So what will change in two years?”
“That’s when I get a prosthetic.”
That made sense. From what I had heard, there was a lot of bureaucracy to get a legitimate prosthesis like they gave to war veterans with amputated limbs.
“So you’ll get what they issue for the military?”
“Oh, sorry. I guess I don’t really mean ‘prosthetic,’ for it’s more like a cadaver. They’re going to attach a donated leg from a dead body.”
Rudy explained how they were going to use biological tissue to replace what had been destroyed. He had to wait four years after his accident to have his surgery because that was apparently how long it took for them to ensure that this highly experimental procedure was going to actually work. During this time that he was limping around and towing people’s cars, the surgeons were testing the various physiological functions of the leg. This leg transplant was going to restore full functionality. He would be able to walk again without any sort of prosthesis.
That is, if the procedure worked.
“And the best part is,” he said, “that the city that employed the cop was so horrified at the bad publicity that they’re paying for everything to keep me quiet.”
“And the cop who hit you?”
“She visited me every day in the hospital. We’re friends.”
The conversation then shifted to more mundane things, such as Rudy’s explanation of how my car key was only one of four keys made by Toyota for that make of car and how it distinguished itself from other Prius keys because of how it was digitally programmed. The service center would simply take a new key, program it, and then send me on my way. Rudy estimated it would take a half hour. By the time we got to the dealership, I was kind of bowled over by the reality of living in the 21st century. In fact, I found myself completely pumped for being in a century that digitally programmed car keys and replaced shattered legs with new ones. This century totally ruled.
* * * *
“We don’t have the key for your car,” the man at the Toyota service center said.
I stood there in the center parking lot, my car still on the bed of the truck, with Rudy standing next to me.
“Isn’t there another dealership nearby that has one?” Rudy asked. “We’re just trying to get the man home.”
The man shook his head as he held up his phone. “I’ve called San Bernardino, I’ve called Ontario, I’ve called Moreno Valley. None of them have it.”
“How is that even possible?” I asked.
“I really don’t know,” the man said. “But you probably couldn’t get it taken care of tonight, anyway. Everyone’s closing now.”
I thought about that for a moment. It was almost 5 o’clock. It had seemed like I had jumped out of a plane so long ago. And I never did form any satisfying theories as to why my keys went missing in the first place.
“Can you make any other suggestions?” I asked the man.
“Do you have another key?” he asked.
“Back home,” I said.
“Well,” he said, “just have someone bring it to you.”
“I don’t see that happening,” I said. “I live almost 100 miles away.”
“It’s either that or have it towed back,” he said.
I thought about that. It was such a huge imposition to make on someone, though.
“I just got another call,” Rudy said to me. “I’ve got to go pick up a couple of motorcycles that just found their way into an accident. So I probably couldn’t be back to you for a couple of hours.”
I almost shuddered, thinking of how serving a motorcycle accident might be a delicate thing for Rudy to have to see.
“Alright, if you could just park it here, then,” I said.
“You can park it over there,” offered the man, pointing to a space on the end of the lot.
“I don’t think I can make it fit there with the length of this truck,” Rudy said. “What about over there on the street?”
“It’s up to him,” the man said, nodding to me. “This really isn’t the best neighborhood, though.”
Perfect. Not only was I stranded a hundred miles from home, but I found myself in a shitty neighborhood on top of that. I looked around. There was nothing but car dealerships in sight. How did that make it bad?
Rudy found a way to park it in the lot and we shook hands as he went onto his next job and I tried to find out from Toyota what would and would not be covered as my phone’s battery drained. Would they tow me again? No. Would they reimburse me if I called a locksmith? No. Would they do anything more than what they had already done?
Rudy had told me that to tow the car to my place would cost about $400, which of course would be out-of-pocket. After he left, and as the dealership closed, and as this not-so-great neighborhood became more and more enshrouded in the looming darkness of dusk, I realized that nothing like this had ever happened to me before. Even when I had car troubles in the past, a simple trip to a garage got me back on the road again. I had actually been dim enough to lament the fact that my skydiving experience happened without any sort conflict. It’s almost as if the Universe said, “You want some conflict for your stupid story, Neil? You want to be physically compromised in an adventure? WELL HERE YOU GO.” I would have laughed at the ridiculousness of it all if it weren’t so scary.
END OF PART 2.