Blue Skies, Illinois Style

With yet another marathon under my belt, there would be plenty of boasting when I got back to work, not in a haughty, imperious manner, but in a sort of self astonishment that the likes of me could have actually pull off just a feat. I would be more humble with my family though, mainly because they knew the course of my life and what a magnificent achievement this was for me. The Chicago Marathon would have consumed an exciting weekend in and of itself, but there was one more shot of adrenaline coming up that would top off the entire vacation.

The train station was a short walk from the hotel, and after a breezy checkout I headed out to spend my last full day in Illinois at my sister’s house. Although the forecast was for possible scattered showers in the area, the morning was exceedingly bright and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, although there was a crisp coolness that suited me well after the crucible the day before. Despite it being a Monday, Columbus Day had extended the weekend, and there wasn’t the usual workweek bustle downtown. Whether anybody will admit it or not, everybody profiles, and as I walked down the street, the guy approaching me looked suspicious. It was clear he had zeroed in on me, his eyes locked in, obvious even at a significant distance.

“Say man, could you help me out?” he asked with a disingenuous pleading that smacked of a separate a tourist from their money scheme. “My sister needs to get to work bad, and she don’t have the train fare. Do you have a couple of bucks you can spare?” Though the train station was nearby, this guy seemed a little too far away to be looking for fare money, considering that his sister was presumably at the station ready to catch her train-if possible.

“Sorry, I don’t carry any cash,” was my response, which was accurate. I wanted to ask why his sister wasn’t with him, seeing as it would be her that needed the train fare, not him, and how she ended up in the Loop without any money. But then, I didn’t need to ask any of those questions, did I? Once it became clear that there was no hard cash coming from me, he was on his way, traveling further away from the train station where his poor sister needed to be in order to catch that train. No doubt the overnight bag slung over my shoulder was a sort of bulls-eye mark for guys like that, and his story may have worked for Ma and Pa Kettle from Podunk, pop. 1200, but Chicago isn’t the only place where this kind of begging goes on. I get it relatively routinely in my town, and even if I was carrying some cash that I could give to someone that was truly in need, there are so many dope fiends that use similar stories that they have muddied the waters for that actually could use a few bucks for legitimate purposes.

The day was a lazy but welcome one, considering my fatigue from the race, but surprisingly, my muscles seemed none the worse for wear. Regardless of the condition I was in, nothing was going to prevent me from capping off this vacation with a skydive. This would be my second jump in as many states, and the wild thought of doing a jump in each state sounded like a rest of my life bucket list item. Doing a marathon and a jump was even more wild, but as appealing as that sounded to me, the idea of actually completing fifty marathons would be daunting and staggeringly time consuming. Maybe if I were 20 years younger it might have been a lifetime goal, but my frame of mind was quite different then, and in fact, nothing as athletic as that had ever crossed my mind. Completing 50 half marathons though, would be realistic. Although challenging, a half marathon is just that; half of the brutal distance I had covered the day before. I recover well from those, but even then, it would be multiple races every year, probably for the rest of my life in order to accomplish such a thing. It was interesting to think about it though. This day it would be jump number two, and the other 48 could be considered another time.

The skydiving company called me a few hours before my scheduled jump to inform me that the pilot would be late and if I would mind jumping later in the afternoon. The last jump of the day was at 5 O’clock, and that would likely overlap with the dinner plans later. Some relatives, including my father were going to be there, and since I only see my Illinois relatives sparingly, if it came to a jump versus my family, blood is thicker than thin air. Fortunately, my sister made arrangements to push the dinner back and allow me to jump. It would be cutting it close though, basically from the plane to the dinner table. That was okay with me, and we were soon off to the local airport. We stopped to pick up my cousin first, who would be joining us for dinner, although neither her or my sister had any intention of going for a jump. I ribbed them good naturedly, however I would never seriously pressure anybody to skydive. Sure, it would be nice to up in that plane with a loved one or friend, but having them waiting on the ground would be nice as well. My first jump in Santa Barbara was just me, and there was nobody to share in the excitement of the jump. That still turned out to be a fantastic weekend, but this was shaping up to be even better. This town isn’t that big, and the odds of having a skydiving outfit there was in my mind, providence of the most serendipitous kind.

By now, clouds had rolled in, but the sun would break through at different points as it made its descent for the day. It would likely be too dark to jump in another hour or so, and as we approached the designated hangar at the small airport, there was no plane to be seen. In fact, my instructor-the guy I would be attached to for the jump had not yet arrived either. I gave me time to take it all in though. The airport was ringed by cornfields on one side, and flat land on the other, ostensibly farmland for something other than corn. The grass areas were neatly cut and taxiing area for the planes was spotless. It was very neat, with stark lines delineating every part of the airport. Finally a car pulled up, and a young man jumped out, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and looking much too young to be an instructor. I had no preconceived notions of him because it never occurred to me that he was the instructor. Cody cordially introduced himself, and led me inside the hangar to take care of the preliminaries. Maybe he noted the look of consternation on my face, if there was any, and volunteered his oral resume to assuage any doubts I might have had. His haircut indicated that he was ex-Marine (which was the case), and also that he had in excess of a thousand jumps to his credit. His explanations of what he was doing while he was doing it made me feel at ease. He knew what he was doing, and I was no doubt in good hands.

With only one jump under my belt, my prior jump was the only experience there was for me to make any assumptions as to how this jump would to. Those assumptions were shattered when the plane finally arrived. There’s a certain amount of apprehension connected to a jump anyway, and the sight of a plane that had undoubtedly seen her best years of service did nothing to allay that apprehension. It was a very small propeller driven craft, its white paint faded from years of flying through all the elements the state of Illinois could throw at her. The green striping and company name showed the same kind of wear. There was a forlorn optimism that since engine parts were replaceable, the aircraft was fairly well maintained. After all, despite the weathered appearance, the plane showed no signs of damage, and both Cody and the pilot showed no concern whatsoever as to its airworthiness. Being a novice in the world of skydivng though, my concerns weighed much more heavily than they did in Santa Barbara. For that jump, we were using a state of art, newer aircraft, specifically designed for skydiving. Adding to it all was the fact that we were now joined by another jumper who would be taking the ride with us. Four men in a plane that stood no more than six feet high at its apex and not much longer than a stretch limousine.

If the plane seemed small on the outside, then the inside was absolutely claustrophobic. The sloping design of the plane only allowed for a small seating area, and in fact, there were no seats at all. I crawled across the padded floor and took my place against the back wall of the cabin, leaning forward slightly to avoid bumping my head against the roof. Cody then piled in, and Billy, the other jumper followed and we were off before he even closed the door. My mindset of a takeoff was formed by large airports like Chicago’s O’Hare, Los Angeles International, where there was a long taxi to the seemingly longer runway. This was a short jaunt and turn onto the runway and we were airborne in less than a minute. As with the last jump, there was that disconcerting dip soon after takeoff, as if the plane was contemplating whether it could handle the weight of the passenger load. The engine was whining intensely, smooth as could be, but sounding like it was at maximum effort, although I really had no idea what the plane could handle.

Cody was relaxed and in a good mood, and that had an effect on me. This was second jump, but my ride on a plane this small. It was in and of itself an adventure. Cody was smiling and directing me to ham it up for the hand held camera attached to his wrist. Suddenly another plane came into view a short distance away. The pilot acknowledged who it was, apparently a friend and proceeded to wave to him-with the plane. Remember the Randy Quaid character on the original Independence Day? That was the pilot! The rocking back and forth just added to the adventure that was this plane ride.

Shortly before we reached jump altitude, Cody hooked us up securely, detailing every step he was taking. There was that mixture of excitement and apprehension as the plane leveled out and slowed down. Billy opened up the door and looked out at the ground 12,000 feet below, probably as anxious as I was to get out of that tin can. I never saw him go out though, because Cody had us turned around and was making sure we were well secured while giving last minute instructions. Now it was our turn. We shuffled on our butts to the door where Cody instructed me to sit on the edge of the doorway and place my feet on a small step outside the plane.

“Okay, on three,” he said. “One, two-whoo!” We were off. It was a nice little trick to jump before expected, probably to mitigate any chance of someone changing their mind at the last second. For someone to suddenly decide that they didn’t want to jump and do something crazy like grab the side of the aircraft on the way out would be disastrous. Not that I would have considered such a terror inspired move, but with the adrenaline flowing at that moment it’s hard to say what someone might do, especially a complete stranger.

We immediately started our rapid descent. Contrary to logic, being outside the plane was relief, as the plane ride had been nerve wracking due to the above mentioned conditions. The view was incredible, and I was enjoying every second of it, the enveloping clouds, the winding river below, and the freefall itself. It was like slow motion at 120 miles per hour. In what seemed like a very short time, Cody pulled the cord and the chute opened, jerking me so hard that my knees went nearly to my chest. It didn’t hurt, but it was very forceful, which was reassuring, because it told me that the parachute was going to do its job and would easily be able to handle the weight of two men. Cody seemed as excited as I was, and he probably was. It made me think later that I wished I had something that I loved so much that I would do it for free. That seemed to be the case for Cody, but he had the bonus of actually being paid for doing what he clearly loved very much.

Unlike my first jump, Cody liked to do a little more as far as the steering went. He would pull down hard on one side, causing us to spiral downward in what was a controlled spin. Well, he did ask if I liked roller coasters. This was better than a roller coaster though, and as we neared the ground I saw my sister standing at the edge of the hangar, using her phone to film my descent. How nice would it have been if she had jumped as well. But she wasn’t inclined to do so and her husband have had it anyway. I would have become the the brother who shows up for a few days, makes a world of trouble and then leaves. It would have been fun trouble though. We made our landing in a grassy area next to the hangar, and it as soft as could be. Billy was already down, and in fact we passed over him on the way. My depth perception is very bad, so it looked to me as if we would land right on top of him, but in fact we landed well clear and it all went as planned.

Cody unhooked us just as he had attached us, with that military precision and detail.

“Let me just get these out of way, one, two, three, four.” We were detached and I stood up and let out a yell of accomplishment, a celebration of my second jump, in my hometown, but at the same time on the road. The sun was now setting on the mild evening, and dinner with the relatives was waiting.

It was a delicious dinner that night, maybe the best prime rib I ever had, and I was able to enjoy it with some family. My sister, her husband, the chef who prepared the feast, and my niece, who was well on her way to becoming a doctor. I was very proud of her and probably should have been more vocal about than I was. No doubt her fiance, a very nice guy felt the same way. My cousin, who we had picked up earlier was there, and my dad with his wife, a woman who I had known since early childhood. It was a wonderful dinner and a fitting end to a spectacular vacation in Illinois. As the evening drew on there was more talk about medical issues, but since I had none to speak of, I was largely left out of that conversation. It did tell me that time does not stand still and that we have to live every moment, and not waste any of it. Well, I didn’t waste time on this vacation, and vowed to myself to be back next year, where in theory a repeat of this weekend would be just fine with me, although my plan would be to have my significant other with me then. Who that will or would be was another matter, but then that was next year and at the moment I was just enjoying dinner with family, half regretting that I had let so many years pass before seeing them these last three. The good news was that my niece was getting married on New Year’s Eve, and I would be invited back then, so what family I didn’t get to see this time I would surely see then. All in all, it was a good time, and I was satisfied, not only with my performance on Sunday, but with everything that had transpired.

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