by Eddie Dzialo
After I jumped out of a plane for the first time, I didn’t sleep for two days. The experience was something I needed to repeat. That was in the summer of 2010, five months before I left the Marines. I had deployed twice and had just assumed command of an infantry company. When I wasn’t at work, I went to Phish shows, surfed, and studied for the Treasury Enforcement Agent Exam to pursue a career in the Secret Service. The exam always got pushed aside in favor of the other two things. But each day seemed flat. I held onto a deep concern about what life was going to feel like after the military. To counteract that, I gambled on football and tried to surf through a hurricane. Deployments are filled with a devotion built around comraderies, something I knew I would never experience in the same way again. Because I’d been the platoon commander, ripe with my own shortcomings, the men probably hated me. But I loved them.
I wasn’t seeking any answers because I didn’t think they existed, but the girl I’d recently started dating suggested skydiving and I said we should do it. When? Next weekend. Part of my sudden agreement was to enforce some narcissistic, macho image that I had of myself, but a lot of it had to do with how much I wanted to be around her, even if it meant riding up on a plane and not being on it when it landed. To prevent myself from appearing vulnerable, I never told her that I was scared of heights. When I was young, I got so physically upset on a kiddie Ferris wheel at Funtown Splashtown USA that I made them stop the ride and I’d been older than everyone else on it. My father still laughs about it.
On the drive to the drop zone, my legs went numb. When we were signing our waivers, I watched people getting on the plane wearing shorts and t-shirts, and their parachutes were like little backpacks. The smaller the parachute, the faster the descent after it opens—if it opens. After we took the class about jumping and practiced going out the door, I went out behind the hanger and puked. The girl I was with didn’t seem bothered by the inevitability of having to physically hang out the door of a plane for the first time. Because we were doing a tandem jump, she got paired up with a guy in his twenties, and I was set up with an older guy who waddled.
As we ascended with thirty other people, I focused on breathing, giving the appearance of control. The air smelled cold, people checked each other’s equipment. For most of the ride, I wanted it to end; I’d jump, share the videos, tell stories about it. But that changed when we reached altitude. People started chanting in unison like drunks and doing drum rolls on their knees. Seeing their faces made me realize that I’d been the only unhappy person on that plane. After the door opened, people gave one another a specific handshake before they jumped. Someone turned to me and showed me what they were doing. That was the sort of bond that I’d been missing since returning home.
Stepping out of a plane is an act of devotion. Nothing else matters during freefall. Because it’s so consuming, it’s not possible to think about anything else. Falling gave me the sort of calm that I’d lost over two deployments. There’s a spirituality to skydiving, a state of peace that I didn’t know was possible.
I went back the following week with the girl I was dating and started the process to get my license. Life was unpredictable again, full of hope. Our kinship was brightest in the moments right before we jumped. I am married to the girl I jumped with that day, and now our daughter likes to climb on my parachute rig.
Eddie Dzialo is a current degree candidate at Southern New Hampshire University's Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.