It never ceases to amaze me. The sheer variety of personalities and professions drawn to skydiving is staggeringly diverse. I guess, as with any other activity, a certain percentage will be drawn to it for one reason or another, but as you start to get into the more “dangerous” pastimes, you expect to meet basically the same type of person. Fact of the matter is: that flat-out doesn’t hold water in skydiving.
Across from me in the Otter on another random Saturday in Las Vegas sat two polar opposite people. Outside the drop zone anyway. On the left sat, oh let’s call him “Grumpy.” He wasn’t at all grumpy, if truth be told. He was one of the nicest guys I’d met in the sport up to that point.
Grumpy worked for the Las Vegas Police Department as a member of their version of S.W.A.T, working undercover some, but mostly doing the hardcore tactical shit when they’d take down a meth lab or some big dealer’s house or some such. The kind of shit you see on all the terrible prime-time cop shows. Now, Grumpy would be the first to tell you that his job was dramatically less like a badass action police drama, and a whole lot more like the home shopping network. Other than looking scary as hell from time to time, he was a real sweetheart of a guy, and for the most part was quiet and unassuming. He’d tell you that most of his work was boring as fuck, the majority of what he dealt with was crap, and he spent more time doing paperwork than anything else. BUT, occasionally …
One of the stories he’d told was about a crazy bust dealing with a large-ish drug-dealing operation in North Las Vegas, which at the time was (and probably still is) the shitty part of town. Now, because Grumpy would do undercover shit from time to time, whenever he was involved in a raid of this type, he was decked out from head to toe in full black tactical gear, all the way up to and including a black ski mask.
As he told the story, on this particular occasion, he had been part of the team tasked to mop up potential runners toward the back of the property, and happened to find himself in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. Listening to the radio in his earpiece, he was aware that his team had breached the front door and he could hear the yelling as the door frame buckled in from that big-ass metal thing cops like to slam into them, knew that a whole lot of people inside were caught way off guard and a few of them were diving out windows and through back doors to try and get away.
Military assault rifle up to his shoulder, fully masked head cocked slightly to the side and in a stance that would intimidate any fucking body stood Grumpy. Over the fence came the poor sod with the bad luck to pick that particular direction to flee, and as he landed with a thud, half on foot and half on knees making his turn to run, he looked up just in time to see good old Grumpy with the barrel of his very intimidating rifle pointed straight at his face. According to Grumpy, he didn’t yell or scream like you see all the cops doing on the screen, but simply said, in a rather mellow voice, something along the lines of, “You’re gonna want to get down on the ground now … ” Apparently, the sight of Grumpy AND the really big fucking gun in his hands was so frightening and intimidating, that the guy not only spontaneously pissed his pants, but shit himself as well.
Now, sitting next to Grumpy in the Otter on that particular day was, oh let’s call him, “Cory.” Cory had been jumping at Skydive Las Vegas for about six months. He was a little on the loud side, but in a harmless way; a little on the slow side, but not in any way you could really put your finger on; and he also happened to be a drug dealer.
He and I had done a few fun jumps together here and there, and had the occasion to chat a bit as well. Long weekday rides in a Cessna will either put people to sleep or get them chatting … I’d found out Cory was a drug dealer because, well, Cory told me he was a drug dealer. The reason I say I felt he was a bit on the slow-ish side was mainly due to the ease with which he would tell people what it was he did. Everyone for the most part knew, which in my estimation wasn’t something you wanted to advertise quite so freely …
Most of what he was selling was nothing more harmful than pot, but he would occasionally sell pills, or powder from time to time if either found their way into his hands. All in all he wasn’t a bad kid, (and he was a kid, being no more than maybe 22) but he’d chosen to take the easier route of peddling shit than going out and getting a real job. It had been his choice after all because, let’s face it, when you’re born a healthy white man in the U.S., there are always options!
Now Cory and Grumpy had been on countless weekend loads together over the previous six months, but with Grumpy working part-time as a tandem meat hauler and Cory just playing around, they rarely shared space together in the plane. Luckily for me, on this particular occasion, they had ended up side by side for the ride to altitude. Grumpy was doing a tandem video at the time, and had managed to finish up all the stock shots and airplane interview and Cory was doing a solo jump, which is how he ended up in that spot in the plane.
Everybody has been onboard an Otter when you hit that lull … That point in the ride where nobody is talking about the previous jump anymore, or about the jump coming up, and the whole plane seems to go quiet for no particular reason. No small talk, no chit chat, just everyone in their own heads (a phenomenon I always notice, perhaps only because I so rarely stop talking!).
It was during that time on that particular load that I heard one of the coolest things ever. Without any real prompting, Grumpy and Cory happened to make eye contact, and give each other a bit of a smile. Nothing unusual really, but as the plane was coming up through about 9,000’ I watched as Grumpy slowly leaned in to Cory, smile still on his face as he spoke what I half heard and half lip read as, “You know if I ever catch you off the drop zone, I’m gonna nail your ass, right?”
Cory, complete understanding in his eyes, kind of half smiled, half nodded, and happily accepted the then popular two-finger flippy skydiver handshake that everyone was doing at the time. It was the only real interaction I’d ever seen take place between the two of them which, up until that moment, I’d thought was a bit strange considering what each of their professions was. I’d always just assumed Grumpy must not have known what Cory was up to, because otherwise he would have arrested his ass long before. But after seeing this briefest of chats Cory, Grumpy, and (by way of eavesdropping) I, now understood the previously unspoken but now voiced truce that was the drop zone. I couldn’t keep the grin off my face for most of the day.
From doctors, lawyers, waiters, bartenders, strippers, nurses, sommeliers, writers, welfare recipients, accountants, teachers, businessmen and women, surfers, rock climbers, cyclists, pilots, cops AND drug dealers, skydiving brings together one crazy variety of people. All of them arrive at the DZ and for the most part seem to hang up whatever guise they normally wear at the door, entering as just another jumper. Sure, once they put on their skydiving persona, they become the cameraman, the tandem instructor, the freeflyer, the swooper, the student or the teacher, but each and every one still leaves behind the bullshit and simply becomes a jumper. Now tell me, how fucking cool is that!
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