October 28, 2007

Eric "tonto" Stephenson's Logbook Jump No.: 5314
Date: Sunday, 28 October 2007
Location: JSC
Equipment: Velocity 84
Aircraft: Porter ZS-IHB
Altitude: 11,000 feet
Type Jump: AFF
Freefall Time: 48 seconds

Sunday dawns clear in the Carletonville veldt. The grass is dewy but the sun will soon start baking the moisture out of the red earth. Eric wakes up, sniffs the fresh air, and pulls on his tonto skydiver smile, knowing he’ll be catching up on jumps that were rained out yesterday. He looks up at the expanse of blue.

The first load of the day is an AFF level five with Agnieszka. On her level five jump, she is happy and ready. He is grinning in the airplane, as always, in the door with a student, so comfortable right on that edge.

***

Years ago, on one of my first big group tracking dives at JSC, I hung on the bar outside the door with the airplane on jump run, just before exit. We all watched the video afterwards. Beasley was flying camera and he had been hanging on the strut looking back into the plane, so the view on the screen was of five of us jammed into the Porter door, waiting for the count. In slow motion, I was smiling at the camera, long-sleeved T-shirt rippling in the prop blast, one hand on the bar and the other arm dangling, relaxed, in the wind. Eric perked up even before the video showed us all bailing out of the plane.

To the crowded room he announced, “Look at that! Could she be any more chilled?” Such pride in his voice. Welcome to feeling at home in that moment before release, he was saying. Welcome home to a place you can share with me.

***

He is with Agnieszka in the door now, looking confident. She says, “Check in!”

“OK!”

“Ready, Set, Go!” and the exit is smooth. She goes through the tasks of the dive, her awareness growing and her movements more natural than on the last jump. Her body is figuring out how to fly. He tracks away after her pull and his mind switches focus to his own canopy. Pull. Good little pocket rocket overhead, and he’s dialing in on the landing now.

In the back of his mind is the World Cup in Canopy Piloting. Is he good enough? He’s been pushing the boundaries and he knows he’s getting better. He’s got the set up nailed. As his audible goes off, he pulls down on his front riser, diving the Velo into a 270-degree turn towards the ground. The air is smooth, the view is good. He gets ready to transition to rear risers to plane out, as he does every time.

Grabs the rears. Smooth. Wind in his face, that intense focus giving way to a little smile as he feels a long swoop coming. But the left riser is gone, slipped out of his hand. “Ah, fuck,” he yells, annoyed, looking back to get it.

***

27 October 2007. tonto@dropzone.com writes: “Iceland is more beautiful today because you are there. I love you completely. Have a wonderful weekend and have an adventure you can tell me about later. AND POO OUTSIDE THE BOX! Love! t”.

The cat-litter reference is because he understands I've been frustrated in graduate school at Princeton, like a wild cat forced into domesticity. After a career built running around Africa researching the illegal arms trade on my own schedule, I'm having trouble adjusting to the demands of an institution where I am just a student again. And so, I'm still not over the fact that my perfectly planned trip to Kabul during this autumn break got canceled at the last minute. Vengeance would be mine, wreaked ounce by ounce in shots of liquor and strong coffee during Plan B, Iceland and Canada. Too long away from the sky, from mid-air kisses and weekends of wingsuit flying – and now denied a conflict-zone adrenaline substitute – I’m left only with alcohol and caffeine to keep me from spontaneously combusting.

This also explains why I’ve been out all night in Reykjavik drinking Brennevin and dancing with my classmate Meghan in a ritual of Saturday partying endemic to this chunk of rock in the northern Atlantic.

Sunday morning sometime after 8am I roll out of bed, bleary, tired, and hung over. I turn on my American cell phone, which works (though expensively) here. Padding quietly out of the bedroom I’m sharing with Meghan and into the living room of the rented apartment, I notice several missed calls. From South Africa. Skydiver calls on a Sunday morning are never good news. My breath catches in my chest. My hands start to sweat.

***

Eric re-grabs the riser and yanks down on both sides to plane out the diving parachute. The ground rushes up and he’s still smiling when he impacts the grass in front of the club, aiming, accurately, for the swoop gates. His body hits hard, lifting up again and then coming to a stop several meters further. He is bleeding, his femur protruding from his leg.

Simba sees that something has gone wrong with the swoop but he’s on his way out and it can’t be that bad. He’ll hear about it from t later. He gets in his car and drives off down the dirt road. Sheri and Ute run out to see if he’s okay, calling a paramedic. When they get to him, he appears unconscious, and the femur looks bad.

***

I listen to the voicemail. Call back, they say. My heart ignores the speed limit and I think, “I’m going to die.” I dial Eric’s phone, hoping to hear his voice. Matteo answers.

***

The paramedic gets there and they start CPR. He tells Sheri to breathe into Eric’s mouth. She hesitates. Ute gets ready to move in, but Sheri puts her hand on his nose and goes for it. They pump his chest. Breathe. Pump. Breathe. His heart is still beating for fifteen minutes after impact, but his head has also taken a hit, and he is not responding.

***

“Hey T, how’s it going.” Matteo, sounding feeble.

This pisses me off even though I love Matteo. I am panicking and I have no time for his weakness. “I need to know what the FUCK is going on.” I lean against the wall to stay up.

“Um… t passed this morning.”

“What?”

“t… passed this morning. He died.”

I collapse on the hardwood floor, sliding on my socks to my flannel pajama pants, fist pounding as hard as I can. All of the matter in the universe is sucked into this moment. The impossible density of it, like a black hole, crushes my skull and squeezes everything alive inside of me into pulpy deadness. But it is worse than dying because there is no end. I can still feel something that is so far beyond pain, it has no name and no shape.

I crawl to the couch but I can’t get up so I curl up at the base. I am his next of kin; the first person called. Caleigh and Shanna are there, but they didn’t see it. I have to call his family. I have to call his ex-wife. I’m in Iceland.

He knew. He knew that even the tiniest mistake swooping could kill him, and it did. And now he is in the past tense, and I am still here, and the only thing I can do is pull my shit together because things need to get done, and I need to get on a plane.

I am a skydiver. We manage adrenaline. I am Eric’s partner. We handle situations that other people can’t deal with. I am alone now, and all I know how to do is manage and handle it, to wrap his essence of responsibility around me like a cling-wrap corset even as I prepare to announce his death, a task that won't go smoothly at all.

Meghan gets me dressed and into a cab to the airport. First available flight to London, connecting to Joburg. Forced into stillness for a few moments, I look out the window and watch the barren, volcanic, snowy landscape go by outside.

I start the first day of the rest of my life, in a world without him.