Testosterone Alfresco

Once a year, the adventurous Jenkins boys will be boys, reforging the bonds of brotherly affection by nearly killing themselves

   
 
 
 
 
"Brothers, are you? All four?"

We nod, and Steve Woodford's hawklike head pivots, looking at each of us. "Well, mates," he says, in a jaunty South African accent, "this is a simple sport. Do it right, you live. Do it wrong, you don't."

He holds back a grin.

"Equipment failures occur," Woodford continues, "but they're not the primary cause of bouncing. Pilot error is what kills people. Panic."

He would know. He's jumped out of a plane 7,824 times, pulling his reserve chute on seven occasions. He's a Colorado-based professional skydiving instructor. He served in South Africa's Airborne Special Forces, won medals at national skydiving competitions, and holds several sky-diving records. With a tan, creased face, and trim physique, he is the paradigm of an ex-paratrooper.

He slots in an ancient-looking video, and we watch as a man at a brown desk in a brown suit with a ZZ Top beard tells us that there is one death for every 46,500 jumps and that if we have any doubts whatsoever about what we are about to undertake, it is our grave responsibility to reconsider.

Naturally, we've already signed the waiver: I understand the scope, nature, and extent of the risks involved in parachuting. I understand that parachuting is a dangerous activity in which there is substantial risk of injury and death. I expressly and voluntarily assume all risk of death or personal injury.

"Enough of that nonsense," Woodford says, ejecting the video and dropping a parachute pack onto the table. "Let's learn how to jump."

So begins another brother adventure.


 
   
EVERY YEAR, my three brothers and I have our own summer and winter Olympics. At Christmas we have a pull-up contest (an exercise in pain and debilitation left over from our years as gymnasts), a Ping-Pong championship (an activity that requires technique and concentration as opposed to brute strength), and a chess tournament (to dilute the 30-weight testosterone). In summer, come hell or high water—accident, bankruptcy, children, divorce, name your picayune excuse—we do an adventure together. It's our opportunity to be back together as brothers, not to mention a chance to revert to our natural state: drinking, cursing, striving, farting, chiding, deriding, spitting, bragging, barfing.

The winter competitions, held as they are in the presence of our spouses, our parents, our two sisters, various children, and other civilized humans sharing holiday cheer, never de- volve into sex jokes and debauchery. Not so the summer adventure.

An anthropologist might categorize our ritualized behavior as a primitive form of male bonding. A leery feminist, in accordance with good taste, would characterize it as ridiculous machismo. Whatever. There's one thing we know: Before we became responsible adults, before we were husbands and fathers, we were brothers. Before all the women who came before our wives or our exes, we were brothers. Before we became what we are, way back when we were chicken-legged prairie boys being knocked around by the Wyoming wind, we were brothers.

Which is not to say that we turned out anything alike. Christopher, the youngest, is single and a documentary filmmaker in San Francisco. He wears a ponytail and an earring and listens to bands with names like Giraffe Entrails. Dan is married and the goateed father of two baby girls; he works as an estimator in the construction business. He lives in Colorado Springs and commutes on a BMW Paris-Dakar motorcycle. Steve—blond, tan, and divorced, with an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old—owns his own headhunting firm in Denver, loves country music, and may be the best two-stepper in the city. I live in Wyoming and work in the basement of an old house full of young females—wife, two daughters, and a chocolate Lab—in a book-lined scriptorium.

Still, we grew up cheek to ruddy cheek and share the same blood and the same last name. Steve and I, "the big brothers," slept in one bedroom; Dan and Chris, "the little brothers," in the other; all of us wrestling and roughhousing, banging against the walls until we were ordered to take it outside, whereupon we would tumble into the snow or the dirt. We rode our bikes through winter, worked on ranches in summer. We had the last outdoor childhood in America, and it branded us. None of us bowl. None of us play cards. None of us golf. We're so barbaric we don't even know who won the World Series or the Super Bowl. We have other vices. Chris is a cliff diver, Dan is a kickboxer, Steve is a cyclist, I climb mountains.

For the past few years our annual misadventure has been a mountain-biking/camping trip to the desert, from which we unavoidably return scraped, bruised, sunburned, badly hungover, and as happy as four boys who've just played hooky. This year time was too tight for all of us, threatening our first cancellation, but we refused to forgo tradition. Steve sent out an e-mail: "What about skydiving? Cheap thrills if you ignore the money." Two weeks later, on the weekend Chris turned 30 and Steve turned 40, we were all, once again, together.


 
   
THE TRIP GETS OFF to an apropos start. We're lumbering across the prairie in search of a tiny airstrip in eastern Colorado, listening to Taj Mahal croak "She Caught the Katy (And Left Me a Mule to Ride)," when Dan, who's driving the truck, suddenly hits the brakes, steps out, and pukes. You might think this is because we'd been up till 2 a.m. drinking, or you might think it was brought on by a fear of leaping into emptiness thousands of feet above Mother Earth, but you don't know Dan. It's the stomach flu. I suggest we call it all off, but he just shakes his head and climbs back in like some Jim Harrison hero.

An hour later we are inside a remote hangar and Woodford is explaining the parts of a parachute.

"Risers, the straps that rise above your shoulders. Control lines, the lines that control the canopy. Steering toggles, the toggles that you use to steer. We sky divers are a simple lot, aren't we?"

Parachutes aren't what they used to be. The old, round, ungovernable army-surplus chutes—the ones that sent people drifting into trees and breaking both legs—are gone. The modern parachute, called a ram-air canopy, is nothing less than an inflatable wing, rectangular and double-layered. As the chute drops through the sky, air is rammed inside nine connected nylon tubes, inflating the canopy like a gigantic air mattress above your head. With judicious use of your steering toggles, you can guide your flight as precisely as a pilot guides a plane. Assuming, of course, that the chute opens.

"Now for malfunctions." Woodford has finished detailing the equipment and how it works, and has moved on to how it doesn't.

He pushes in another video. This time a cross-eyed man, apparently a man who takes his fashion inspiration from Charles Manson, describes the different ways in which a chute doesn't open. Bag lock—the chute is pulled from the pack but not from its case. Broken lines—the lines connecting your falling body to the life-saving quilt have snapped. Line knots—said lines are tangled and the chute is little more than a fluttering lump. The footage of fouled-up chutes is mesmerizing. When Manson starts to talk about the difference between a partial and a complete malfunction, Woodford pulls out the tape.

"Forget that," he says. "You look up and see your chute doing any of that crap, cut away and pull your reserve. There's one thing and only one thing you absolutely must do in skydiving: Put a chute above you."

We will get a chance to practice this two-step maneuver, but first Woodford must address another hazard: obstacles.

"Trees, buildings, power lines."

He demonstrates the proper body positions for crashing down through trees and landing on top of buildings.

"But power lines you don't hit, period. Do whatever it takes, turn any direction, hit anything else."

I look down along the table at my three brothers. They all know well the cost of cracking up. Years ago we realized that if we combined all our accidents, there was hardly a bone in the human skeleton we hadn't broken. You pay to be a participant. The outdoor life is the physical life. We've each had our share of trips to the ER and the OR, and that's just the physical damage. Some things heal, some don't, we help one another through. At present, we're all in line for the operating table.

Chris needs surgery on his bottom front teeth. They were snapped out and then pounded back in after getting caught on the wires of a hang glider during a crash landing. Dan needs surgery on his knee after a spectacular snowboarding endo. Steve needs surgery on his left shoulder and left knee, the former because of an old gymnastics wreck, the latter from a 360 on cross-country skis. Last year I dislocated my right shoulder and tore my rotator cuff on a 5.11 off-width.

We move out to a wooden scaffold from which hang parachute harnesses and take turns pulling rip cords for over an hour, constantly giving one another shit.

"Arch one thousand, two one thousand, I can't hear you!" bellows Woodford. "Three one thousand. Four one thousand. Five one thousand. Look up. Bag o' shit. Look down. Punch-right-punch-left!"

We're counting to give our chutes a chance to open. We look up to see if the chute is "square." If it's not, if it's a tangled, mortal mess, you look down, grab the red cutaway handle with your right hand, grab the metal reserve handle with your left, take your time, punch-right-punch-left.

Of the thousands of first-time jumpers Woodford has instructed, only two have ever had to pull their reserve. "Both did it just fine," he says.

But what if you screw up? What if you cut away your main but, in the madness of fear, fail to pull your reserve?

"That's what the RSL is for: reserve static line." Woodford shows us a wire that connects the cutaway handle to the reserve chute. "As long as you pull the cutaway handle, the reserve will deploy."

But what if your main chute doesn't open and you're so freaked out you forget everything, go stiff, freeze?

"AAD. Automatic activation device." Woodford shows us a little metal box attached to our harness. It measures how fast we're falling. If it's too fast—that is, chutelessly fast at 2,000 feet above the deck—the AAD will automatically deploy the reserve chute.


 
   
 
THERE ARE THREE KINDS of jumps a novice sky diver can make: tandem, AFF, or static line. In a tandem jump, after just 20 minutes of training, you leap from the plane with the instructor attached to you piggyback style. You get a 20-second free fall before the instructor pulls the rip cord and guides you safely to earth. "AFF" stands for "accelerated free fall." In this jump, following six hours of training, you leap from the plane with two instructors, one on either side of you, and have a 45-second free fall, but this time you get to pull your own rip cord and steer your own chute. The static-line jump is what you see in the old WWII movies. Upon completing four hours of training, you jump from the plane alone and get to steer all alone, but your chute is automatically pulled when you leave the aircraft. No free fall, but no hand-holding.

We chose the static-line option. Following the hangar drills, we practiced jumping out of a stationary plane, then practiced landing and rolling, and then it was time to go up.

By mutual agreement we would jump in birth order: Mark, Steve, Dan, Chris. As any family psychologist will proclaim, our character is preordained by birth order—the oldest are overachievers, middle children are mediators, youngest children artistic. Perhaps in the beginning, but once we've been adults longer than we were children, the world has kicked us all in the nuts so many times that each of us has hopefully learned how to be all these things. We learn how to walk in our brothers' shoes. Thereafter the hierarchy collapses, demolishing childhood prejudices. The oldest no longer believe the youngest had it easy; the youngest no longer believe the oldest had it easy. The middle children no longer look up or down to see themselves; they look inside. This is when you start to see what it really means to be a sibling, years and years late, like all understanding.

We were jumping in birth order only as a nod to our past, to tradition, to a time when we were lined up and our heights cascaded and our hopes swam upstream. Because there were other sky divers, veterans jumping from higher altitudes, we would go up in pairs—Steve and I first, then Dan and Chris, just like old times. The jump master would leap directly after each pair.

Steve and I suited up, tugged on our helmets, and soberly went through the check drills while Dan and Chris made fun of us. That's the job of a brother—to never let you forget who you are or where you came from. The helmets are mounted with radios. After our chutes opened, we would be guided into the drop zone by Woodford, standing with his own radio on the ground. We were to follow his directions precisely and with alacrity.

"You got that?" said Woodford, his voice crackling through our earpieces. "You listen to me and do exactly what I say."


 
   
 
DURING THE GROUND course, I think we were all thinking about one another. About the brotherhood. About all the adventures over all the years. About how the adventure was just an excuse for forcing ourselves to re-remember that we were brothers. About how, underneath all the bluster and bravado, having an adventure together was really just a way for guys raised in the stiff-upper-lip tradition to show that we love one another.

I know I was thinking about this when they rolled back the hatch and 3,500 feet of nothingness opened up below me and the jump master was motioning for me to scoot forward and hang my legs out of the plane. I slid my ass over till one cheek was out in midair and I had a death-grip on the doorjamb. The wind was blasting hard into my face and against my body. The jump master smiled and I guess I smiled back. Everything was rushing and the wind and the noise seemed to be flushing through my whole body as if terror were a poison. I tried to calm myself but it wasn't working so I looked out at the wing as we had been drilled to do and jumped.

To say that I was thinking about my brothers in that moment of mortal drop—with the angel plane disappearing above me and the rock-hard ground lunging up beneath me and my entire being feeling like I'd already landed on one of those high-voltage tension lines—would be a magnificent lie. I was scared shitless, bodyless, mindless. For several seconds, the cosmos went blank.

Then the chute opened. Life, precious life, regained!

My lines were crossed, so I instinctively reached up over my head and drew them apart. I had just completed my canopy-control maneuver when Woodford's voice came into my helmet.

"Nice jump, mate. Now I want you to turn right 180 degrees. Good. Now left 180 degrees. Big flare. All right. You're flying!"

It all happened so fast. Three seconds of electrifying terror, then three minutes of godlike, the-world-in-miniature floating.

Woodford was directing me down toward the bull's-eye when I realized something was wrong. I could hear him telling Steve to turn right, turn right, no Steve, your other right! Steve, are you listening!

I landed in a plop and immediately looked up into the sky. I couldn't find Steve. Instead, the jump master was twirling in fast, touching down beside me.

"He's lost his helmet!" the jump master told Woodford. "Use the arrow!"

Woodford scrambled to unfurl a large fabric arrow on the ground, an emergency device used to guide jumpers who have lost radio contact. Steve had tumbled out of the plane and the static line had caught around the side of his head and ripped off his helmet and radio.

Chris, Dan, and I were all standing there together staring up into the blue sky at one brother, hoping with one heart. Our fear was that he was unconscious—just floating in the welkin like a limp doll—and would crash-land into power lines, a barbed-wire fence, a highway. He could break his back, snap his neck, impale himself...

But though he was a long way off, it was clear he was in control, unassisted and yet unpanicked. He was directing his chute toward the drop zone.

In a couple of minutes, Steve landed softly out in the prairie.

Later, Chris and Dan would execute their jumps flawlessly—Dan, lime-green but holding it back because they won't let you jump if you're puking; Chris hitting the bull's-eye, naturally, and winning the bet—both dives sadly undramatic.

It's hard to describe how you feel when a brother is in peril. For a moment, your soul enters his and you are there beside him, with him, holding his hand. On any ordinary day four sanguine brothers like us wouldn't be caught dead holding hands.

Only on an adventure.



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