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Night Crawler 

Wednesday, May 7 1997
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Despite crops stretching to the horizon, life is parched in Hollister. It is as if the sun is closer to the ground here, an hour and a half away from San Francisco where the fog keeps us moist. We pull off the main road into a wide, dusty drive where a group of sun-bleached buildings faces a green, well-kept square of grass. As promised, one of the buildings is the Ding A Ling Cafe and another is Skydive Hollister.

Four boisterous young men stand near a picnic table just outside this second building. They prance and preen in their brightly colored sky-diving suits until a crackling loudspeaker calls their names. For a moment, the bravado evaporates, leaving them looking awkward and slightly clownish.

"Um, I've always wanted to jump out of a plane," says the tall, sandy-haired youth who licks his lips once for every word. "You know, um, it looks like fun." He looks away quickly.

As I settle down to sign the standard seven-page registration and waiver, he and his friends make their way toward the small airfield where a five-seater plane waits to take them up. The tall boy walks with resolution. I look down, but don't bother to read the print -- after making the decision to jump, reading about the risks seems superfluous.

In the orientation room, which looks like a rec room put together by someone's dad -- mismatched carpet, ratty old couches, and a color television on a metal stand -- we are shown a video that is meant to be informative and exhilarating. No one pays attention. The group chatters, laughing nervously at things that are not intended to be funny while, in the corner, 11-year-old Sam Tarrel methodically packs his father's parachute. Sam's father is an instructor at Hollister, and preparing the chute is as close as Sam ever gets to jumping out of a plane.

"You have to be 18," he says, years of expectation filling his white, milk-fed cheeks. "My dad was thinking about taking me under age, but my mom won't let me. I'm really looking forward to my first time." He turns his attention back to the task at hand as Patty Nardi, half of the husband-and-wife team that owns Skydive Hollister, enters in a flurry of blond hair and white tennis shoes. She is a spunky, cheerful woman who throws "honey" around like spare change. After being coached on how to jump out of a plane with a "jumpmaster" strapped to your back (this includes a few silly-looking in-air body positions), everyone is feeling calmer. Suits are passed out and we are told to wait outside at the picnic table while the chutes are being repacked. There, nervous jumpers have a chance to get to know each other.

"I'm their ground manager," says Anna Marie Powell, a middle-aged woman from Pleasanton with a huge smile. She points to her husband and her hairdresser, both of whom are in pink jumpsuits, and both of whom have recently turned 40. "It's their birthday present."

Bo is a carpenter from San Francisco who is also celebrating a birthday -- her 30th. Her girlfriend, Odie, is on crutches and won't be sharing the experience. "I didn't do it sky diving," says Odie referring to her leg. "I'm just here as ground support."

Mark Voegue owns his own chute and, according to his logbook, this will be his 100th jump. He and his wife, Annette, drove up from San Jose, but only Mark will dive today. "I've only jumped once," Annette explains with the slightest touch of embarrassment. "It's an expensive hobby."

Mark's experience makes him popular with the others and he tries to explain the exhilaration of the first experience. Another longtime jumper interrupts, apparently with the definitive explanation of the experience: "Imagine yourself in a convertible going 120 miles an hour, and you stand up." With that appealing image, we are asked to walk to the airfield where our jumpmasters will meet us.

The first instructor on the scene is Kirk Osgood. Osgood owns a pet rattlesnake named Thanks (caught on Thanksgiving). He is a rugged, leather-faced man with white hair and a well-trimmed mustache that would make any big-game hunter proud. He speaks like Hemingway -- loud, loose, and to the point.

The rest of the instructors approach, pairing off with their assigned jumpers. They are all tan, weather-worn, big, and fearless.

Steve Rafferty is my instructor, a sky-borne philosopher, and aerial poet. "I really want you to drink it in," he says looking into my eyes with deep concern and compassion. "I want you to take this experience home with you. I want you to own it because it is truly wonderful." In the plane, as we climb to 15,000 feet, Rafferty continues to talk while strapping my body to his.

"This is the most reciprocal job I can imagine," he says. "I can never experience the thrill of my first jump again, but, through you, I can experience the excitement. Your heart rate, your breathing." Voegue is jumping solo, so he is the first to go. Stepping up to the open door, he says, "See ya," and disappears through the hole.

"Very few people become sky divers," continues Rafferty's reassuring voice, "but they take something away with them. Whatever your reason for being here, it's the right one." Rafferty and I are second to last to leave the plane. I can smell the wind as we approach the door. Rafferty pulls my head back against his chest and the floor is gone. We fall away from the plane toward the tiny world below -- a surreal grid of green and yellow farmland. It does not appear to get any closer, an indication of how high we actually are. The wind is cold and deafening. I am vaguely aware of my nose running. Rafferty gives me the thumbs up and I begin to look around -- the Monterey Bay, the Gabilan Mountains, the San Andreas Fault. The next 60 seconds of free fall pass in dream time. Then, Rafferty opens the chute. Our descent slows. Soon, we are floating with the wind. It is incredibly quiet and, despite the steady rise and fall of Rafferty's chest, there is a sense of solitude at this height. The light is strange. The blues are extra blue and the greens extra green. It is what advertisers want us to think of as a Kodak moment.

"Imagine," says Rafferty as if reading my thoughts, "some people are at home watching TV." I suddenly recall a hang glider who referred to sky divers as "whacked-out adrenalin junkies." I am certain now that he has never jumped.

The landing is soft, almost intangible. We just step into a golden field where a half a dozen people wait to take our picture and grab our chute. They ask me how it was, but somehow I don't think they will understand.

From far away I hear Rafferty say, "Thank you." I turn to wave and he says, "That was perfect. That's the way it should be." I couldn't agree more.

By Silke Tudor

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Silke Tudor

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