A Cage of My Own Making

By Jon Hillenbrand In Photography, Stories


The first time I entered freefall, the moment I fell from the sky, I immediately wanted to get BACK into the plane. If I could have reached out Plastic Man-style and grabbed the edge of the plane’s door, I would have held on for dear life as the instructor attached to my back smacked at my hand and screamed over the propwash to JUST LET GO! Can you really blame me though? I remembered tripping on the sidewalk as a child. We spend our whole lives trying not to fall down, and there I was falling down, but the ground wasn’t coming any time soon. Either way, I saw the door and the tail and the wings of security retracting into the distance and I knew it was too late.

The initial approach of panic was like a head-on collision charging me at 140 mph. But rather than let the fear take over, something I predicted would literally kill me instantly, I swerved and thought to myself, “The only way out of this is to just go through the whole thing.” So I leaned my head into the fall, like leaning into a punch and took it.

I fell fell fell and the wind picked up so harshly that it was like being on the fastest motorcycle ride of all time, just a blast of air filling every part of my being. So I exchanged the cage of the plane for the cage of freefall. Previous to that I had been in the cage of “going skydiving” which was mostly my own creation and partly peer pressure. But once you are in the plane dressed in the outfit and wearing the straps, you only have yourself to blame for STILL being there. Twenty pages of waivers reinforce that. It’s not like the condom broke, you are definitely on that plane by your own choosing, even if you don’t know it.

Freefall is interesting. Again, the wind is intense, enough to lift you up if you weren’t, you know, falling. Your eyes don’t seem to water too, which is interesting as a contact wearer. This little thin lightweight set of glasses that looks like the cheap cover to a microwave meal, protects your eyes up to and past 140 mph. Weird. Another thing about freefall is that you seem to have plenty of time to look around and just simply exist. I don’t remember ever having any thoughts of dying or the parachute not working. Really, I don’t remember having any thoughts at all other than, look at the altimeter, move your hands to do a spin, look at the alt, spin the other way, and then just look around. I thought I was doing fine, checking the ground and my wrist. Then the instructor patted my wrist and I realized that I was already below 5500 feet, the opening altitude and I realized that I had been staring at the patchwork ground entranced by the patterns. I pulled the cord.

If being born makes babies cry, pulling the ripcord makes adults cry. It’s the same shocking traumatic transition from a singular feeling to a violent shaking and smashing and tearing of your body toward a floating peaceful silent new world. And then there I was, trapped in the cage of not being able to get down.

I’ve never been afraid of heights, but my mind does tend to wander. And when my high school friend used to walk on the ten inch wide outside wall of the roof of the parking garage at Oak Brook, honestly, I imagined her falling and it freaked me out. And when I looked down and imagined her smashed pumpkin down there, I had to back away from the edge. And when you are 4000 or more feet up, hanging by a backpack, I couldn’t help but imagine that I was in a somewhat precarious position. Surprisingly, freefall seemed safer. At least you were suspended by all of that wind.

The second time I went skydiving, I do remember not wanting to pull the ripcord. I certainly wasn’t suicidal, I just didn’t want to be on the parachute. I just wanted to freefall really close to the ground, pull the chute at the last possible moment and quickly flop to the ground safe and sound. But again I found myself suspended on the damn parachute. You don’t have the kind of kite-like control that you imagine. It’s all kind of like steering a river with your open palm. The instructor asked me if I wanted to float out over the road. I told him I just wanted to get down. I had to get out of that cage that I had disliked so much.

I suppose we all are slaves to the behaviors we have developed over the years to get through our every day life, the behaviors that serve and betray us depending on the force of the moment. But really, the guy in the shark cage really only has himself to blame. But in our quest to maybe break out of our normal cages, we put ourselves in new unfamiliar cages that we might later fight to get out of. For me, being on a parachute was like being stuck in a Halloween costume that you can’t find the zipper on. But the lessons I learned about life and myself from those moments have resonated strongly with me over the years. I find myself in difficult circumstances thinking, “Just like freefall, you just have to go through it.”

I really want to go skydiving again.

What do you think?