Accidental Activist

Look, Pull ... er, Crunch?

Ben hurls himself off the side of a moving airplane. Don't try this at home, kids!

By Ben Bull
Published April 09, 2006

It's surprisingly hard to identify seven things you have done "just for fun...or for a sense of adventure or accomplishment" as per the career planning instructions in Richard N. Boles' What Color is Your Parachute?. Depressingly hard, in fact.

As I struggled to put together my list of adventures I got to thinking. Isn't one of our main reasons for living to have fun? I mean, why else are we here, walking around taking up space, if not for the sake of having a few laughs along the way? And yet here I am, trying to come up with a list of fun times – and drawing a blank...

Fortunately, after a while, I got the good times back. I recalled my stint as a mini-train driver on a holiday camp in Wales, tooting my horn, tearing up the track, and stopping every few yards to pick up deliquent teenagers who kept 'falling off' along the way.

I thought about that sponsored Jailbreak trip to France; or coupled together with my polytechnic friend Mark hitch hiking all the way to Dover; or stowing away inside a trucker's cab as we smuggled ourselves through customs and into the parking lot at Dover (we were supposed to ride straight onto the ferry but an untimely Dockers strike put paid to that).

Of course, there were those crazy Green Berets. My first attempt at activism and an introduction to the nuances and nonsenses of Talk Radio...and a nutcase by the name of Jason Leach (I wonder what he's doing now?).

Alas, none of these made the final cut. In the end I felt like I had maybe too many adventures to choose from - which is good, right? Well, maybe. I quickly realized that none of my adventures had happened at work. Shouldn't I be having at least some fun at work? Maybe this career plan will take care of that. I hope so.

In the first of my seven short stories, I recalled a treasure hunt I put on in my local park. Reading through the career exercise instructions again, I realized that I had taken some liberties with the instructions. For one thing, according to Parachute author, Richard Bolles, the stories are supposed to be no more than, two or three paragraphs in length.

The Treasure Hunt is 3,200 words. Whoops.

Well, never mind. I'll try and set that right today! To the amazement of RTH editor Ryan McGreal, a man who persistently and patiently reminds me to "watch the word count" and "keep it tight" I am going to attempt to rattle off the remaining six stories of this series in less than 1500 words a piece! If he's lucky I may even do it in less than a thousand!

"It's not possible!" people will say. "How can he do this? Surely he'll suffocate at that speed?"

Well, I'll do me best.

So without further ado, introduction and, well – words, allow me to pluck away once more at the first petal of "The Flower," and tell you all about another thing I did just for fun: The Parachute Jump.

One day, when I was living in London with Mark and Steve, one of us (not me, for sure) decided it would be fun to jump out of a plane.

"Why the hell would we do that?" I asked, quite rationally,

"Because it's fun," replied Mark, not so rationally.

"How do you know?" I persisted. "You've never done it."

"Well, it looks like fun," suggested Steve. "Besides – it's for charity."

Like we should do anything for charity...

"Would you jump out of a plane without a parachute for charity?" I asked, facetiously.

"Of course not!" replied Mark.

"Why not?"

"That wouldn't be fun."

"Oh."

Realizing the conversation was getting us nowhere, and also that we had sod all else to do, we set about raising the thousand quid each we needed to enlist. We sent word out to all our friends, acquaintances, and work colleagues that we were going to jump and, "Why don't you join us?"

One person responded.

"It sounds like fun," replied Paul. "And - It's for charity!"

We knew we were too old for lemonade stands and too young for bake sales, so we opted for the highly imaginative fundraising approach of Asking People For Money. Surprisingly, this wasn't as straightforward as it seemed.

"Shouldn't I donate so much per thousand feet?" some people asked, or, "How about five pounds for every broken bone?"

Why are people so complicated?

"It's not a hoppathon," we would reply. "Just give us a bloody fiver."

Five pounds later and we were still well shy of our goal. What should we do?

We put it all on VISA.

"It's for charity," I explained to my bank manager the next day.

"Great," he replied. "That'll be nineteen percent."

We registered for the next available date – one month away – and set about getting our affairs in order.

"Give all my worldly possessions to the Salvation Army" I said to my Mum, during my last phone call home.

"Isn't that where you got it?" she replied, bravely masking her concern.

At last the weekend arrived and we drove up to the airport 30 miles up the M1 for our pre-jump training.

After eight hours spent shouting, "Look, Pull, Punch!" and jumping off two-foot ramps with our chins on our chests, we were ready for the big day.

Unfortunately, the weather wasn't. The next day the combination of lively breeze and murky skies meant that it was too dangerous to jump.

"Isn't it always too dangerous to jump?" I wondered as we got back into the car with instructions to come back the following week.

A week later we were kitted out with jumpsuits and parachutes, and lined up neatly by the plane. I wondered what all the shouting was about as I watched the two army types striding up and down, tightening our straps and banging their hands on our helmets.

"You are responsible for your own equipment!" they yelled. "We will not be responsible for your deaths!"

Great. I was hoping for more of a "Bon Voyage" or maybe a comforting, "May God be with you" but this would have to do.

As we filed onto the plane, it suddenly hit me: What the hell was I doing?! I couldn't jump out of a moving object at 2,000 feet with only a thin piece of nylon to protect me! Plane trips were supposed to have a take-off and a landing, weren't they? Why screw around with a proven formula? What kind of one way madness had I gotten myself into?

This wasn't my first bout of second thoughts. I had endured several days of schoolyard abuse from Mark and Paul and Steve, who regarded my repeated failures to "Look, Pull, Punch" properly and land with both my knees together as an "embarrassment to the team."

Their "team" was based on the popular "Gillette! The Best a Man Can Get!" razor TV commercials, which featured brawny looking men rock-climbing, para-gliding and rubbing their chins in slow motion. As punishment I had been banished to the "BIC team", a sensitive skin razor whose commercials featured middle aged men standing around in Chinos and playing with their kids in the park.

As we loaded up, I went through the drill in my head. It wasn't that hard: Jump; Spread-eagle, and Count: "One thousand! Two thousand! Check canopy!" Check to make sure your chute was open, and, if it wasn't...Oh My God! What if the chute doesn't open?

I trudged aboard, clenching my teeth - and my buttocks - and flopped into my seat. The parachute plane was not like your regular airliner. The inside was just a metal shell. We sat hunched together in four rows, side by side on the cold steel hull. Our lines were clipped to a single rail in the ceiling, which meant that if we didn't jump, nobody behind us could jump either.

I hoped that the eyes boring into me from my jumping partners to the rear were saying, "Good luck mate! You can do it!" But I knew they were really saying, "You better bloody well jump matey - Or else!"

There were no doors on the plane and the endless buffeting by the wind and droning of the engines meant that conversation was impossible. Instead, I looked around at the faces. Everybody was calm, or at least pretending to be calm.

Mark, who was right behind me, was looking around like an idiot, grinning from ear to ear and giving me a big thumbs up. Steve and Paul were pretending to shave and laughing in my direction. I tried to give them all a retaliatory salute – a two fingered one obviously - but somehow my hands had stopped working. Oh dear...

"Look, Pull, Punch! One Thousand, Two Thousand...Check Canopy!" No problem.

A signal came from the front: Time to go. I watched the lines chinkle down the rail, as, one by one, my jumping partners launched themselves out of the gaping hole at the front, and into thin air. I shuffled forward mournfully. How the hell had I gotten myself into this?

I didn't think about escape, about going back. As if to reinforce this, Mark, who was right behind me, placed a firm, reassuring hand on my back. It said, quite simply, "Jump or I'll push."

Three to go. What was I normally doing this time on a Sunday? Watching telly probably. What was on right now...football? Probably Man United versus...

"Clink!"

Two to go. Paul launched himself away. A text book spread-eagle!

"Gillette! The Best a Man Can Get!"

And now, Steve: "One Thousand, Two Thousand, Check Urgh!"

Check Urgh? Where was that in the training? Did it hurt when the parachute jolted you violently upwards like that? It certainly looked painf-

"Ready!"

"Huh?"

I felt a hand on my shoulder and watched my thumb go up. How did that happen? It was probably more of an automatic response than a rational gesture or commitment. Perhaps this is how we go to war, I wondered. These scary army types persuade us to enlist and then instill a series of automatic gestures into our brains. "When you see the enemy approaching (Run away! Run away...!) – Charge! When you get one in your sights (tell him to Run away!) Shoot the b****d!"

Either way I doubted any thumbs up - this universal symbol of achievement, excitement and enthusiasm - had ever looked so forlorn. Like a wet handshake or a hug with no touching.

"Go!"

I flopped out of the plane.

It's hard to describe what happened next. Those few seconds of freefall felt like the time I fell into waterfall at a campsite in Yorkshire. I was spinning, reeling, tumbling, gasping for air, hurtling endlessly downwards, arse over tit in a spectacular hundred-mile-an-hour forward roll of death.

It was fun!

A sudden jerk elicited the unscripted "Ugh" and a much-belated "Oh, erm, Check Parachute?" to which nobody was listening. Unbeknownst to me the Quarter Master, or whatever they call the Army bloke who had pushed me out, had already made a damning entry in his report: "Subject #14: Fell out of plane. Illegal Jump." Alas, my parachuting career was over.

Still, the view was lovely. As I looked down, I noticed that Mark had somehow ended up beneath me.

"Hey! Get out of the bloody way!" You'd think the sky would have been big enough for both of us.

Mark was feverishly kicking and squirming and shouting, "I've got twists! I've got twists!"

"Great," I replied enthusiastically. "Are you having fun?"

(I later learned that Mark was descending at a faster rate because his parachute lines were twisted, a dangerous scenario that can lead to broken legs on landing, or even death. Still, he did look foolish.)

Thirty seconds later I made a near perfect landing that did nothing to redeem my BIC-like exit, but did at least confirm that my nightmare was well and truly over.

As I look back, for no other purpose other than to round off this career planning exercise, and ask myself what the hell I achieved from all of this, I can think of only one thing: I did it! (Oh, and Mencap got a large cheque which took me several years to pay off.)

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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