Benn Cunningham (Double Bass) writes about his thrill-seeking second week on tour.
I’m writing this blog entry from the fireside in the Meridien Hotel, Philadelphia, where the thermometer is showing a pretty fierce -7 degrees centigrade. It’s come as quite a shock to the system, considering that I started the week filling up as much of my spare time as possible by the pool in balmy Florida…. Ahem, I mean practising…
Free time (or travel time) is one of the great touring challenges. There are a lot of spare mornings, spare afternoons and seemingly endless bus rides from town to town and, once the rehearsal and any necessary practise is done, everyone fills their time in a variety of ways. In my bass section alone, we have some voracious readers, two rather expert scuba divers, several keen cyclists and some of the most committed museum and gallery-goers I have ever met.
The free day in Florida last week was a little out of the ordinary even for this eclectic bunch. One of our second violins decided that he wanted to throw himself out of an airplane at 10,000 feet. Yes, as Helen mentioned, a sky-diving plan was circulating. Much to my other (and some would say, better!) half’s constant chagrin, once a sneaky, admittedly daft, but nigglingly exciting idea such as this is put in my head, I’m incapable of saying no. I tried to convince myself that it was crazy, terrifying, stupid even. But eventually I just had to face up to the fact that I would never forgive myself if I didn’t do it. As they say here in the US, “Hell, YEAH!”
After much talk and some persuasion, we managed to find six fellow lunatics who fancied it so we hired a car, met in the lobby at 9am and headed off to Wellington, a town on the edge of the Everglades. After about half an hour following the directions given to us by the internet, we turned onto a dirt track at the side of the road and started to doubt whether we hadn’t gone wrong somewhere. We were expecting a hi-tech sky dive centre, not a dirt track. The sun beat down and, as we drove along, all that seemed to be there to greet us were the turkey buzzards by the side of the track, feasting on a carcass. The thought that it could be some poor unfortunate from an earlier jump hung in the air of our hire car and we all gulped in an attempt to get rid of the knots in our stomachs.
At the end of the track, we found the centre (check out the photo… It was an old caravan!!) and the guys who were going to be jumping with us. They were so relaxed about the whole thing, they simply batted away our worried questions with sarcastic jokes about death rates and how under-experienced they were. In truth, they had nearly 20,000 jumps between the two of them and their relaxed style was just what we needed. We watched a training video (about 10 minutes’ worth!) and then it was time. My fellow bass player, Becky and I were to go first. We were going to jump. Out of an airplane. At 10,000 feet. I wasn’t absolutely terrified. No sir. Not at all… Maybe a little.
The plane was just big enough for two of us to fit in with the two instructors who would be strapped to our backs. We climbed for 15 minutes, circling over the beautiful green and brown swirling Everglades, listening to the instructors talking about the millions of alligators waiting below us. The views were amazing; the swamps to one side, the coast and the beaches to the other; Miami, just visible in the distance, shrouded in its own hazy cloud.
All of a sudden, there was movement. We were getting strapped up and ready to go. Becky was next to the door and I watched, kind of numbly, as a gaping, roaring hole appeared to her right. The door was open and the noise was deafening. So much so that I couldn’t hear Becky’s screams as she put her legs out of the aircraft and sat on the ledge. I shouted some encouragement and then, in a split second, she was gone.
My turn! We edged to the door and I forced myself, against every instinct in my body, to put my feet out on the tiny metal plate below the open door. The wind howled and buffeted my feet and legs with ferocious power. But then, just as I’d seen happen to Becky, the instructor pushed and we tumbled out.
How did it feel? It’s hard to describe, particularly at that first moment when you plunge towards the ground at upwards of 125 mph, the wind roars and your brain doesn’t quite know what’s happening, which way is up and whether you should be smiling or screaming. Exhilarating, unbelievable, coursing with adrenaline. If you’ll pardon me my language, here’s the video of my jump, taken by a camera on the arm of my instructor. I think it’s far more eloquent than I could ever be on the subject!
After a minute of freefall, the parachute opens (as you can imagine, the moment we were all praying for!) and, with a jolt, the atmosphere changes completely. Following your mad hurtle amid the noise and craziness, you start to float serenely and quietly through the air. The gentleness and the peace of it is quite startling and there is little to do other than enjoy the views, feel the sun warm your face and try to figure out exactly what just happened up there…
My partner is sleeping more soundly now that there are no more opportunities for extreme sports on the horizon. This free day in Philadelphia has found me on a historic walking tour and tucking into a Philly cheesesteak. With the grease dripping, I’m not completely sure whether my heart suffered more from the cheesesteak than the sky dive, but, you know, when in Rome…