Tales from the Bonfire - Those Human Feelings
by Dan Gingold | B-39878 | Brooklyn, New York
I met Bryan in Florida on my very first day skydiving. Bryan had driven down from New York City to practice wingsuiting. His girlfriend, Katherine, came with him to go through the AFF program and was in my first-jump course. All through ground school and training that day, my nervousness rose. I rode to altitude quaking. When I landed, I felt such an incredible elation. Afterward, drinking a beer with Katherine and Bryan, I tried to describe what I had felt. I remember Bryan, with a huge smile on his face, listening knowingly.
Two days later, a student and his instructor died during a jump. Faced with a direct example of the potential consequences of the sport, I sat for two days watching the wind and deciding whether to continue. Katherine chose not to, a decision that made perfect sense for her.
I finished AFF in Florida, and when I returned to Brooklyn, I looked up Bryan. We made plans to carpool to his favorite drop zone, located an hour and a half north. Over that summer and the next two years, he became one of my closest friends. We spent hours talking about our lives: skydiving (of course), his work with the United Nations to end extreme poverty, my filmmaking and Bryan’s burgeoning interest in BASE jumping. Bryan loved skydiving and BASE jumping and spoke animatedly about learning to jump, track and fly better. He also spoke of harnessing the focus and concentration these sports provided to better accomplish his humanitarian goals.
Of all the BASE jumpers I’ve met, Bryan had done the most thinking about how to safely go about what is, undeniably, one of the world’s most dangerous sports. He weighed his love for the “human feelings” (as he described them) against the myriad risks, nearly all of which he calculated he could mitigate.
In March, I had just returned from shooting a short documentary about wingsuit BASE jumpers, a passion project that never would have happened without Bryan’s advice and introductions. The day before, I had sent Bryan—who was BASE jumping out west—a few helicopter tracking shots that I was particularly proud of. I was excited to hear what he thought, so I logged onto Facebook. The first thing I saw was a “blue skies, black death” posting to Bryan’s wall. I clicked to his profile page and saw similar messages. My heart sank through the floor.
Since Bryan’s passing, I’ve thought a lot about the risks and rewards of air sports. I came to skydiving for the sensation of freefall, something a tiny percentage of everyone in human history has had the opportunity to experience. Later, I realized that I had come for the emotions as well. At the beginning I was terrified, but over time the fear turned into excitement, joy and release. Every time the door opens and I get out, I’m celebrating a victory over the fears I have bested. As Bryan said, I’m “feeling those human feelings.”
When I got into this sport, I didn’t know about the friends I would make and the bonds we would share. We are extremely fortunate that we get to do this, and even more fortunate that we get to do this together. The inverse of this is when those friends die or are injured. Air sports are safer now than they have ever been, but there are still tangible risks and elements of chance. Some have fail-safes and emergency procedures, but others leave precious little wiggle room.
The 9-way ash dive for Bryan was the hardest skydive I’ve ever made, not for the level of difficulty, but because of what it meant. Bryan’s younger sister, Evelyn, and Katherine came out to watch. Just like Bryan, none of us were really belly flyers, but we had trained for the jump for two days, enlisting an organizer with a drill-sergeant attitude to help us get it right.
As I had the whole weekend, I thought of Bryan on the plane ride up: the moments we’d shared as friends, all the times I’d smiled and waved at him sitting in the back of the plane in his dark green wingsuit. Looking at the ash bag taped to my arm, I teared up, missing my friend, his big hugs, his warm smile.
In the door everyone huddled close, made the count and leapt out. We flailed a bit in a way that I imagine Bryan would have chuckled at, but we all came together, and at 6,000 feet we released his ashes into the sky. Even in freefall at 120 mph you could hear our shouts of joy. After we’d tracked away and deployed, I spoke to him, “We did it man. For you.”
Back on the ground at the pea gravel, Katherine and Evelyn standing with us, we said a few more words and then stood quietly, thinking of our friend. We were all exhausted physically and emotionally, and I made no more jumps that day. But I’d be back the next Saturday.