We walked up the cement steps from the bridge's pedestrian underpass. It was a cold wet day. The rain had mostly stopped, but the water clung to the steel railing and the cement walkway. My son, Alex, was 80 feet in front of me.
Twin Falls, Idaho is a flat plain of wheat colored grass interrupted by protruding rectangular lumps of bare black rocks. In the middle of town, this plain is broken by a huge gap. Two walls 1,000 feet apart, set at right angles to the plain, drop 450 feet to the Snake River below. It doesn't look like the river carved The Snake River Canyon as much as the earth opened up, like a huge patch of chapped dry skin, and parted. Looking to my right just before the river takes a turn and disappears, maybe a third of a mile away, I can see where, on one side of the canyon, the plain angles upward. It's an earthen ramp. The ramp Evel Knievel used to attempt to jump over the canyon with a rocket propelled motorcycle. A friend of mine, a kite flying buddy, had advised the engineer who had designed the system that Knievel would not be able to hold the parachute mechanism by hand, that the force would be too great and that the flight would fail. He was right. The parachute opened the second Knievel left that ramp. I thought about that briefly as I followed my son along the bridge's walkway.
Alex found his passion in skydiving. He's expanded that to include base jumping. We were on our way to Seattle where he would be taking a job at iFly, a vertical wind tunnel where people can simulate the experience of skydiving without having to leap out of a plane. The bridge at Twin Falls is the only place in the United States that you can legally jump off of a bridge anytime you want. Alex had come to Twin Falls earlier in the year to take a course in base jumping from some of the best in the business. We had come back so he could show me the bridge. He also showed me the road you drive down to pick up the jumpers, and where you park and wait for them to hike up from the gorge. It was interesting, but it was cold and rainy.
Ricky, Alex's 16-year-old dachshund, was between us in the truck sleeping under a blanket. We drove back to the visitor's center parking lot. I was glad because I needed to use the facilities (one of the problems that comes with aging). Alex didn't pull up close to the center but rather went to the far corner near the bridge. He hopped out of the cab and walked toward the protection of the pedestrian underpass with his base jumping rig slung over his shoulder. Surely he wasn't planning to jump in this weather?
I followed him to the cement rock wall under the bridge. I could hear the traffic passing above us. He had his pack on the wall, checking the straps and where the little parachute at the bottom of the rig was tucked in. It's called the drogue and jumpers pull that out as they fall. It pulls out the bigger chute. If they fail to do this, or if the chute doesn't come out . . . He handed me the keys.
AK: "You remember how to get to the pick up point?"
RK: "You're going to jump?!"
It was a stupid question.
Alex walked out from the underpass and up the stairs to the sidewalk. I videoed him. He waved for me to come on. I hurried to catch up. I videoed as he walked along. I wondered if this was the last time I'd see him alive. What would I do with Ricky? How would I get the truck back to Virginia? How would I tell …
It was too much to contemplate and I didn't want to worry him. I wanted him to concentrate on what he was about to do. I looked over the edge, down 468 feet to the landing zone, a small strip of grass beside the river. There were trees between it and the river. From here the trees looked like the tiny fake ones model railroaders put in their toy village landscapes. "You don't want to get caught in those trees. They're 30 feet tall," Alex said. Thirty feet? They look like they are three inches across!
I was literally shaking in my shoes; if I had been wearing boots, I would have been shaking in them.
"See that?" Alex said pointing to a sign on the bottom of the railing of the bridge. It showed a man in a wheelchair. "That's where a guy in a wheelchair jumped." I nodded. A truck honked its horn twice.
"They do that when they know you are going to jump," he explained.
"Oh." I was trying to remember every detail, every word, each gesture. I thought about the call I had gotten a few weeks earlier while Shelby and I were having lunch on the way to our nephew's soccer game. The one from a total stranger who said I was Alex's emergency contact and told me that Alex had had a "hard landing" and was being taken to the hospital before she abruptly hung up. I knew Alex was at "Bridge Day." That's the one day a year that you can legally jump off this bridge in West Virginia. Alex, having just completed his base/bridge jumping course in Twin Falls, wanted to be there, to be part of it. Shelby and I raced back home. She ran errands to prep for our trip. I started to look for routes to West Virginia and what to pack, who to call. I called the mystery lady back and asked her what did "hard landing" mean? Did his parachute open? Yes, it had opened. Apparently, on his third jump he turned away from the landing area and had come in fast, landing in the boulders. The EMTs on site thought he had passed out (he hadn't as it turned out). They were concerned about possible internal injuries and wanted the hospital to have a look. She said we'd have to contact the ER for further information. The hospital was at least 45 minutes away and no one there was answering the phone. We waited. We called. We waited. Finally, we got through. The ambulance hadn't arrived yet. They knew someone was coming from the bridge, but they had no details. Finally, he got there. I managed to ask a nurse, was this something where I should drop everything and rush up there? Her reply of "Oh no, honey" was the mental balm I needed. Alex was okay. He was fine. The EMTs were cautious, that's all.
We continued past the site where the guy in the wheelchair jumped. Jumped? Was he pushed? How did that work? I had little time to contemplate. Alex dried off a spot on the railing with a towel and climbed over. Another truck honked. I would not recommend that anyone climb over a railing when there's nothing but air for 468 feet, yet here was my only son facing out from the bridge, looking at the canyon and Evel Knievel's ramp. He turned with a twinkling smile. "You ready?" he asked.
"Yeah." Am I ready? Ready to watch my son possibly plummet to his death? Sure, I'm ready.
He faced the canyon.
"One. Two. Three... See Ya!"
And he was gone. He had thrown his arms forward and was rushing toward those 30-foot trees below. He reached with his right hand and pulled the drogue out from its pocket at the bottom of his rig. It deployed.
"Come on. Open. Open." I don't know if I said it out loud or not. If so, it will be on the video I shot. It took forever for the main shoot to come out and deploy. Maybe, a second and a half. I recently finally understood Eistein's Theory of Relativity. You have to understand that a unit of time, like a second, can be different in different relative situations. Standing on a bridge waiting for a parachute to open that's connected to your baby boy is a time that takes forever.
. . .
AK: "Were you afraid?"
RK: "I was terrified."
AK: "How terrified?"
AK: "Not bad. The scale was one to 2,000."
The little …
So what else happened in 2015?
Guatemala & Cambodia
At the end of January, I went to Guatemala to see Mayan ruins. Shelby said I should go by myself, that I'd have more fun talking with others who were interested in such things and not afraid of heights. Shelby, unlike me, has no interest in those shows that ask, "How did they move the rocks?" (Be it to build The Pyramids, or the Roman temples, Stonehenge, or the Mayan temples.) When I was standing atop my first Mayan pyramid, looking to descend the extremely steep staircase that had no hand rails and fighting the sense of vertigo, I thought "Thank God Shelby did not come."
I had the same feeling when standing atop a Khmer temple in Angkor Wat, Cambodia a few months later. Yes, I got to go on two trips of a lifetime this year. In between, we moved from Chapel Hill, North Carolina to Chesterfield, Virginia, a suburb of Richmond, where Shelby grew up, and where her brother and his family reside. (We were coming up every other weekend to attend soccer games or music recitals and decided to cut down on the commute.)
Katie & Jon
In June, we grabbed our nephew Tyler (age 10 at the time) and roadtripped to Minnesota to visit my daughter, Katie, and her husband, Jon. Katie is currently teaching at Macalester College in Saint Paul. We traveled via Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee. We visited lots of museums and traveled to the top of the arch in St. Louis on our way back. Katie surprised us with tickets to see Leonardo's Codex Leicester too.
Paul Shaffer & David Letterman
I attended my 50th reunion at Harvey School, which at the time I attended only went to the 8th grade. Many celebrities send their kids to Harvey. While standing on the newly dedicated tennis courts, a man came up to me and said, "Hi, I'm Paul Shaffer."
My response to the well known band leader and sidekick to David Letterman was, "You look familiar."
"Well, I've been on T.V. a lot," he said.
"You should meet my brother. He looks a lot like David Letterman," I said. My brother, Rob, was standing nearby and I tapped him on the shoulder to get a photo of the two of them. Rob has been mistaken for Letterman on several occasions. Me? Kelsey Grammer.
But the best part of this story happened the next day when Paul and the real David Letterman were watching the football game. Word got back to the main building that David Letterman was on the sidelines. Someone who knew my brother said, "Oh no it's not. It's that impostor from Ridgefield." Rob loved it.
Alex Moves to Seattle
At the end of October, Alex and I journeyed across America stopping in Bloomington, Indiana to visit Elaine and Phil Emmi and to see the Indiana University Museum. Then it was through Kansas City mere hours after a World Series game had finished and on to Boulder, Colorado. We finally landed for the night in Draper, Utah where a kite flying buddy Blake and his wife Olivia live. Blake is into paragliding. Alex tandemed with Blake in the morning and soloed in the afternoon. I stayed firmly on the ground.
Then we moved onto Twin Falls, Idaho and Portland, Oregon where we visited with my nephew and Alex's cousin, Lance. We finally arrived in Seattle where we visited with another kite flying buddy, Kathy Goodwind. She asked where Alex was going to be working and I told her iFly. "Get out!" she said as she hit me squarely on my sternum with the flat of her hand. "I taught the manager (Alex's soon to be boss) how to sew. He wanted to make a wing suit." A day later when Alex got his hand-me-down instructor suit, it had a seam that needed repair. Their regular sewing person said he was backed up and it would be awhile. Alex told him not to worry he'd get it taken care of. The guy balked, said he wasn't sure if the boss would allow it. Alex told him with the utmost confidence he was sure that he would.
Beamer's Last Home Game
Near the end of November we took older nephew, Mitch (age 13), to see Shelby's Virginia Tech Hokies play on their home field, Lane Stadium, in Blacksburg, Virginia. At the time she got the tickets, she had no idea it would be Coach Frank Beamer's last home game. Beamer was the Hokies' coach for 29 years. It was quite the event.
Foodie Fun in Phoenix
Shelby had been scheduled in June to meet up with a group of food bloggers in Phoenix. She got sick and couldn't go, but the whole thing got rescheduled for the beginning of December and this time I got to accompany her. I've never eaten so much good food in such a brief period of time in my life. Here's one of the articles Shelby wrote on her blog about the experience: Food, Drink, and Passion Abound in Limitless Mesa, Arizona. By the time we got home, we both had some sort of respiratory crud. Maybe it was the hotel's air conditioning, maybe we should blame a sniffler on one of the packed airplanes. Whatever it was it laid us both low just before Christmas (an optimal time to be sick). Effects are still lingering.
It's been a year of travel and transition for us, but every year seems to be better than the last. If you missed last year's letter (we were a little late in posting it), you can find it here.
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