Sky Bums

by Laurence Clarkberg




I am sitting on a narrow hard bench facing the rear of a small plane. The drone of the twin engines bleeds into my consciousness like the chanting of two gasoline-powered Buddhist monks meditating on the plane's wings, bringing me higher and higher. At the back of the plane a doorway opens and yawns wide. Light spills into the plane. I feel myself inexorably drawn toward the light. I float forward as if in a dream. I reach the opening. I raise my head and look out. Fluffy white clouds race past. I look down. A brilliant green patchwork of pastures and forests shimmers far below. "Jump!" I hear behind me. "Jump now!" I break into a cold sweat. I feel faint. I feel myself tumble forward and then I am falling, falling...


"Laurence, wake up!" my wife Judy says. She is shaking me by the shoulders. "It's time to get up! We have to put gas in the unicorn." It all comes back to me in a flash. Judy and I are camping out at a sky diving convention in eastern New York. We have been asked to bring our giant rideable unicorn to their annual gathering, which sky divers call a "boogie".


"Are you okay, honey?" Judy asks. "You look a little shaken. Did you have a bad dream?"


"I'm fine," I assert, looking up at her groggily. Then I add, smiling, "I'm glad you're here." She smiles back.


Judy and I had arrived yesterday afternoon in our gleaming silver truck and trailer with the playful UTV sticker on the door, which stands for "Unicorn Transportation Vehicle". My artistic partner Doug Shire and I had created the art bike Sparky the Giant Rideable Unicorn in 2019 to bring to Burning Man. Since then we've made a summertime career out of bringing Sparky to various festivals and parades. Almost any festival organizer is willing to give us free tickets and gas money if we bring Sparky to their event.


After a three-hour drive Judy and I had pulled onto the gravel driveway of the "drop zone." We drove beneath a giant arch made out of telephone poles and then pulled into a field dotted with tents. Half a dozen sky divers surrounded us and offered to help us set up the unicorn. Among them was Beth, one of the main organizers of the event. We had met Beth the previous February at the Love Burn regional burning man event in Florida. "Please bring Sparky to our boogie!" she had pleaded. And now we are here.


A big muscular guy named Harry leads a group of sky divers who lift Sparky's torso onto a cart and then we attach his head and legs. "Come check out the festival!" Harry encourages us. We drive Sparky around a quarter-mile path through the woods that Harry had cleared for us the previous week, making sure there are no overhanging branches that will interfere with Sparky's passage.


After our test drive we park Sparky and go explore. The weather today is perfect and people are sky diving continuously. Every half hour or so we hear the sound of a small plane taking off, and then shortly thereafter we see a dozen brightly-colored parachutes blossom in the deep blue sky. We spend a lot of time staring upward. We later learn that sky divers sometimes greet each other by saying "Blue sky!"At least, that's what it says on the internet. We are fascinated by the sky diving vocabulary and we struggle to learn more so that we can fit in.


Turning our gaze to ground level we encounter a bunch of weirdos and misfits milling about around us: our peers. Just like a burning man event, many are in costume. Some are wearing tutus. Some are wearing adult onesies. Many of them are wearing orange underwear on top of their regular clothes. Apparently this is the official uniform of this community. Judy and I muse on the power of being silly.


We come to an old airplane fuselage that has had its wings removed, and beer taps have been installed in its side. People encourage us to drink as much as we like. I fill a plastic cup over and over again throughout the weekend. We pass by a large sound stage, a geodesic dome, a string art maze and a small pond with a floating bar. Beth tells us that the string art maze took fifteen people three nights to complete. All the fabric in the dome and on the stage was designed and airbrushed by an artist who will also be doing projection art when it gets dark. The bar, stage and kegerator were built by one of the founders of the group. In addition to Sparky, there is another art car, a sort of jungle truck with lots of lights and colors and a dancing platform on top. It was Frankensteined together by a mechanical engineer and a woodworker who are also sky jumpers. Beth herself conceived of the mystical jungle theme and led a group of five artists in its construction. Like a burn, this sky diving boogie is truly participatory.


On our way back to the field to set up our tent Judy and I are startled by a car that drives up suddenly and stops right in front of us. A guy jumps out holding an armload of ripstop nylon cloth and paracord. We quickly surmise that he has had to make a forced landing some distance from the drop zone and has had to get a ride back to the dz. He confirms our suspicions. "Yeah, I landed out in a farmer's field about half a mile from here," he says with a slight quiver in his voice. "They were pretty nice about me landing in their back yard." A passing sky diver asks him if he had to "cut away". "No," he says,"My chute was tangled at first and I started spinning but I got it under control before having to cut away," he tells them.


"What's 'cut away'?" we ask. The two skydivers don't answer us. They turn their backs to us and talk to each other instead. We sense that they want to avoid that topic.


Later we run into Sam, one of the thirty-something-year-old sky divers who had helped us assemble the unicorn. He is not wearing a shirt and so we are able to admire his tanned skin, rippling muscles and striking tats. He has a great big beard topped by piercing eyes that continuously scan his environment. When he sees something he likes he takes great big strides directly toward it. We ask him what "cut away" means. "Sky divers carry a backup chute," he explains. "If the main chute fails in any way, we can pull a cord to 'cut away' the main chute and open up the backup." But the term also has metaphorical meaning for him, he says with a wry grin. "How so?" we ask. Sam explains that a few years ago he was climbing the corporate ladder and making six figures. One weekend on a whim he tried sky diving and the experience changed him deeply. Shortly after that he quit his job to devote himself full-time to sky diving. "This community is my new family," he says waving his arm in a broad sweep. "It's like, I can still talk with my old friends and my family for a short time. But they just don't get it. I get bored. After I while I have to break off my conversations with them and go be with people who get it. People who are real. People who have cut away from their prescribed old lives and entered into this new life." He stares deeply into our eyes. In that moment he looks a little like Jesus. Unable to speak, we nod knowingly.


After another visit to the kegger plane to fill up our cups, we wander around some more. We encounter a middle-aged couple who have similarly devoted their lives to sky-diving. They tell me how, after discovering sky diving, they both quit their jobs in the midwest and moved to an RV park right by a drop zone in Florida. "A lot of world-class sky divers come to this airport in Florida to practice and compete," they say. "And we go sky diving several times a day every day." We muse on how their lifestyle is kind of Zen-like, like Keroac's dharma bums in the 50's riding the rails, or the beach bums in the 60's surfing all day, or the ski bums in the 70's skiing and snowboarding all day. "We need a word for you guys," I say. "'Sky divers' just doesn't capture that this is a whole dropped-out lifestyle. How about 'sky bums'?" I suggest. They concur.


Back at the kegger plane we run into Jay, one of our original helpers. I ask him what it would take to go sky diving myself. "It's really easy!" he says. I would just need to go to the "manifest" window, sign a waiver and pay a couple hundred bucks. They will get an instructor for me who will strap me to his front so that we can do a "tandem" sky dive together. "Oh man, I really recommend it!" he says. "It's something you'll never forget." I resolve to go sky diving tomorrow.


As soon as it gets dark we fire up Sparky's generator. His 6,000 LEDs light up, and like moths to a flame costumed party-goers gather around us for unicorn rides through the forest. First we place a ladder on Sparky's side and invite people up. "Climb up to this rung here. Step on this platform here. Grab the silver ball. Swing your leg over," we tell them. Then we take down the ladder and snap a few selfies for them. Then we put Born to Be Wild on Sparky's powerful speakers and I step on two pedals to engage Sparky's two tiny electric motors. As Judy pushes we lurch forward. She hops in and we gradually gain speed along a narrow dirt path, dodging tents and parked cars. I learn where the potholes are and I aim Sparky's cart directly at them on purpose in order to give our riders a jolt. As I do I hear squeals of laughter from the riders above me. When we get back to the starting point we put the ladder back up. The shaken riders climb down and thank us profusely. Repeat, repeat, repeat all night long.


A crowd gathers around Sparky as usual, typically made up of strikingly beautiful women, little girls, gay men and straight men who have been dragged over by a spouse. I spot a woman with a very tight tee shirt and no bra in a circle of admiring men. The t-shirt says something on it and for some reason I feel that it is vitally important that I read what it says. I stare at it for a very long time trying to make out the words which I finally see are "Hee Haw". In the process of reading the tee shirt I also happen to notice that her breasts are exquisitely beautiful. I notice darker pointier areas where her nipples are. An erection grows in my pants which I struggle to stifle. I look up at her as she looks back at me and I realize that we are both blushing. I hold my palms together to make the sign of "thank you" and she smiles an acknowledgement.


A young man offers to ride with me as a co-pilot while Judy takes a break. I show him how to pull on a rope to make Sparky's legs swing as the unicorn rolls down the path. He has calm compassionate eyes and strawberry blonde hair featuring both a Mohawk and a braided pony tail. He tells me in acceptable English that his name is Paul and he is from Quebec. We chat idly. In the parking lot we stop the unicorn to talk with a guy who is sitting on a folding chair rolling a joint. Before he lights it he offers us the joint. When we decline he shrugs his shoulders, pops the whole joint into his mouth, chews it, and swallows. We continue our journey.


Soon after that a woman hails us and offers Paul a puff on her vape pen. He relents and takes a puff. "I've been a pot smoker since I was thirteen," Paul admits. "I seem to be able to manifest pot whenever I want some."


"There's that word 'manifest' again," I say. I tell Paul that I'm not a big fan of marijuana but that I enjoy the occasional psychedelic. He nods and says that he himself has been experimenting with micro-dosing. "Cool," I say. "There's a TV series out now based on Michael Pollen's book How to Change Your Mind," I tell him. "It describes a lot of research showing that psychedelics can be very therapeutic. Has micro-dosing helped you?" I ask.


"It's helped me a lot with stress," he says. "Believe it or not I used to be a very stressed-out person," he admits. I tell him how I am planning to sky dive tomorrow and I am a little nervous about it. "Don't be nervous about being nervous," he says with a smile. "Being nervous is actually a good thing." He has recently read a book that describes how a person's goal should not be to get rid of stress, but instead to embrace it. "In fact, part of the appeal of sky diving is to purposefully put yourself in a stressful situation, so that you can feel the stress and savor it and feel alive. You may be surprised to learn that both you, the beginner, and me, the experienced sky diver are equally anxious when we are standing there at 14,000 feet facing the open doorway of the airplane. The difference is that my anxiety is expected and sought after and felt as exhilaration, but yours is uncontrolled and uncomfortable."


"I'm pretty fearless," I tell him. "Ever since a life-changing event I experienced six years ago, I've developed a kind of inner witness that I can use to observe my stress from a distance rather than being overcome by it."


"Cool," he says. And then, after a long pause, "We are all one, right?" I instantly recognize his statement as coming from a soul-brother who has also been to that wordless transformative place I had experienced, and I tell him so. We share a moment of eye gazing as the forest slips by us in the background. Just then a bearded young man with droopy eyelids runs along beside us and offers Paul a hit from a large bong. "I was just thinking I would like a little more pot..." Paul says as he graciously accepts this gift.


After a few hours of giving rides Sparky runs out of gas. Judy and I head back to our tent to get the gas can. We decide to lie down "just for a minute" but of course since we are both extremely exhausted we fall into a deep sleep instead. The next thing I know the sun is shining and I am waking up from a scary dream. I go over my waking todo list and then I remember with a start that "I am going to jump out of an airplane today!"


Before we head over to manifest to sign up for a jump Judy and I get out our phones to review some statistics in a web browser. It turns out that sky diving is actually not that dangerous. Through plenty of trial and error, the equipment has evolved over time to be very reliable. We make some brief calculations and we determine that the 150 mile drive we made yesterday is about equally as dangerous as a sky dive. But for some reason we as a culture hesitate about sky diving but don't think twice about driving long distances at high speeds.


We head over to the hangar, a large open building about the size of a high school gymnasium. There are mats on the ground where dozens of sky divers are folding their chutes. There are piles of sky diving gear and airplane parts everywhere. Everything has a vaguely military quality. A woman with the voice of a surly waitress barks orders on a loudspeaker. People are laughing and goofing around. At the manifest window I sign a waiver, review a brief instructional video and hand them my credit card. An instructor named Justin introduces himself. He is a smallish youngish guy with chubby cheeks and boyish good looks. His finger nails are painted orange and I suspect he might be gay. I was kind of expecting an instructor built more like Arnold Schwarzenegger but I don't say this out loud. Justin gives me a few brief instructions and then straps a full-body harness onto me. I am ready to fly!


Justin and I wait in line to get on the plane. Like a surgeon about to put a patient under, he makes small talk calculated to relax me. I notice, however, a note of anxiety in his own voice. I tell him Paul's idea that anxiety is the same as exhilaration. He concurs. "Hold your balls while I strap you in tighter," Justin says with a sly smile. "I don't want to crush your testicles," he says. I grab my privates and thrust my hips forward a few times, giving him a little show as he yanks on my harness from behind.


About a dozen of us enter the small plane and sit facing backwards on two narrow benches that run the length of the plane. Justin explains that the sky divers at this dz have a little ritual just before take-off. First the air boss shouts "Shawanga!" and then everyone else shouts "Fly baby fly!". "Supposedly this helps the plane get into the air," Justin chuckles.


The plane climbs rapidly. At around three thousand feet the plane levels to let off a "hop n' pop", a sky diver who wants to practice paragliding without doing a free fall first. When they close the door everyone looks at their wrist altimeters. The plane resumes a steep upwards angle. "It'll take us another fifteen minutes or so to reach 14,000 feet," Justin explains. As we wait I look at the people around me. There are people of every type: young and old, fat and skinny, athletes and slobs like me. The helmet of the man sitting in front of me is only inches away. It has a sticker on it with a skull and crossbones. "Am I going to die now?" I wonder.


We reach jumping altitude and the door in the side of the plane opens again. A murmur of excitement ripples through the group and everyone gives each other a fist bump. Then people start waddling along the benches toward the door. One by one they jump out.


I am the last one out. Justin has coached me several times what to do at this point but my mind is a blank. I stand in the doorway staring at the greenery sliding by far below, mesmerized. My mind knows that I am supposed to jump, that is what is expected of me, but my body will not obey. Justin later tells me that I was supposed to crouch down at this point and tip forward. But instead he yells, "Sit down on the edge!" I obey. Then he yells "Lean forward!" I do.


The next thing I know I am falling face down and there is a 125 mph wind making the skin of my whole face ripple. My upper lip is flapping like a flag in a hurricane. My inner witness takes note that I am laughing uproariously. The ground approaches menacingly but I don't care. I am in the moment.


I later learn that exiting the plane correctly is a critical part of a sky dive. If done wrong you can end up spinning out of control, lose consciousness, and fall to your death. Yikes.


"How are you doing?" Justin yells above the roar of the cold wind.


"I feel great!" I yell back.


A tandem jump instructor later tells me that he has been barfed on, peed on, and has had riders who fainted. I feel a bit smugly proud that none of those things have happened on my first jump.


Justin puts his hands in front of my face and shows me that by twisting his hands one way he can make us spin counter-clockwise, and by twisting them the other way he can make us spin clockwise. He motions for me to try it and I do. I can fly! I have superpowers!


After about a minute of freefall Justin holds up three fingers which I later realize meant he was going to count to three before releasing the chute. He releases the chute and after a brief gentle pull we ease into a forward-facing gliding position. I gaze out at the spectacular scenery below. I can see the curve of the horizon and I can see a bend in the Hudson River twenty miles away. Justin shows me how he can control the direction of the paraglider by pulling on handles in each of his hands. "Look left, then turn left," he says. "Look right, then turn right." Then he hands me the handles for me to try. I briefly wonder what would happen if I accidentally let go of the handles. And then I'm doing it, steering us through the sky! Wheee!


After about ten minutes of gliding we spot the dropzone below which has a big red bullseye painted on the grass. Justin shows me how he can pull both handles to make us swing forward and backward. As the ground approaches he asks me to lift up my legs. Soon we are zipping along just inches above the ground. Justin expertly tips us back and down and then we gently land on our butts with a thump. Terra firma! So good to be back! We stand up and I give Justin a big hug and thank him profusely. Judy is waiting for me and she has tears of joy in her eyes. "I'm sorry I didn't get a good shot of you landing," she says.


"That's okay," I reply. "OMG that was a-MAZE-ing." I collapse into her arms.


Judy and I spend the next couple of hours drinking beer and watching skydivers land. As we sip we hear the flapping of fabric overhead. One by one our angelic friends descend from the heavens and set down gracefully on the grass in front of us. We see that Paul is among them and he makes a bold landing. Another woman in green tights make a particularly elegant landing. Some divers engage in "pond swooping," which means they skim along the surface of the pond for tens of yards before landing. One team makes a nude jump with just their harnesses on. This is an adventurous group in more ways than one, we think.


We wander around some more. In the parking lot we encounter a hand-written sign that says "Pack job by Mary Ann". We meet a woman there who makes a living by going to boogies and folding chutes for people. She is wearing a brightly colored skirt and blouse. "For this boogie I'm Peter Maxxed out," she laughs.


We run into Beth the event organizer. She has excellent posture, a commanding presence, and long curly dark black hair that cascades from her scalp to her shoulders. We remark at how well things are going and we complement her abilities as a benign dictator. She thanks us and says that she has been using all of her mystical powers to manifest this event. She explains how as a pre-school teacher she has developed the ability to allow a chaotic situation to unfold naturally yet safely. She shows us how she deals with male friends who think they know better than her how things should go. "I say to them 'Can I touch you?' They say 'Yes.' Then I grab them by the scruff of their neck like this and I look deeply into their eyes. Then I say in a deep voice 'Do as I say.' They always obey after that."


"Eye contact is important," I say. She concurs. "It changed my life," I tell her.


We meet an older bearded gentleman named Jack who is wearing a khaki shirt and a greek skipper's cap. He says that he has worked as a skydiver pilot but he's not really into jumping himself. He said he was required to do a few jumps in 'nam but that was it. He says he's friends of the owners of this drop zone, two brothers who run the business together. "About twelve years ago they got a bunch of Twin Otters together and starting offering jumps. Now they're one of the best dz's in the world!"

We come to a booth offering to give us orange underwear, the official uniform of this community. A woman in the booth offers to stencil our underwear with our 'roster number'. We put the underwear on over our clothes and in so doing we feel a certain honor in having joined this wacky loving community.


When it grows dark we give unicorn rides again. Harry joins us and helps people climb up and down the ladder with one hand while beer sloshes in a plastic cup in his other hand. His speech is so slurred we can't understand everything that he says. "I think he just said 'I'm a coconut' and then he made a sniffing sound," I tell Judy. Harry explains that one of his favorite activities is to snort lines of coke directly off a woman's breast. He suggests that we go back to his RV so that I can try this with him. "Hey Jean do you have a minute?" he calls out to one of his female friends. She brightens up expectantly.


"Um, no thanks Harry I feel that I have to be responsible tonight," I tell him, pointing to the line of people waiting to ride the unicorn.


"Aw c'mon man!" he blusters. "You only gotta be semi-responsible!"


My sky diving instructor Justin shows up for a unicorn ride with his boyfriend. Justin has just gotten off work and is still dressed plainly. But his boyfriend is a sexy young asian man with exceptionally smooth skin who is bare-chested and wearing a rainbow bow tie. "Now it's my turn to give you a wild ride!" I tell Justin slyly. As I drive Sparky around the track I make sure to hit all of the potholes extra hard. I hear them laughing uproariously in the saddle above.


As the night darkens a machine blows a mountain of foam on the lawn that party-goers can dive into. Someone inflates a long line of illuminated balloons that rise into the sky one-by-one spectacularly. A sky-diving violinist does a set, followed by a didgeridoo-playing, throat-singing electronica band. Then we hear cheering as awards are given out. Then fireworks burst forth banging and sparkling in the sky. It is a great party.


Around midnight we get tired and the party sours into minor key. I notice a few people on crutches. Sky diving accidents perhaps? And we hear about a woman who lost control in a high wind this afternoon and came down hard, invoking an ambulance visit. I detect a note of sadness and desperation among our sky diving brethren. "Is sky diving just a surface excitement that these people use to avoid thinking about the ultimate emptiness of their lives?" I think. "And isn't everyone's life ultimately meaningless?" My inner witness observes my negativity as a sort of gnawing uneasiness in my chest, and it cautions me against diving further into this bottomless void. Perhaps these feelings are just my brain chemicals coming back into balance after the intense euphoria of this weekend. How thoughtful that at the registration table for this event the organizers had put out a bowl of 5-HTP and vitamin C for just this occasion.


Judy and I head back to our tent in the moonlight. We cross paths with a stocky Russian woman who mutters her dark philosophy at us. Back in the tent our sleep is restless. I awake at dawn and hear a banging noise echoing in the distance. "What could that be?" I wonder. "Who would be hammering this early in the morning?" Then I notice that after each bang, the string of balloons floating in the air far away sinks down by one balloon. Someone is popping each balloon one-by-one. In my morning liminal state I reflect how the balloons are like the souls of these sky divers being released one-by-one back into the ether.


After Judy and I return home from the event we finally get a chance to catch up on our sleep. We have sex the next morning, as is often our desire. And as I reach the climax of our conjugation, an image appears in my mind. I am in the doorway of a plane, looking down at a green tapestry far below. I am on the brink of jumping. Then as I cum I feel myself tipping forward and I hear myself make the sound of a squeaky hinge. Then nothingness.


I imagine that I will see a similar image in the moments before my death. Perhaps cultivating this image is what gives these people their power, their audacity, their creativity. Perhaps their daily flirtation with death empowers them to be fearless, to dive into life, into the unknown, into creative projects and intense interpersonal relationships.


In the afterglow of our union I tell Judy about my vision. "Gosh Judy," I say, "There seems to be some kind of a link between sex, and spirituality, and creativity. And death. They all involve some kind of portal you have to go through; and the appearance of some kind of guide or guides who help you overcome your fears, and who help you heal your trauma resulting in some kind of personal transformation; and who bestow upon you a gift or superpowers. Isn't that right? Don't you think?" She concurs.