April 1, 2021 | Arts and Culture
“if you can’t breathe, just scream”
on skydiving and tom petty’s “free fallin”
Tom Petty’s song “Free Fallin’” begins with bright strumming on an acoustic guitar. Accompanied by a sunny chord progression, maracas, and soothing harmonies on the chorus, he sings about wanting to “glide down” over the earth and “free fall out into nothing.” Petty’s look in the music video has the same laid-back vibe as the song itself: He sits in front of a chemically bright blue pool, looking cool and sunkissed in a pair of Ray-Bans. His signature blonde hair is windswept and golden; it could give SNL’s Californians a run for their money.
With his blissed-out demeanor and lyrics, Petty makes falling through the air at warp speed sound idyllic, liberating, even otherworldly. He sings about flying over Mulholland Drive, a winding, scenic road in Southern California that follows the ridgeline of the eastern Santa Monica Mountains to the coast, with dramatic views of the Los Angeles Basin and the San Fernando Valley. Petty wants to glide along the route, taking in the view while he writes some girl’s name in the sky, before gently floating down to earth. It’s a surprisingly romantic gesture for a self-proclaimed “bad boy” who “broke her heart.” Still, it’s pretty dreamy.
As nice as this sounds, I can say with full confidence that Tom Petty is either 1) a massive liar, or 2) has never actually experienced free fall. I made this grave realization as I leaned out the open door of an airplane in Monterey, California, split seconds before completing the world’s highest skydive at 18,000 feet. With a ratty harness cutting into my hips, I was painfully strapped to the barrel chest of a six-foot-five man named Rocco. He was a textbook adrenaline junkie, claiming to have moved to Monterey solely for the extra 30 seconds of free fall made possible on each jump by our high altitude. In other words, he was just like Petty, one of the “bad boys standing in the shadows” in the song—exactly the kind of guy I’d want to go out with on a Friday night, but maybe not the person I’d have chosen to entrust with my life on a Tuesday morning.
As I clung to Rocco’s chest, I realized that I was making a huge mistake. I had told myself when I signed up for my jump that this was something I’d always wanted to do—it wasn’t. The reality was that I had been feeling starved for adrenaline that winter. The previous summer, a month-long backcountry hiking expedition had pushed me to my limits, and life had been boring ever since. I felt too much like the girl Petty sings about in the first verse, going through another “long day, livin’ in Reseda” where “there’s a freeway, running through the yard.” I wanted a break from what had become a monotonous, everyday life like the one Petty describes, where the only things that matter are “Jesus and America,” Elvis, and a boyfriend.
Feeling weighed down by routine and college coursework that seemed pointless and uninspiring, skydiving was an obvious choice for the thrill I was chasing. I hadn’t realized just how terrifying it would be, though. Especially considering my fear of falling. I thought I’d gotten over this phobia when I’d pushed myself to start rock climbing a few years earlier as a kind of self-administered exposure therapy, but I questioned whether my “treatment” had really stuck as our plane climbed in altitude.
By the time I realized what a terrible idea this was, Rocco had already dragged me to the edge of the plane. My heels clung to the platform jutting from the doorframe, and time stopped as I looked down at my toes and saw nothing beneath them but air and Monterey Bay. Before I could even consider whether my poor decision might soon become deadly, he yelled in my ear, “If you can’t breathe, just scream.” Then he pushed me off the ledge and into the open air.
The next 90 seconds of free fall were, in every way imaginable, a fully sensory experience. I’ve never felt so aware of my body and overwhelmed by physical discomfort. Have you ever wondered what your face would feel or look like while falling through the air at 120 miles per hour? Or the sensation in your stomach as you drop with such incredible velocity? Or the religious fervor with which you’d be begging yourself not to vomit directly onto Rocco’s gorgeous face? Or the dread that would overcome you upon remembering you paid extra to have this entire horrible experience memorialized on camera?
If you haven’t considered these questions before, allow me to enlighten you: Those 90 seconds feel terrible. Imagine your cheeks filled with air and pushed back to fully expose your teeth, as if before a root canal—and the air is freezing up there, so be prepared for some serious tooth sensitivity. Rocco has a heavy build, so anticipate the weight of a 250-pound man strapped to your back with his hips grinding into yours, and not in a fun way. Also, he is right: You cannot breathe at all. There is too much wind blowing directly at your face, and you instinctively try to close your mouth from the shock. It feels cruel, like the experience of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ancient mariner, who finds himself at sea, surrounded by “water, water, every where, / nor any drop to drink.” You feel everything and nothing all at once, as you are simultaneously overwhelmed by air and deprived of it.
Free fall is the opposite of “leaving this world for a while,” as Tom Petty puts it. In the song, he promises a break from reality brought on by the chance to appreciate Southern California’s landscape from a new perspective. But you find the opposite to be true; you’ve never felt so overwhelmed by how unforgiving Earth and its elements can be, and just how small your place in it is. If you had time to reflect, you’d notice how insignificant and vulnerable this whole thing makes you feel—you had thought you wanted a thrill, but maybe that average life Petty describes in the first verse isn’t so bad after all. Right now, though, all you can focus on is how you can’t wait for this to be over so that you can finally breathe again.
The feeling of asphyxia, combined with an immense pressure around your head as you drop in altitude, makes you feel as though you’re about to pass out. You try closing your eyes, but you start seeing black and white spots, which just disorients you more. Mental fogginess overcomes you, until a particularly cold gust of wind brings a brief moment of clarity, and you remember Rocco’s advice: just scream. Once you do, you see where Tom Petty is coming from, at least partly—where else can you yell at the top of your lungs without anyone else hearing you? Other than Rocco, of course.
You scream as loud as you can, which gets you enough oxygen for things to start coming into focus. It is only now that you appreciate the view from this high up, with its giant, saturated swatches of green, ridges of deep blue waves, and tiny specks of people on the beach. It is surreal, like being dropped into a three-dimensional scale model of the California coast. Really, I’m not sure you could get closer to a view of Heaven on Earth. It isn’t the gentle “glide” over mountains and winding roads Tom Petty promised, but the sharp nose dive towards the landscape is beautiful all the same. So maybe Petty is somewhat right. Idyllic? Not at all. But liberating, or even otherworldly? Sure, as long as you remember to scream.