D.’s judo teacher Gal* lost his life on a Saturday morning, on his way to doing what he loved second most: skydiving. The light aircraft that was to take him and his younger brother (who was a judoka as well and skydived together with Gal) to the jump altitude crashed into a cliff. Gal was gone immediately, his brother died shortly afterwards in the hospital.
Their parents lost three of four sons (the youngest had drowned a few years earlier).
This happened when D. was ten. He loved the judo classes and Gal was the perfect teacher: He was young, in his mid twenties, and he had this cool way of instilling a sense of discipline and competitiveness into the kids while at the same time turning each judo lesson into an hour of sheer fun. Yes, Gal was special. He was twelve years younger than me and yet so much more mature. We had developed an immense closeness. He even succeeded in convincing me to do a tandem skydive jump.
Nearly each time I came to bring D. to the judo lesson Gal would show me photos of his latest jumps and flood me with enthusiastic verbal illustrations.
Listen, it’s not dangerous and you will love it, he would say.
I: NEVER. Nothing in the world will get me to jump out of a plane several kilometers above the ground!
Slowly but surely however, my I-will-never-do-that attitude began to dissolve, making way for an intrigued curiosity. Maybe I should…
How many people got killed skydiving I asked Gal the next time I saw him.
In Israel, none.
Eventually, I succumbed to Gal’s tantalizing descriptions and his enthusiasm, and accompanied him and his brother on a Saturday morning (Saturday is our Sunday and it was his skydiving day) to the Sky Club (Paradive today), forty-five minutes north of Tel-Aviv. Gal and his brother prepared their equipment and put on their outfit. I was helped into my suit and then I went through the preparatory exercises with the instructor. We then all (six or seven people) waited for our turn to board the small plane that would take us up to the four-kilometer jump altitude.
During the twenty-minute ascent I was sitting on the lap of my tandem instructor and jump partner, a stranger with whom I was going to share the freakiest minutes of my life.
Then the plane slowed down and the bustle of the other divers that were preparing to get out made me even more nervous than I was already anyway.
Suddenly I said NO, I’m not going to jump.
I nearly fainted when I saw the depth outside. The earth was so far away!
But my instructor ignored my words – I was probably not the first one trying to chicken out when the time to jump had come. He went over the safety instructions again and then we jumped. I couldn’t do anything about it – I was fastened to him and he gave me a small push and out we were.
OMG! It was horrific at first. At a free fall speed of 200km/h I felt the air pushing up my nose and I could hardly breathe. Everything happened so quickly. Gal jumped right after us and I managed to see him and the others wave and grin at each other, their faces somewhat distorted by the force of the wind and the resistance of the air that seemed to push and pull their skin into all directions. Then, my partner from whom I was hanging suspended, face down, attached to him only by easily detachable fasteners, pulled the rope to open the parachute.
A sudden strong jolt pulled us upward, and then nothing, the great calm. Incredible, I don’t have the words to describe this. An exhilarating yet indescribably peaceful state of hovering above the sea – we had jumped out of the plane over the ocean, close to the shoreline. Breathtaking. Electrifying. Do you know the feeling when you’re sitting in an airplane that just lifted off and while still ascending you can clearly see the houses, the cars, the mountains, and the sea below? Now imagine the same, but with you being outside of the plane, slowly swaying through the air above the deep, dark blue water with the many tiny ripples sparkling in the sunlight. You feel the pleasant wind around your face and body, and have the almost tangible scent of salt water in your nose.
And then the descent accelerated.
Hey, I don’t want to land in the ocean.
But my coach navigated us safely back to land. A soft thud and a slightly rough touchdown and we had the ground back under our feet; all bones intact, nothing broken.
I walked like on clouds. I was still in heaven.
The day Gal was killed D.’s father called me:
Did you hear about the accident at the skydiving center, Gal is there today isn’t he? I immediately tried to call Gal on his mobile, but he didn’t answer. As I found out later when details of the accident began to emerge, he had already been dead when I called.
The next day the newspapers were filled with photos and reports on the accident. It was a tragedy, two brothers dying together; and the first fatal accident related to skydiving in Israel. The pilot of the plane, and if I remember well, another skydiver were also killed in the accident.
Thank you Gal. Whatever is left of your body down there in the ground, your spirit will always be with me and I love you for all the excitement you brought to my life.
In the weeks that followed the accident I spent more money on wine than I did on food.
D. continued taking judo classes for a few more weeks, being taught by a fellow judoka of Gal, but then he quit judo.
* I changed his name.