Operation SWAN DIVE

Free Falling for a Cure: A recap of my experiences at Operation Swan Dive, August 24 – 27, 2007
FORWARD
The following is something I put together following Operation Swan Dive and my first ever skydiving experience.  I wanted to blog in real time as things transpired over the weekend of the event, but I just could not find the time to do so.  As a result, I tried my best to put together a recap of everything that happened.  As I wrote and wrote and wrote, I ended up with over 6000 words of just stuff.  A super-blog, if you will, of both detailed and random memories of the event.  It was never my intention to produce something so long and wordy, but I am happy with it all and I hope you are as well.

I do have to disclaim the first part of this story was written during my flight to the event.  I wrote a lot and I did not want to lose the material, so I incorporated it into the finished product.  I’ve tried to break everything up into sections or chapters for easier reading, and I ask that you indulge me a bit with some of the more mundane pieces of what I wrote.

I hope you enjoy and I thank you for reading.

GETTING THERE
In June of 2006, I had a conversation with a friend of mine named JenA.  I had just met her several weeks before at a Sister Hazel event during Memorial Day weekend, but nevertheless there we were having a conversation about a idea she had for a Lyrics for Life fundraiser.  The idea was to have an event at which the participants would raise money and skydive, and it would be called Operation Swan Dive, playing on the name of the Sister Hazel song, “Swan Dive.”  I remember thinking how cool the concept was and wondering whether she’d be able to pull it all off.  I told her I’d support her and take part it in, then I promptly tucked the conversation away to the proverbial mental back burner.

Eight months later, the details surrounding Operation Swan Dive were coming together and it was time to start getting everything in gear.  Fundraising, making travel plans, freaking out – it was time for the real deal, and everything jumped from the back burner right into the melting pot that was OSD.  As the date of the event approached, the reality of it all just led to more and more anxiety.  After all, I was about to be jumping out of a plane. When you think about it, it sounds like a crazy thing to do.  The question is, was it insane?

The day came for Lee and me to make the voyage – I say that as if we were boarding a Spanish galleon in search of the New World – from Tampa to Hollis, New Hampshire.  We’d be crashing …. I mean staying …. with our aforementioned friend JenA, the mastermind behind Operation Swan Dive.  There are just some things you don’t want to do when flying, and that includes using the word crash or reading Michael Crichton’s novel “Airframe”.  The plane took off and I go to thinking about the events for the weekend, so much so I think the person four rows up could hear my heart pounding.  I decided to write as a way of dealing with the anxiety of it all.  Normally this would not be a problem except that I had to do my writing by hand.

My work issued laptop, an IBM Thinkpad T40, is, in every aspect of the technology industry, a piece of junk.  Don’t get me wrong.  It still works relatively fine, but given that I use it about 15 hours a day, it’s worn and on its last, silicon filled legs.  There are some keys with permanent marks where my fingers have worn the polish off the plastic.  I have to use an external, USB mouse because the left-click button above the touch pad broke.  And we won’t even discuss the terrible battery life on that thing.  Needless to say, using it on an airplane would be so cumbersome it just wasn’t worth it.

Nevertheless, after 5 minutes of writing by hand, I would have given anything to have that piece of junk with me.  I guess technically it was, tucked nicely and securely underneath the seat in front of me.  Yet I resigned myself to start my blogging with pen and paper in an effort to document my experiences.  I was actually writing writing.  It had been such a long time since I had actually written anything of substance by hand, and given the cramp that settled in, I knew it would be a long time before I decided to try that again.

So there I was on a plane at 32,000 feet contemplating how in the morning I’d be in another plane, at half the altitude, and with a complete stranger strapped to my back.  I kept thinking about how I would most likely have to be forcefully shoved out of the plane, and I would be praying that both my tandem instructor and the Immodium on which I was sure to overdose would do their job right.

What was really weird about the plane ride was that instead of writing to assuage my fears and anxiety, I should have been having a conversation with Lee.  For as many road trips as we’ve shared in our still young relationship, that was our first time traveling together by plane.  The problem was we were sitting apart.  If you’ve every flown Southwest Airlines, you know exactly why.

With no assigned seats, seating on an SWA flight is done by groups. A group, B group, then C group.  Depending on when you were issued your boarding pass, you are assigned into one of the three groups.  Being the technophile that I am, I was perfectly aware that I could go online up to 24 hours in advance of the flight and print our boarding passes.  As the I.T. gods would have it, there was a problem with SWA’s website and I couldn’t print the boarding passes until the morning of the flight.  As a result, Lee and I were stuck with group C.  Not only were we in group C, we were practically the last people in the group C line.  I began joking that ‘C’ was for ‘Cool’.  However, as we finally boarded the plane, it became very apparent that ‘C’ stood for ‘Center Seat’.

So there I was sandwiched between two dudes while Lee sat two rows behind me.  Lee and I kept sharing glances during the flight, blowing kisses and mouthing to each other how much we missed one another.  I couldn’t help but think that she was wondering what I was writing.  I, meanwhile, was wondering how the heck she ended up with an aisle seat. I felt like veal, confined by an invisible barrier that was established by the inch-and-a-half plastic armrest. Really, it’s more comfortable to rest your elbow on concrete than it is to lay it on what the airlines provide you. It’s also important to point out the only thing more uncomfortable that trying to keep your elbows within the personal space of your seat is the awkward apology you have to issue should your elbow slip and make contact with one of your neighbors.

I’m a pretty solid guy and my frame easily takes up an entire airplane seat.  That wouldn’t be so bad if I had a waif of a blonde on either side of me whose combined weight would still be less than mine.   Instead, I had to my right a guy who I figured to be a corporate manager who was taking his first non-business trip in a long time.  I say that because he had a very intense look on his face the whole flight, and his jeans and Tommy Bahama shirt combination had the feel of a casual wardrobe that was forced.

It got better as I turned to my left.  That dude had gotten plenty of sleep on the plane, and I figured it was due to the fact he’d just finished a 90 day stint in the county jail.  It was probably the first time in a long time he had a chance to relax.  He had that car mechanic/domestic abuser look to him, and the scabs on his knuckles were a scary cliché that made me want as little to do with him as possible.  I kept shifting to my right and away from him, so much so I think Tommy Bahama guy started thinking I was coming on to him.

The slight turbulence on the flight made it very difficult to write.  It was like sitting at a table while you try to write something and someone keeps bumping into the table.  At one point, I looked up at the flight attendant as if to say, “Will you PLEASE go up to the cockpit and tell the pilot to stop doing that?”  As a result, I was relegated to sit there and attempt to decipher the chicken scratch I was producing.  In many ways, I did not want the plane to land, for that meant I would actually be in New Hampshire which meant I would actually be closer to jumping from a plane the next day.

THE ANXIETY
Truth be told, I was dreading the idea of jumping.  For months, ever since I committed to participating in the event, I forced myself not to think about it.  I found solace in the knowledge the event was still very far off.  But as we continued our decent into New Hampshire, I knew the moment of truth was only a restless night’s sleep away.  In my head, I knew I could do it.  Heck, I HAD to do it.  After all, there was no way I could go back home empty handed after having solicited contributions from friends, family and coworkers. Not only would I lose all credibility for any future fundraising endeavors, I knew my buddies would never let me live it down.

“Don’t worry about it, Alice.  No one really expects a pussy to jump out of a plane!”

All my anxiety with the event and the jump had nothing to do with the free fall and everything to do with the plane ride up.  I imagined sitting in that plane was going to be the single-most nerve wracking experience of my life.  I was worried about everything from getting a leg cramp to a full-blown panic attack in the little puddle-jumper that would carry me to 13,000 feet.  If there was ever a time for Xanax, that was one of them.

My anxiety was relieved when we touched down at Manchester Airport, deplaned and were greeted by our friends Howie and Shannon.  Shannon had also just arrived at Manchester, and Howie, who is a local to the area, agreed to pick us up at the airport and drive us to JenA’s house.  As we hopped in the car, Howie handed me a plastic grocery bag and mentioned it was a gift from yet another Hazelnut friend of ours named Patti.  Without opening the bag, I immediately knew what it was and hence the first zucchini sighting at OSD was made.

It’s interesting to sit back and reflect how Lee and I came to meet all these friends who have become extended family to us.  We were being picked up at the airport by someone we had met in February and had seen only one time since then.  He was accompanied by someone else whom we met following a Sister Hazel concert in Orlando and then gotten to know on The Rock Boat, a musical festival cruise that is hosted by – who else? – Sister Hazel.  We were being driven to the house of a friend whom we met at Isle of Palms, South Carolina Memorial Day weekend 2006.  Lee and I were at IoP that weekend for – you guessed it – a Sister Hazel event called the Hazelnut Hang.  When we arrived at JenA’s house, we were greeted by two more Hazel friends, Lindsey and Rhonda. Also there was David Pittenger, one of the artists who’d be performing Saturday at the jump zone.  We all shared hugs and smiles, got caught up on what’s going on, and reluctantly decided to call it a night since it was already late and we had a huge day that began bright and early in the morning.

I think it’s important to once again point out that our host, JenA, is the brain parent of Operation Swan Dive.  First of all, her name is Jen Amidio.  We call her JenA because if there is one thing the Hazelnut community has in abundance it is members who are named Jennifer.  In fact, the three beautiful women who made Operation Swan Dive become a reality are all named Jen.  There’s JenA, JenB, and Jen Lavine, also known as ‘Jenny Says’.  The ‘Jenny Says’ comes from a song by the band Cowboy Mouth and is her handle on the Sister Hazel message boards.  The message boards are the lifeline that keeps the Hazelnut community together.  It’s how we stay connected, keep in touch and really collaborate to help make projects like Operation Swan Dive come together.

As I was lying in bed, I was thinking about how Lee and I had traveled to stay at the house of someone we met 18 months ago.  We were sharing the house with individuals whom we had also met only 18 months ago or more recently than that.  In David’s case, it was 30 minutes.  Nevertheless, it carried the feeling of being home for a family reunion.  I was giddy knowing that in the morning I was going to be seeing even more friends, some of whom I had seen recently and others whom I had not seen in a while.  The last thing on my mind was that I was going to jump out of an airplane, and I was very much at peace knowing I was surrounded by family.

MORNING OF
As the alarms started going off and the rumbling of houseguests waking up became louder and louder, the peace and serenity from the previous night had completely disappeared.  I let out what would be the first of many “Oh Shit’s!” that day.  The sun was rising, the birds were chirping, and the butterflies in my stomach began their dance of complete schizophrenia.  All I could think was that in a couple of hours, I’d be in a plane praying and hoping my bowels would not fail me.  And sure as…..well, you know….they decided I needed to take them for a warm up.  This little intestinal exercise was complicated by the fact we had 7 people getting ready for the day ahead and only one bathroom.  Thankfully, JenA had the foresight to rent a portable outhouse for the weekend.  I could make a joke here about bathroom overflow, but I will leave it alone for all of our sakes.

So how many people reading this can say they’ve actually experienced morning glory in a driveway in Hollis, New Hampshire?  Other than Lindsey and myself, I’m thinking not many.  Nevertheless, there I sat thinking, contemplating, admiring the fact this was by far the most pleasant port-a-potty in which I’d ever been, and trying desperately to ignore the fact I’d soon be falling from the sky at terminal velocity.

I finished up the business at hand (you know, there really is no good way to segue from that last paragraph to this new one, so please forgive me for the frat-house pun), and got ready to go.  As I saw others grabbing a bite as they headed out the door, I knew there was no way I was going to eat anything for breakfast that morning.  I’d already taken a positive step towards ensuring there were no embarrassing accidents during free fall and I figured there was no need to risk a clean jump by eating a bagel.

We got to the jump zone and immediately began exchanging hugs and kisses with all our friends that were already there.  The giddiness from the night before had returned and the butterflies in my stomach were, for the moment, taking a nap.  I don’t know if there’s a medical term for it, but it truly is amazing how we are capable of letting go of stress for a moment by losing ourselves in the happiness of memories and the joy of meeting people for the first time.  This happens a lot within the Hazelnut community.  It’s fairly routine to have had message board conversations and witty exchanges with someone for months, maybe even years, and not have met them in person.  Once you finally do meet them, there is usually a slew of “So great to finally meet you” or “I couldn’t wait to meet you in person.”  It’s a bit surreal at times but wholly fulfilling, and at that moment is was keeping me cool and collected.

Then just like that, it all went away.  A phrase was uttered that brought my happy world to an end.  It’s a phrase that is generally despised by many people, but it carried a more special and deeper significance that Saturday morning.  Someone had come up to me and said, “It’s time to go to class.”  In the excitement over seeing all my Nutty friends, I had grabbed a croissant to munch on because it just looked so good.  The notion of now having to go to ‘Jump Class’ somehow converted the soft, flaky breakfast pastry into a ball of lead which rapidly plummeted into my stomach.  The shock of my snack making it to my tummy must have woken up the butterflies because they were quickly back to their dancing.  All I could think about as I made my walk to the classroom area was how much I hoped they had a bathroom in that building.

I’ll spare you the many boring details about watching videos and signing our lives away.  I will mention, however, that it’s funny how certain phrases in a choppy, cheaply recorded, poorly presented disclaimer video just jump out at you.  First of all, the video we watched in which a female attorney explained all the caveats and clauses about the forms we were preparing to sign had probably been watched over a thousand times.  The reason I know this is because it was on VHS tape and was degrading in picture quality with each passing frame.  It has the visual feeling of a bad porn flick and it was hard to take seriously because the attorney in it was trying too hard to make herself seem serious.   However, when she mentioned, “Should a member of the staff do anything reckless or even stupid that leads to injury or even death, you release Pepperell of all fault” there was a collective “HUH?!?” in the room.

We wrapped up the legal formalities and stepped outside ready to get the party started.  Instead, we had to wait.  There was a concurrent event going on called ‘The Boogie’, and the whole jump zone was teaming with jumpers and crew members and people walking around in colorful, nylon suits.  There were two planes in use that day, and one of them was being loaded with the first group of jumpers.  I ended up waiting about an hour and a half, my stomach turning over in knots as I watched my friends wipe tears of fear from their eyes, before one of the tandem instructors shouted my name, introduced himself to me, and got me started on gearing up.  His name is Tom and he just so happened to be the instructor in the skydive training video.  I thought to myself he was selected to do the video either because he was the most competent of all instructors or he was a complete goofball that did well in front of a camera.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

Turns out, Tom was sensational with me.  In addition to being witty and light-hearted during the gear-up process, Tom allowed me to pack the drogue on our chute.  The drogue is basically a large throw-out pilot chute used during tandem jumps that slows down the speed during free fall.  He walked me though ‘S’-folds and ‘J’-folds and through it all helped me take my mind off the one thing that was truly starting to freak me out.

The time finally came for us to get on our plane and actually go through with this crazy thing.  What I had casually committed to do 17 months ago following a phone conversation with JenA was now a matter of minutes away.  At the time Lee and I said yes to OSD, I had every intention of Lee being the one taking the plunge.  After all, she had already jumped with members of the US Army Golden Knights and had talked about going skydiving again.  Unfortunately, following her neck surgery in March of this year, she’s restricted from any activities that may put too much strain or stress on her neck and back.  Skydiving is definitely one of those activities.

As luck would have it, the waiting and uncertainty surrounding when I would jump turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  In the months leading up to OSD, there were three other jumpers in particular with whom I kept in regular contact and on whom I leaned for support and encouragement.  It was Lindsey, Kelly, Kara and me, and we were each other’s support group for this crazy event.  If ever one of us thought about backing out, the other three would step up with words of encouragement and dissuade any and all thoughts of quitting.  With so many jumpers trying to get up and down and then back up again, the four of us ended up getting bumped onto the smaller of the two planes.  It was great and completely serendipitous that we would share this experience together.

THE JUMP
I can’t tell you anything about the plane except that it was blue and white and had just enough room for Kelly, Kara, Lindsey and me, our tandem instructors, and our respective videographers.  It wasn’t cramped or tight, but it did give the intimate feeling of, “Either I am going to experience something completely awesome and amazing with these fine people or they’re going to be the last people to see me alive.”  I know that’s a morbid thought, but as a first time jumper I couldn’t help but indulge those worse-case scenario fears.  Especially when all my flying experience included a plane in which all doors are securely closed before the plane takes off.  For us, the door remained open as we left the runway and pulled further and further away from the safety that was the ground.

Lindsey was sitting directly in front of the plane’s door, facing nothing but open air the whole ride up.  I really don’t know how she did it because as the notion of us jumping became more real, my inner control freak was screaming for something to hold; something that would feign security and keep me from losing complete control of my bodily functions.  Fortunately for me, I could press my hands along the lip of the window (as if THAT would keep me from falling out the big, open door).

I took in deep breath after deep breath and tried not to think of anything.  Unfortunately, all I could think of was how crazy this was, how scared I felt, and how I really wished we could just land the plane and get off.  I tried staring blankly at something other than the big, open door.  Instead, I ended up staring at Lindsey’s videographer and I remember thinking that he seemed way to casual for all of this.  I also remember thinking that he was looking at me with a wry smile on his face, almost as if he was betting himself whether or not I would start crying.

My instructor Tom started hooking himself to me and tightening our harnesses together.  He checked to make sure I was okay.  I lied to him and pretended to be completely cool.  We walked through the instructions one more time, and he told me about the pre-jump protocol.

“You see these little lights?  Red means goggles on.  Green means we’re going.”

I prayed that neither light would turn on.

The red light turned on and I nervously secured my goggles over my eyes.  About ten seconds later the green light turned on and the butterflies in my stomach went from dancing fools to a collective ball of lead that just dropped all at once.  Sickening feeling does not begin to adequately describe what was going on in the pit of my belly, but this was really happening and I was really, really scared.

I glanced over to Lindsey, her eyes as big as mine, and we shared a mutual “Oh Shit” moment.  Then, for some reason, I calmly mouthed to her “I love you.”  She returned the gesture with a smile, the way a mother would a child as if to reassure that everything would be alright.  I admit it was soothing and comforting and a special moment shared with a special friend.  Lindsey stood up with her instructor, crouched next to the big, open door and just like that she was gone.  I saw her as she fell into the sky, every second the image of her becoming tinier and tinier.  I gazed at the colorful dot into which she had transformed, myself completely enveloped by how surreal that moment was, and I thought to myself…………”HOLY SHIT!”

By this time my instructor had moved me to the edge of the plane’s now infamous door.  We were crouched together, like catchers in baseball, and he began his count to jump.  I tried desperately to remember his instructions from earlier. “Was it ready, set, go?  Or was it……?”  Next thing I know, I’m tumbling feet over head into the sky.  I caught a glimpse of the plane I just left and my brain was rapidly trying to keep up with the experience.  Whatever I was told to do in terms of technique and body position went completely out the window – or in this case, the big, open door.  All I could remember was the advice Lee gave me.  “Just stare at your videographer and smile.”

For 45 seconds of free-fall, that’s what I did.  I stared at this crazy woman with two cameras strapped to her helmet and smiled.  Granted, the 120 mph force of Tom and me in free fall helped keep my cheeks frozen in one position, but I did manage to finally get a grip and actually enjoy the sensation of floating in the sky.  It was loud and cold, but that was tempered by the adrenaline that quickly began pumping through my veins at a gallon per minute.  “I’m really doing this!” I thought to myself.  “I’m really F’n doing this!”

Tom tapped me on the shoulder and began a countdown on his fingers.  While on the ground, he gave me the option of pulling the rip cord on our chute.  At first I thought this was crazy.  “Isn’t that your job?” I asked him.  He said something to me – I can’t remember exactly what – but it was insightful and seemed to make sense.  So I agreed to pull the cord and he told me exactly how it would go.  “Believe me,” he smirked.  “If you don’t pull it, I will!”

So his fingers began the countdown.  Three, two, one, fist.  I reached for the rip cord.  Nothing.  I looked down for it, knowing it was somewhere between my waist and my ribs.  Nothing.  I couldn’t find it.  My right hand was failing to find that bright, orange piece of plastic that quite literally was the key to saving my life.  Before I had time to panic and allow for the cliché of my entire life flashing before my eyes, I saw Tom’s arm extend outward and felt my body compress as we rapidly decelerated and the canopy opened.  It felt as if 224 of my 225 pounds were thrust right down into my feet.  I knew then why someone who had recently undergone neck surgery would not be allowed to jump.

The most amazing part about skydiving is how unbelievably quiet it is while you float down to the ground.  When contrasted to the blasting wind of free-fall, it’s eerily quiet.  I looked up and saw a fully deployed parachute and thought to myself, “Yeah! I am going to live!”  Tom asked me if I was okay and I nodded yes.  I was still taking it all in, making the mistake – only once – of looking down.  You have to appreciate how insanely afraid I am of heights, so all I did as we drifted backed towards earth was look out into the horizon and maintain a death grip with both hands on my harness.

Tom began loosening some of the straps on my harness so as to make things more comfortable.  Even though it did make things a little more comfortable physically, I am not sure if that comfort offset the immediate lack of security I felt emotionally.  To me, tight means safe and I was perfectly fine keeping everything on me as tight as possible.  Tom instructed me to reach down, place my thumbs between my thighs and my harness strap, and slide it down so that I would be able to better lift my legs for landing.  I remember thinking that to do so would require letting go of the harness and how that was so not going to happen.

I received my instructions from Tom regarding how we were going to land.  It was going to be either on both feet, as if we were running when we hit the ground, or sliding safely on our butts.  I didn’t have a preference either way, so long as I can feel the soft, safe grass once again.  We followed Kelly’s chute towards the designated landing zone and I was perplexed as to how she got in front of us considering she jumped after I did.  As we approached the ground, I did experience the sensation of ground rush that was discussed in our training video.  “Man we’re coming in fast!” I thought.  Then all of the sudden, we slowed down, Tom yelled “legs up”, and we slid to a stop on the grass.  It would have been picture perfect except that one of my size 13, boat-for-feet got caught on the grass and my leg bent underneath me.  I came in like a baseball player sliding into home and I shouted to myself, “Safe!”  I was so glad to be back on earth, and I began to pry my fingers open in an effort to finally let go of my harness.

Once we were all free from our respective instructors, Kelly, Kara, Lindsey and I basked in the glory of what we had accomplished.  I finally allowed myself to replace the feelings of fear with those of pride. The rest of that moment is pretty much a blur.  It was a kaleidoscope of hugs and smiles, laughter and tears of joy.  It was indeed fun and terrifying at the same time.  I felt a sense of beaming, as if my chest were going to explode, not just because I had just jumped out of a plane, but because I did it with three other people that I love dearly.  It was something we shared together and it was a moment neither of us will ever forget.

I spotted Lee and saw the look of absolute relief on her face.  I truly believe that trough it all she was more terrified than I was.  She came over to me and gave me the biggest and tightest hug of my life.  In all seriousness, I never really thought something bad would happen.  Not once did I ever really think I wasn’t going to be safe.  Seeing everyone else jump before me and talking to some of those who did gave me the reassurance and confidence to know that I would be okay.  That’s not to say I still wasn’t scared, but I liken it to riding a new roller-coaster for the first time.  Lee, on the other hand, actually pondered the what-if’s to the extent it got to her bad.  She looked up at me, smiled and said, “You are never doing that again!  I just don’t think I can take it.”  I smiled, kissed her softly and thought to myself, “I can live with that!”

THE MUSIC
The rest of the weekend was just as spectacular.  It included two full days of people experiencing much of what I did by skydiving for the very first time in their lives.  Several individuals I know liked it so much they paid for the privilege of jumping a second time on Sunday.  There was great food and a musical line up at the jump site that included numerous artists on Saturday (including one of my favorites Claire Wyndham), and performances on Sunday by Who’s That Pack, Good Morning Chester and, of course, Sister Hazel.

Once things wrapped up at the jump site on Sunday afternoon, Lindsey, Lee and I piled into the car and headed out towards Boston.  It was there later that evening where Sister Hazel would be hosting the formal Lyrics for Life gala event.  The brief road trip was not without its adventures as we set out to find the hotel in which we were staying.  We had our printed directions, but it turns out the street signs in Boston were designed to give drivers only .74 seconds to read and react.  This dilemma is compounded when you’re driving in a tunnel and little old ladies are honking at you because you’re only going 75 miles per hour.

After a 30 minute detour that provided for an urbanly scenic experience of Boston, we found our hotel, checked in and proceeded to get ready for the event.  We cabbed it over to Avalon, the night club at which the event was being held, and just had ourselves yet another experience of a lifetime.  Following an open-bar cocktail hour, the gala began with an introduction by Boston radio personality Dana Marshall.  The show was then kicked off by French Lick, a Boston-based cover band with Wyc Grousbeck, co-owner of the Boston Celtics.  This was the third Lyrics for Life gala I had attended and it was the first time I’d seen a band or performer come out and not perform acoustically.  Given the excitement of the weekend and the sensation that everyone was still pumped from the skydiving, it was a welcomed change of pace.  French Lick put on an incredible performance and set the tone for the rest of the evening.

The gala proceeded with performances by Alternate Routes and Pat McGee and concluded with Sister Hazel playing our favorite songs acoustically.  I don’t know exactly who started it, but several individuals – I believe members of French Lick – got up in the middle of the performance, pushed the dining tables aside, and started dancing.  This became very contagious and before long, just about everyone was up on the dance floor having a great time.  With the exception of Ken Block taking the time to explain what Lyrics for Life is and how the organization came to be – a story, followed by the performance of Running Through the Fields, both of which still moves me tears ever time – the event maintained a very positive and up-beat feeling the whole night.

Upon the conclusion of the gala, the conversation quickly turned to what we all were going to do next.  If there is anything more incredible than the generosity and willingness of Hazelnuts to give and help out others, it’s the ability of these same Hazelnuts to party.  As is the case with most Sister Hazel events where none of us want the night to end, a large group of us made our way to The Hub Pub, a bar just around the corner from the hotel where many of us were staying.  To say we took over the bar would be a bit of an understatement, and I still chuckle at the looks we received from some of the local patrons there.  I am convinced the bar had a record night in receipts for a non-sporting event Sunday.

It was amazing to look around at this room of friends, everyone smiling and laughing, and think about how I came to meet each person individually. I thought how prior to Memorial Day weekend 2006 I did not know any of them at all.  Yet there we were, a collection of music fans singing our lungs out to Sister Hazel on the digital juke box, all of us connected by the underlying common bond of that one band.  It’s really difficult to understand or even conceptualize from the outside looking in; however, once you’re a part of this special community, it’s impossible to imagine it as being any other way.

Like all good things, that night did finally draw to an end.  Later the next day – or shall I say same day considering we didn’t stumble back to the hotel until after 3:00 AM – Lee and I found ourselves back at the Manchester airport tired and spent, yet still high from the weekend, and awaiting our flight back to Tampa.  As the plane started down the runway, I chuckled at the thought this was my third take off of the weekend yet it would be only my second landing.  I also smiled with pride knowing Lee and I took part in and contributed to such an amazing and special event, one that managed to raise over $63,000 for Lyrics for Life.

THANK YOU’S
The success of Operation Swan Dive is simply astounding, and I know my fellow Hazelnuts are already giddy at the thought of next year and surpassing the mark that was set this year.  It’s on this note that I would like to personally thank everyone who made Operation Swan Dive such an amazing success.

Beginning with the three Jen’s, my hat’s off to you.  I admire you for the dedication you all poured into this event.  As with all first-time events, there were hurdles and challenges that popped up out of nowhere, but you handled them smoothly and effectively.  Kudos, kudos, kudos for a job very well done!

To the volunteers that made up the Ground Crew, thank you for doing all those little things that needed to get done.  It’s the behind the scenes stuff that is often over-looked and you all did a spectacular job.

To all the performers, thank you for taking the time to come out and support such a wonderful event and cause, and for entertaining us with your musical talents and beautiful words.

Thanks to everyone who donated to my fundraising efforts and made this experience possible for me.  I am still blown away by everyone’s generosity and support, and please know that individual Thank You’s are forthcoming.

To Ken Block, thank you for continuing to be an inspiration to not only myself, but also to so many other people around the world.  The collaboration of so many individuals coming together for this event is a reflection of the love in your heart.

To Steph Cornett, thank you for all your efforts in making this weekend a reality.

To Kara, Kelly, and Lindsey – my jump ladies – thank you for being there for me in the months leading up to our jump.  There were many times I considered backing out and playing it safe.  It was your love, support and occasional threats of physical violence that allowed me to overcome my fears and jump out of that plane.  It’s an honor to have shared that moment with you.

To leelee, thank you supporting me not only with this event but also in everything I do.  There was a time when I was scared to throw myself over the edge, but I am so glad – and blessed – you were not afraid to place your trust in me.  I am nothing without you and everything because of you.  I love you, baby.

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