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By Ray Stern
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Not long after breakfast, gray-haired snowbirds in glittery visors drag lawn chairs up to the landing area where they gasp and applaud each landing.
At night, when the skydivers come home to roost, the activity concentrates at the Bent Prop or at various fires in the surrounding desert. The jumpers smoke, drink, laugh and race motorbikes well into the night.
One of the biggest draws to the Eloy skydiving mecca is its nearly perfect weather.
But once in a while, even during the peak season, nature intervenes -- which means all the adrenaline has nowhere to go during the day. The drop zone on rainy days is like a Disneyland of sugared-up kids when none of the rides is working.
During four days of rain recently, which forced the grounding of planes, the drop zone's volleyball and basketball courts, pool, fitness center and climbing wall held little appeal to the grounded jumpers.
They wandered the muddy campus like an army of hyperactive lost souls.
Some spent the few days holed up in the trailers and RVs, imbibing controlled substances and living vicariously through endless rounds of X-Box games. Others did laundry as slowly as possible, or ventured to nearby Casa Grande, where a skydiver-owned movie theater lets jumpers in for free.
As the rain continued a second and third day, alcohol stashes were soon depleted and pocket money squandered on pitcher after pitcher of beer and countless games of pool at the Bent Prop.
On the fourth day, the rain ended. But the sky was still too overcast to put a plane up by early afternoon. Yet a group of skydivers decided to position themselves at an outside table of the saloon, ready to make a mad dash to the hangar to grab their gear should the clouds lift.
Nadina, a normally perky Canadian blonde, took a glance up at the sky and held up crossed fingers.
She and a group of Canadians, recreational skydivers and a few members of a national search-and-rescue team, pilgrimage to Eloy annually. Unfortunately, this year they had spent more time on the ground than in the air. In Alberta, she says, a little bad weather would not deter pilots or the jumpers. The normally good weather has spoiled Eloy, she complains.
Back home, Nadina says, she and her friends often jump in temperatures of 15 below zero. During their short summers, she says, they aren't spoiled in Alberta by soft grassy landing areas like Eloy's. They drop out of the sky into canola fields.
"Canola grows in stalks that can reach six feet high before harvest," she says, and landing among the plants can feel like tumbling into a rain forest. It's hard to judge how tall the plants are and where the ground is, and once you hit, you can't even see where you are, she explains, or make it out on your own.
"We have to use radios to get out, plus there's an acid in the canola pods that burns through your parachute," she says, so immediately upon landing, you have to gather your chute and trudge with it held high over your head to wherever the voice on the other end of the radio dictates.
And for the privilege of making one jump into such hostile territory, Nadina says, she has had to wait in line for up to six hours because of the crowds and few aircraft.
No wonder she's maxed out her Visa card to come to Eloy. She can usually fit in about 100 jumps during each two-week trip. And despite the weather this time, she says (holding up crossed fingers again) she still may get in 70.
The skydivers on the porch with her climb up on chairs and the fence rail to get a better look at the horizon. Small talk isn't cutting it anymore. Drop zone conversations are always about skydiving, and there's no distracting divers from fantasizing about what they could be doing if the sun were out.
Someone suggests that maybe they should just get in a car and try to find something, anything, big enough to jump off.
Fuck planes and pilots and all this waiting around! Any tall object will do. Even a big radio- or TV-station antenna, provided they could get inside fences and up and down before the cops busted them.
"You watch out for microwave antennas, though," someone cautions. "You have to jump quick or you'll get fried up there. Anything more than a minute and all the fillings in your mouth start to heat up."
They ponder heading up to Phoenix and jumping off a 200-foot cliff at Camelback Mountain, but they decide the 15-second ride down wouldn't be worth leaving the drop zone. The weather could improve any minute . . .
Soon, they're getting desperate enough to resort to superstition. "What we need is a sacrificial lamb," one of them says.
Drop zone rules say skydivers can't drink and jump. Drop zone voodoo holds that if a skydiver yearning to jump can be persuaded to go into the bar and take a drink, the sun will come out immediately. They've seen it work before. The trick is finding a true skydiver willing to take the alcohol plunge for his mates.
There are no takers.
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