"Tuesday. I'm going to jump on Tuesday. If the weather holds, that is." Like a teenager, Arthur Stapler's voice cracks with excitement. "It's been a bad spring and early summer here," he chats on, "lots of rain and clouds. I would have done it sooner, but they had a record or something they wanted to get. So Tuesday I will do this. If the weather plays nice."
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Arthur, known as "Rebel" for reasons which are perfectly clear once you know him, has Multiple Sclerosis . MS is a neurological auto-immune disease which attacks the brain, and disrupts the timely and smooth flow of the nerve ends by destroying the myelin sheath. Diagnosed on his 21st birthday, Rebel completed college, pledged a frat house (ask him about his egg story someday!), married, divorced, married again, and has had 2 separate careers, both as a VP of an automobile dealership and in textiles. Now, Rebel's MS has progressed to the point where he is completely reliant on a powered wheelchair. He still has, however, limited use of his right hand. He's used that hand to reach out and grab his dream of bodyflight. He's going skydiving.
"Ever since I was a little boy, I wanted to fly. So I went hunting for a picture of skydiving to put onto my computer, to look at sometimes. Did a google search. Up popped Dropzone.com, and I was sucked in. Like a tornado, but good." He laughs. "All I originally wanted was a picture, and look what happened."
Rebel researched dropzones, settling on CrossKeys in Williamstown, NJ. He called them, and talked to them about the possibility of him making a tandem skydive. Without announcing it to family or friends, he arranged possible dates and times, and coordinated with a few conspiring aides to assist him in finding the sky.
As the day neared, he sent out invitations to family and friends. He was getting excited, he said, glued to the weather stations and planning. If it wasn't going to be Tuesday, it was going to be shortly thereafter. He was going to fly.
His sister Marci said she thought he was crazy at first, and then, "why not? Why not?? I had no real questions about it, I didn't really think about it, I figured the details will come as we go. At first, I didn't even realize it was going to be tandem. I just knew if he wanted it, it was going to happen. That's Arthur. And that's wonderful."
It was clear on Tuesday. Beautiful, blue, midsummer day. Rebel didn't tell anyone at his assisted care facility where he was going (they thought he was at the doctors). Rebel packed up and went out of state to CrossKeys. And pulling up at the dropzone was, he said, "interesting." Having never been to a dropzone, he was immediately aware of "the vibe", that feeling of barely suppressed excitement, of manageable exuberance.
Amy, his little sister, was there. "My brother became my hero a few years ago, and continues to be so. This is just typical of him. He decides to do something, and then just goes and does it. He sees everything as a surmountable challenge for him. There's nothing he can't do when he decides to do it."
Connecting with Tandem Instructor Range Luda, who has lots of experience in bringing physically challenged folk into the sky, Rebel knew he was going with a master. Nothing to stop him now, nothing at all. It was happening. And he felt great. Getting him into the jumpsuit was accomplished, and then Rebel says "I didn't know what to expect next. And man, I was surprised."
A specially designed harness was brought out. It strapped the legs together, and immobilized the arms across chest, along with attachment points for the tandem master.
"Well, now I know what bondage is. I was looking for ladies in high heels and leather, but they didn't show." He laughed. "I'm kinda glad they didn't, either." Trussed like the family Thanksgiving turkey, Arthur was on his way. Back into the wheelchair, and down the dropzone into the loading area. There sat the 208, waiting. Inviting him into the sky. Motors thrumming, loaded, ready to go. He was going to skydive. First out means last in, and so he got a door seat for his first jump. He recalls wondering if they would shut the door, but distinctly remembers not being nervous. Feeling the anticipation, sure, but not nervous. During the climb to altitude, sitting on the floor with his tandem master behind him, he feels the bindings regularly tighten on the harness, hears slight snicks as the attachments are fastened. He is attached, and ready to go.
"Here I am, in a plane, going 2 1/2 miles into the sky, with a bunch of people I have never met, doing something most people never do, and I wasn't nervous. Not one bead of sweat appeared, not one flutter in my stomach. Everyone on that plane was laughing, cheering. I didn't know what to think, what to expect. I was there, though, and that was what mattered. I was going to skydive." Rebel's voice takes on a hint of concern, however.
"After awhile, people got quiet, and then started moving around. I thought 'What? Did the engine die or something?' And then a red light went on. They opened the door. I could see the sky. It was huge. And then the light went green. Goggles were put onto my face. We scooched over to the door so my legs dangled over the edge. And then Range asked me if I was ready to skydive. I nodded."
With a rocking motion, they slipped from the edge of the door, and out into the blue. Out into the world they flew, no thought, no fear.
"We dropped out, and I looked down, and God's honest truth, I only realized I wasn't in the plane was when I saw Erik (the videographer) in front of me." Wonder creeps into his voice. It lowers almost to a whisper.
"I'm there. In the sky." Awed. Amazed.
And then he recalls thinking "What was everyone telling me about breathing for? I don't have any problem."
"I remember feeling weightless," he says, "when I'm sitting in my chair, I'm 134 dead weight. When I was there, I was gliding. I felt weightless. I felt so comfortable, so intense. So peaceful."
Merging into the sky, Rebel was free. As they soared and flew through the day, the videographer with them, Rebel knew of the overwhelming bigness of the sky in a way not known to most.
"It was so huge, so beautiful, so peaceful", he recalls. "I was outside of the plane - I was in the sky, I was immersed, inside something, blended into something. I knew Range was there, I knew Erik was there, but I was alone. And I was free."
Rebel does not remember the canopy opening very clearly. "Poof, soft, and then we could talk. All I could say was 'I want to go again' ". As they danced through the sky under a Strong tandem, Rebel was absorbing everything. "I remember thinking this is what the birds see. I see it like the birds do now. I've looked out of a plane window before, and that is nothing compared to what I saw. Nothing."
"I had no concept of time. Forever and too short. I felt just wonderful. It was like a 7 minute orgasm," he laughs, "but free, weightless." Range took him through several spirals, and sliced through the day dancing especially for Rebel. And as they descended, Rebel was grinning.
On final approach, Rebel saw his family and friends coming out towards his landing spot. And the landing was absolutely perfect. "It was like a kid playing jacks - soft, mellow, easy."
It was over. Rebel recalls "it was like when you go on a rollercoaster, and can sit in the seat and just hand the guy another ticket to go 'round again. I was looking for the ticket guy, but he wasn't there."
He received the log entry, his certificate, and bumperstickers. After getting out of his harness and jumpsuit, everyone went over and watched the video on the big screen. "They were giving me hugs," Rebel chuckles. "The President didn't get these hugs. The guy who jumped with the dog didn't get it. I got a lot of love from everyone." Jumpers on his load, other jumpers and dz'ers who were just there, all came over and high-fived him, shook his hand, or hugged him. He was surrounded with the vibe of skydivers; he was now, too, a skydiver. He doesn't know all these people, he says, but he doesn't have to. He felt the love.
"I am carrying his pictures around," says his father Michael. "I'm like a Pop with Little League. Everyone has to see them. They show a man who is happy with his life right now, and has something to live for. Arthur is a risk taker but this is a different kind of risk. Not many people...would think of skydiving, but Arthur? Well, that's him. I am very proud."
Amy, his little sister, said she was never nervous. "Arthur is my big brother. He does what he says he will. If it takes a bit longer, fine, whatever."
Arthur's voice has a quietness, an almost factual insistence, a sureness to it. "What I did today was something which proved that people with disability or illness, whatever physical challenge, can do anything they really want to do. If they want to sit around and be pissed off, cry 'why me', so be it. I am not going to do that; I have never have done it. I have skied on quad skis, I have biked on a tricycle, I am maybe going to get to drive a race car. Now I fly, too. And I am going to do it again."
His voice intensifies, if that's possible. "I have learned to make things accessible. I learned how to find answers. If I can't do it now, I'll figure a way to do it later...I learned to realize I could do a lot of things. This was something huge, something important, this skydive. And I did it."
"Look, I think of "MS" as two letters. Mighty Special. I can offer people a lot of things. There is someone beyond the wheelchair, beyond the person who can't get up. I can offer many things. I can listen, I can give, I gotta lot of love inside me. MS is only 2 letters. There are 24 other letters left. And I'm busy using those, too."
Arthur is still processing the jump, days later. I speak with him, and hear the ecstasy in his voice.
"Hey. Tell me again. Why do you want to jump out of a plane?"
"Because I can."
Yes, Rebel, you can.
Special thanks to the folks at CrossKeys:
Range Luda - Tandem Instructor
Paul Eriksmoen - videographer
Lauren Demme- Manifest
Jonathan Gordon (Jonno) - Pilot
Glenn Bangs- Drop Zone Manager>
For more information about Multiple Sclerosis, please go here: