Sunday, July 07, 2002

The Best Fourth (Fifth) Ever

Normally I hate going to see fireworks on the Fourth. It's not because I'm unpatriotic or some sort of Scrooge when it comes to the Fourth. It's because I hate the crowds. You show up early just so you can get a parking spot and stake out a picnic-blanket sized postage stamp of space on the lawn that everyone walks over anyway, and then you either try and fold your chairs faster than everyone else when it's over and make a mad dash for your car or you sit and wait an hour until you think everyone's finally left so you don't have to fight the waves of traffic.

Well, this year was different. My brother-in-law Scott invited Liz and I (and their brother Todd and his wife) out to SkyDive Chicago's Jump Zone to watch the fireworks show they were going to have on the fifth.

Evidently this was the private "warm up" show that they were having before the official display they were going to have on the sixth. So the four of us carpooled up there with our newly purchased chairs and a cooler full of beer (something else the town-based shows won't let you bring).

I have to admit that Sky Dive Chicago freaking rules. Tons of beautiful people jumping out of planes. I love planes. So dressing them up with beautiful people isn't half bad. Everyone folds their chutes and prepares for their next jump in the hangar, with rave music blasting from the stereo system. The Otter (plane) is constantly roaring as the twin engines take the plane from the runway to the hangar and back to the runway full of jumpers again.

We unfolded our chairs and took up a lonely position about 20 yards away from one of the taxi-strips to the runway, just behind the main hangar. There was no one around us. Possibly ten other people were out behind the hangar with us, and most of them were just having a bite to eat from the snack shop on the picnic benches. The Otter took off, and about 10 minutes later we could barely make it out above us (possibly at around 10,000 feet?). A few small ants jumped out, and we strained to watch them directly overhead as the three of them did some formations with the fourth one off to the side watching. Many seconds later, we noticed the ants had gotten much bigger, and to our surprise, we heard them deploy the parachutes. They must have still been a few thousand feet up, and you could hear the chutes ripping through the air louder than the engine of the plane.

We then noticed that the Otter had dropped off about ten more jumpers after it had flown over our head, and we were treated to roughly a dozen colorful parachutes and skydivers coming in for landings about 30 to 100 yards away from us (one of the guys landed on the other side of the airfield). Just as the last guys were landing, the Otter came and landed, immediately turned back around with another load of jumpers.

Todd and I then headed off to the swimming hole to get some food. Amazingly enough, Roger (the owner) had hired a chef named Tim from Florida for the restaurant he's going to open soon. So there's a gourmet chef, cooking in his chef pants on a giant outdoor gas grill. We paid our money, and grabbed some plates of food. I have to say it was some of the best bbq food I've ever had. The salsa he made was amazing, and the Asparagus he grilled was out of this world. People who know me very well are picking their jaws off the ground right now, as they'll know that I despise asparagus. This stuff was divine.

We got back to our seats and watched the fireworks after the sun went down. Scott helped light off a bunch that the switchboard they made didn't ignite. The show was incredible. I've been to some of the larger Chicago suburb shows, and I have to say it was on par with what I would have seen had we elected to fight the crowds on the Fourth. Only there were no crowds. And we had skydivers. And beer. And good food. And we didn't have to fight for a parking spot.

Afterwords, Scott came over to ask how we liked it, and I asked him to give me a quick tour. He showed me the entire hangar building, which is so much more than just an aircraft hangar. As it turns out, Scott is a bit of a small celebrity there, as he helped build the place. Evidently he wired all of the electricity running throughout the entire complex (campgrounds, hangar buildings, etc.) He had the chute-packers show me how to fold and properly pack a parachute. I had no idea that there were so many different ways you can pack a parachute. I'd always been under the impression that there was only one way to pack a 'chute or it wouldn't come out right. We climbed inside of one of the Otters and I got to sit in the pilot's seat. Then he showed me how everyone exits the plane when they compete (Scott's in a 10 man team for when the Nationals come to SkyDive Chicago in September), and how they hang on the outside of the plane when they're not competing. That was fun; hanging on the outside of the plane, I was secretly imagining what it must be like for an action movie star to be on the outside of the plane, and then I realized that's what these guys do every day. I guess Ruke (Roger's son) has figured out how to climb down the strut of the wing and stand on the landing gear's very large tire. I couldn't even come close to doing it when the plane was on the ground.

Honestly, sitting in the plane and watching those guys pack chutes made me seriously consider trying skydiving. Just asking me if I want to jump out of a plane will get a quick and decisive "no" out of me, but if you bring me to the site, let me watch some people come down gracefully, kick the tires, climb in the plane, and literally hang on the outside imagining what it must feel like to let go and "fly," well, that's damn good salesmanship.

After the tour, Scott wanted to show me what the big fireworks look like, so we drove out past the runway and I got to help them collect all of the "duds" that didn't fire off when the switchboard told them to. This sounds a lot more dangerous than it actually was. The ones we were removing never received a signal to fire from the switchboard, and weren't touched by a flare, so it's as if they were still "straight out of the box." That was pretty cool, since I'd never actually handled anything quite that large. There were a lot of 3" ones (balls 3" in diameter) that hadn't fired off, and quite a few 6" ones that we collected. They all fire out of just your average simple PVC tubes. I thought maybe there were some special rigs you had to use to fire them. Turns out you just need a lot of PVC plastic tubing.

We ran out further towards the cornfield so he could show me the Twelve Inch PVC Mortars. Those things were freaking incredible. Six foot long tubes that are a foot in diameter set 2 feet deep in the ground. They were used to launch the 12" fireworks. I wish just one of those hadn't gone off so I could have seen what it looked like. Imagine a single firework as large as a basketball. BOOM. Scott had to light those off by hand, and he said that the explosion that sent them flying up into the air was deafening. I wish I could have been out there with him to see it.

Later we cruised back by the hangar to try and find Liz and the gang, but they had already headed off to his trailer to watch everyone fire off the rest of the unused fireworks. We found these enormous bugs that looked like six inch long mutant dragonflies laying on the ground. They'd get agressive when Scott poked them. We also saw this huge moth that was so colorful it looked like a butterfly. It was about five inches across (wingspan) and was bright yellow with some blue accents in the wings. Scott picked it up for a closer look, and then handed it to me (admittedly, I really wasn't interested in holding it). It. Was. So. Cool. The body looked as if it was covered in yellow pollen. It looked fuzzy. And it purred. Honestly, it was vibrating so fast (even though its wings were motionless) that it felt like you were holding a miniature kitten or something. Maybe it was shaking because it was scared, or maybe it was actually emitting some sort of defensive ultra low-wave sonic thing or whatjamajiggit, but it purred.

Then we headed back to the campsite and by then the family carpool was ready to leave, so I had to hop out of the back of Scott's pickup and into Todd's Passport. I felt like a little kid again, and it was time to go home. In retrospect, and this is going to sound entirely too cheeky, I really enjoyed hanging out with Scott and Todd. Growing up as the oldest child, I never had a big brother to show me the ropes, so it's a lot of fun hanging out with Liz's older brothers, because they're cool enough to treat me like thier younger brother.

I swear that if I head up there two more times, I'm going to jump out of a plane with him.

I've got photos of The Log and me on the bike. I'll try and get those up soon.

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