The small plane rumbled as it climbed sharply toward 13,000 feet above Otay Lake and the Skydive San Diego drop zone. I had been quiet and nervously peering out the window when Vanessa asked me to sit on her lap.
No, she ordered me to sit on her lap. Not because she found me appealing-so she could hook herself to me at four points on my harness. I was trying hard not to place my full weight on her legs when she leaned forward and spoke into my right ear-sweetly, gently. Squat down, she instructed, and walk to the back of the plane. When I get to the door, she told me, I'm to sit on my heels, clutch my harness straps and rest my head back into the nape of her neck. She would take it from there. Vanessa's nurturing voice told me everything would be OK.
It's not that I didn't believe it. I did. But facing that windy, noisy open door was like peering directly into the face of terror. No voice, no matter how sexy, no matter how soothing, would change that.
I don't recall if she warned me before propelling herself-and me-out the door. I don't recall tumbling at first, but that's what we did. I do recall, however, wondering if the sensation I was feeling, as our downward speed raced upward to 120 mph, could cause me to lose consciousness. Happily, it didn't.
When the canopy parachute opened, after a two-mile freefall, I realized how close you can feel to a perfect stranger when you, literally, place your life in her hands.
I may have told her I loved her.
'Taking people skydiving,' Vanessa told me after we landed safely on terra firma, 'it's one of the most intimate things you can do with a person just [after] meeting them. In the short time that you're with them-it ends up being, like, a half-hour-you learn a lot about them.'
Considering the horrors she endured at the hands of her three older brothers, Vanessa Rose Poteet was destined either for a life of adventure or a life of mayhem.
'My brothers tortured me,' she said. 'They would wrap me up in carpets and put me in the trunk of my mom's car and do brodies'-donuts-'in the parking lot. And before I knew how to swim, they'd throw me into the deep end-sometimes in the carpet. They'd handcuff me to a tree-one of my brothers was going to police academy, so he had handcuffs-and they'd try to put hot sauce down my mouth and hose me off with a water hose and leave me there, or, like, put honey on me and let ants crawl on me.
'You know, they tortured me. I grew up in fear, and I grew up knowing how to fight.'
She certainly looks like she can take care of herself. The well-toned, 25-year-old brunette doesn't appear to have an ounce of body fat on her.
The daughter of a building contractor, she'd help her dad do drywall jobs when she was young and was running her own crews by 18. A licensed subcontractor in her own right, she was raking in 'ridiculous amounts of money,' she said. On top of that, she worked in television, doing production design, art direction and electrical work.
But she gave it all up so she could jump out of airplanes for a living. She had caught the fever when she and her dad jumped during a trip to Oregon when she was 15. Years later, after a six-month stint in Thailand, she returned to the scene and moved into a trailer in Skydive Oregon's drop zone, eventually shifting to Skydive San Diego.
Now, as she had declared before we climbed into the plane, her smile broad and her arms lifted toward the clouds, 'the sky is my office.'
She's made nearly 3,000 jumps, about 1,000 in the last year alone. 'My day off is Monday, and I'm normally out here anyway, just because it's fun,' she said. 'It's a feel-good kind of thing.'
For this cheerful thrill-seeker, life itself appears to be a feel-good kind of thing. For her clients' experience to be as feel-good as possible, she needs to become fast friends with them. It's a skill she seems proud to have.
'It's funny,' she said, 'when I walk into Starbucks or go to get gas or go into a clothing store, I have that same intimate kind of personality come out of me to talk to people, and some people are caught off-guard, like, Who is this lady? I don't know her.'
She loves helping instruct first-timers who arrive in groups. They feed off each other's excitement in the plane and share an experience that many people consider life-changing. She especially enjoys groups of testosterone-addled young men unimpressed with her 5-foot-6 frame.
She greets them: '‘Hi, I'm going to be your instructor.' And they're just, like, ‘Pfft. I'll squash you like a bug. I'm so macho. I can do this by myself-blah blah blah.'
'And I'll go in there and grab a bright pink neon parachute, and the higher we get up to altitude, their toughness kind of starts to go away, and by the time we get to the door, they're: ‘I. Don't. Know. If I. Can do this,'' she said, in a mock staccato-snivel. 'You almost expect it now. And they land and like, 'Oh yeah, no problem at all.' And then they go behind the building and throw up.'
Almost all skydive instructors are male.
Vanessa's wide-eyed zeal belies the danger inherent in her occupation. She points out that tandem jumping is far safer than solo jumping for beginners, but it's far more dangerous for the instructor. They rely on their clients to keep those knees bent, feet back, arms bent and hands out at shoulder level-all necessary for stabilization.
Occasionally, the terror that lasted with me for just the first few seconds doesn't give way to excitement the way it's supposed to. Vanessa told the story of one man, about 65 years old, whose fear caused him to grab a handle on the parachute apparatus that releases the drogue, the mini parachute that has to open within the first 10 seconds of the freefall. The drogue slows the divers' speed. Without it, the rate can reach 170 to 180 mph, which can be dangerous when time comes for the main canopy chute to open.
'He was scared, you know. It wasn't his fault.'
He eventually let go of the handle, and when the canopy opened, she said she wanted to yell, '‘Do you know what you just did to us?!' And I stopped, and I thought about it, and I was, like, ‘Did you have fun?' and he was, like, ‘I had so much fun.'
'I landed, and I had to go into a little dark room and cry,' she said. 'I think I may have actually bit his neck. I was fighting for my life up there.'
But it's all worth it 'to see these people, their reaction-it just makes me happy,' she says. 'It just reminds me of my first time and what it did to me and how it changed my life.'
For the moment, she seems to forget about the man who wouldn't let go. 'I can't think of the last time I had a bad day.'