4 min read
This story is about horizontal and vertical travel. Horizontally, I traveled to California City to witness the Flying Peckerwoods, an amiable group of guys and gals that enjoyed jumping out of airplanes and then vertically traveling to earth wearing nothing but their socks and a parachute. As naked skydivers go, these happy folks really enjoyed a good, stiff breeze at 12,000 feet.
Personally, I have never jumped out of a plane fully clothed much less flung myself into space buck-naked. This raises two questions:
1. What does “buck naked” even mean? (Is it more naked than naked?)
2. Why would anyone do such a thing?
Answers: There doesn’t seem to be much consensus as to the origin of buck naked. It possibly originated in the South in the early 1900’s. It may have been in reference to a buck deer or from buckskin – no one really knows. This was before the internet.
As to why this enthusiastic club of jumpers needed to add another layer of risk (while subtracting a layer of clothing) to an already death-defying hobby, I had no idea. Perhaps this was the day I would find out.
I was a producer working on a TV magazine-type show when the research department uncovered these crazy kids who defied gravity, textiles and commonsense.
Why did they do it? Was it a death wish, a ploy to get evenly tanned or possibly a high altitude re-birthing experience?
So Where The Heck Is California City?
It’s about two hours outside of Los Angeles in the Antelope Valley, some 65 miles from Death Valley. California City was born in 1958 when a real estate developer bought 80,000 acres and planned a metropolis to rival Los Angeles. It didn’t quite work out that way.
However, it has grown into a small city whose citizens work at nearby Edwards Air Force Base, where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier and the Space Shuttle first landed. There’s also a local municipal airport where all sorts of sky diving groups gather to fling themselves into the nearby drop zone.
Back in L.A., my little video team and I grabbed our gear and jumped into a van heading up California Route 14. Previously the Sierra Highway, this desert road was renamed the Aerospace Highway to honor all the space pioneers that have passed through this neighborhood. Years before I had come here to watch the Space Shuttle land at Edwards, its sonic booms rattling the bones in my head.
Here's some other cool stuff along the way: We passed the Mojave Air and Space Port, home to the National Test Pilot School and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. This is where his SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket is under development. When the first paying passengers travel into space, either fully clothed or naked, they will be aboard this rocket ship.
Another attraction on the route: the aircraft boneyard – the hallowed ground where old jetliners go to retire (and dream of their glory days).
Traveling along this desert road in our little van, I discussed with my cameraman how best to photograph naked people. We wanted to cover the action, plus we wanted to show they didn’t have any clothes on (in a tasteful way of course) but not be too obvious. We didn't want to get in their face or step on their toes or get in their hair or breathe down their necks… if you get what I mean.
My camera guy was cool. A veteran of several other naked people shoots, he had an easy solution. He would keep his distance but would be ready to use his long zoom lens should we need to make a prominent point.
Thus with our action plan in place we pulled up to the drop zone. There were all sorts of skydivers milling about. Some were packing their chutes, some rehearsing their dives, some just shooting the breeze. Everyone seemed dressed.
The Number One Peckerwood…
...was a friendly 40-ish fellow wearing a T-shirt with a cartoon flying peckerwood on it - whatever that was. He introduced me to the gang - all the flying peckerwoods and woodettes gathered about. They were a young, high-energy group, cracking jokes - clearly comfortable in their own skin.
Maybe that was why they liked to show it off.
Anyway, this happy squadron introduced us to the basics of skydiving – how to pack chutes, jump from the plane, land - all that good stuff.
Then with the chatter of youthful energy, they hopped into the back of a pickup and sped off to the airport for their first jump of the day. Still fully clothed, no one watching would have had a hint as to what they were up to. They could have been headed for a hayride or on a mission with the Peace Corps for all anyone knew.
We stationed ourselves in the drop zone, ready to record their descent.
My understanding was the transformation happened on the plane. That’s where the Flying Peckerwoods would shed their clothes… and strap on their chutes. Replacing one set of zippers and snaps for another.
As we waited for them, searching the expectant blue sky on this warm desert day, I suddenly reflected on life. I’m not sure why it happened at this particular moment, nor really… why we take stock when we do.
Perhaps I had an image of myself from the air: an almost middle-aged family man, standing out in the desert, with a video crew, waiting to photograph naked people flying through the air. How had it come to this?
On the other hand, maybe I was being a spoiled brat. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s population would probably love a job like this. It had to beat assembling nuclear warheads all day or following an ox with a plow. Or did it? What did one have to show at the end of one’s workday? Is that the measure of our happiness?
I considered… my crew and I were creating entertainment for people to enjoy after a hard day at the plow, but it wasn’t exactly like curing polio. But polio had been cured decades before. So how could I be of service to society? Was I too old to go to medical school…?
“They’re coming!!”, one of my crew shouted.
Sure enough, straight above us, chutes were blossoming and we sprang into action. Cameras started rolling, assistants took notes, everyone focused on their work… and the flying bodies streaking through the air.
There Was Lots Of Skin
We could see them pretty clearly and there was lots of skin. As they got closer we could make out their harnesses holding them up and framing their special body parts. Yep… definitely naked. Guys and gals. They were yelling and whoo-whooing – as happy in the air as they had been on the ground. Maybe happier.
They pulled at the cords on their chutes and fluttered down with stunning accuracy, hitting their marks just yards from us with a whoosh, a bounce on their toes and a laugh. High fives, giggles and hugs all around. They were down but they were still high.
And ready to go up again. I could only imagine what it must be like to fly... fully exposed. The pure nature sensation of the wind whipping one's body. The plunge to earth, holding nothing back. If they could fully enjoy this loose-limbed rush without terror, what special level of freedom had they earned?
I would never know but I felt happy for them. And they did this every weekend...
That's how the day went. More dives, more thrills, more joy. They didn't have to worry about their measure of happiness. They created their own corridor of fun, the lucky stiffs.
By late afternoon, we probably had gathered enough footage for our story, but here I fell victim to my own and many producers' insecurities. We often feel the need to get that one more last shot, that one more angle, just in case.
I asked the Peckerwoods if they would go up once again. They were cool with it. If they were tired, no one said a word. They trekked back to the airport for a final jump of the day and we waited once more.
For the first time that day, I was feeling good, taking in the dimming sky, comfortable in my own skin, even if it was safely draped in denim and SPF 50. I no longer questioned the whys of what they did or the whys of… why I was here. I was in PeckerWorld and it felt good.
Above us, the chutes blossomed like clusters of evening primrose. It was beautiful.
Watching them float down, I had no idea that something had gone wrong, even though there were indications all around me. Someone nearby suddenly leaped into their pickup and raced toward one of the descending women. Other folks ran on foot to where she was headed.
What was going on? Someone shouted her chute didn't fully deploy - she was coming down too fast. Now even I could see that. Stunned, I watched her rapid descent.
She came down hard. Before anyone could reach her. She hit the ground with a thud, her chute quickly hiding her from view. I felt sick.
We dropped everything and ran toward her. By the time we reached her, they had pulled the chute away. She stood up, thank god. Her friends were supporting her and she took a tentative step. She was shaky and rubbed her leg. She looked so vulnerable in her nakedness. It was as though the nude body amplified the current emotional state of its owner. More joy... or more hurt.
She took a few more steps. She was shaken but OK. Then she passed by… but avoided looking at me. So did the others. In fact, the skydivers passed right by me and the crew on their way to get out of there. It was a sad end to a glorious day.
I Kicked A Beach Ball
When I was a very young boy, I was at the beach with my mother. I found a beach ball that belonged to another boy. He wasn't playing with it so I kicked it around a little. I kicked it too close to the water and my mother told me to stop. But I didn't; I kept kicking it and the ball went into the ocean, floating away. The other boy saw this and started crying. I didn't know what to do.
There was a bit of commotion as some grownups shouted and one ran in to the water to retrieve the ball, bringing it to the other boy. I turned back toward my mother and the look on her face stirred a strange, uncomfortable feeling in me. That feeling returned as we drove down the Aerospace Highway back to L.A.
This day spent with the Flying Peckerwoods happened years ago. It's at least a twenty-five year old memory. And memories can be dreamy and uncertain. So I Googled the Peckerwoods to refresh, to get facts, to spark forgotten details.
There was nothing. Not a single reference. Google... Google had never heard of the Flying Peckerwoods. All I found was a group in Milwaukee called SANS – the Society for the Advancement of Naked Skydiving. But of the Peckerwoods, not a peep.
The internet basically said they never existed. This had never happened to me. What do you do when Google (which knows of all things) doesn't know what you're talking about?
What then, do you make of your memories, the things you believe you actually did, felt, lived? Learned?
You write about them. Freeze them in time before there’s any more slippage.
Because in another twenty-five years they'll be more real than the nice fellow sitting across the table from you at the early bird special.
Then you can share the story of the Flying Peckerwoods with him.