A Bucket Filled with Life


Joey Kennedy free falls from 14,000 feet above Vinemont as Skydive Alabama trainer Kevin Hicks directs the jump. (photo courtesy of Skydive Alabama)

Joey Kennedy free falls from 14,000 feet above Vinemont as Skydive Alabama trainer Kevin Hicks directs the jump.
(photo courtesy of Skydive Alabama)

My legs are dangling outside an airplane at 14,000 feet, over fields just north of Cullman. I look down, a little dizzy, and think, “What the heck am I doing?” Except I’m not thinking “heck,” but another four-letter word.

My bucket list led me into the skies over Vinemont this past April. I had always wanted to sky dive, and here I was doing it, thanks to a generous gift from my wife, Veronica. I hadn’t been nervous when we arrived at the Skydive Alabama headquarters at Folsom Field that Saturday morning. I wasn’t bothered as the single-prop plane climbed into the skies with its passengers, none of whom would be on the plane when it returned to the airport. But when I scooted up to the open door, I was slammed in the face by not only the wind, but also by what I was doing: jumping out of a perfectly good airplane.

I’m not alone, of course. Kevin Hicks, a trainer with Skydive Alabama, is attached to my back. But I’m not thinking about that. I’m looking at the ground, 14,000 feet down. I can see the curvature of the Earth. Hicks grabs my left arm, puts it over my chest, and we somersault out of the airplane.

What is it about “bucket lists” anyway? These are specific goals we set to accomplish for ourselves before we die. So are we in some way acknowledging our mortality when we make a bucket list? I’m 60 years old; I know I’m going to die. But as I sat in that airplane door at 14,000 feet, I didn’t want it to be right then. Thus, I had second thoughts when second thoughts were too late. “From what I have gathered, the term ‘bucket list’ really exploded when the 2007 movie The Bucket List hit theaters,” says Emily Tucker, a certified counselor here in Birmingham. “The term, of course, existed before then, but really caught fire in the media and created discussions about the purpose of, and meaning behind, a bucket list. A bucket list really translates to life goals, or ‘Living Before I Die’ goals.”

Tucker continues: “In therapeutic settings, goal setting is essential and invaluable. It gives us something to work toward, generating hope, motivation, confidence, and positive self-esteem along the way. This helps us move forward, continuing to grow and develop.” Yet, a bucket list doesn’t have to include edgy adventures like jumping out of an airplane. They can include travel around the world or eating at the 10 best restaurants in the United States. Still, Tucker acknowledges, they often include dangerous adventures, such as climbing certain mountains, bungee jumping, or, yes, sky diving. Says Tucker: “Perhaps facing and overcoming situations [that] generate adrenaline and fight-or-flight mechanisms leaves us feeling even more alive, increases our confidence, and validates our personal faith and courage in ourselves and the world around us.”

Maybe so. But as we rolled out of that airplane door, I wasn’t thinking about that either.

After Kevin forces me out of the plane, he and I flip, then he deploys a drogue chute to help stabilize our free fall. At that point, I’m no longer nervous. This adventure is out of my hands. So I kick my legs back, spread my arms, and enjoy the ride.

A videographer jumps with us and is filming the fall. I wave and smile, or at least try to, as we plummet toward the green pastures near Vinemont. But I’m not dizzy anymore; I’m not near panic, as I was in the airplane door. I’m calm, even as the wind against my cheeks make them flap. The noise is deafening, the rush of air brutal. And I love it.

Our neighbor Kathy Chahrouri, a federal labor lawyer, tells me her bucket list is 99 percent travel. She wants to travel to China, Japan, and the African continent, take the Orient Express, and float the canals in Venice. “I could go on and on,” Chahrouri says. “But I’ve knocked off my top two since 2011: going to Beirut and having a place at the beach.”

Collier Fernekes, a 21-year-old UAB student, already has a bucket list. “There are just so many beautiful things to see and fun things to do. Because of that, having a list is more concrete for me so I know exactly what I want to do,” Fernekes says. At the top of her list is sitting by a creek in the Scottish Highlands while reading Robert Burns poems. She’d also like to learn the entire Periodic Table of Elements.

Birmingham attorney Johnny Norris, who just turned 50, says his top bucket list items are to write a book that gets published, argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, and become a regular at a pub in a small English town. “It would be the kind of pub where you can’t tell from appearance whether the guy hoisting a pint next to you is a factory worker or college professor,” Norris says. “And nobody cares which, as long as you can carry on an intelligent conversation.”

Tucker believes bucket lists can definitely be mentally healthy. “The only caveat being to consider what type of goals you are setting,” Tucker says. “Are they realistic and attainable in your lifetime? To set a bucket list goal to become a billionaire by 50, for most of us, would be unrealistic. So the suggestion here is if you are making a list, aim high—but not too high.”

One close friend tells me she has no bucket list. “It’s too depressing,” she says. And that’s OK, too, Tucker says. “Maybe the person prefers ‘living in the moment,’ an admirable, mindful, and healthy approach to life,” Tucker says.

About a minute into our free fall, the parachute deploys. We jerk upward into silence. Kevin starts steering the parachute back toward Skydive Alabama and the airport. As we float down, I get a good look around us. I’m euphoric. Kevin takes us for a couple of spins as the ground draws near. He instructs me again on how to land—legs straight out, butt down. As we approach the grass between the runway and taxiway of Folsom Field, I realize I’ve had an experience I will never forget.•

 

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