Monday, August 10, 2015

Wisconsin, Part 2: Skydiving in Sturtevant

Wisconsin is amazing. It offers a diverse collection of destinations, each of which exposes another layer of cool within the state. In Part 1, I recounted my trips to playful Wisconsin Dells and fancy Door County. Part 3 will cover bizarre House on the Rock and down-to-earth Milwaukee.

This post is is dedicated to my most memorable visit to Wisconsin, a trip to Sturtevant, WI that Mrs. Tires and I took in July of 2009. She was Miss Tires back then, but not for long. That's because I brought a special surprise with me on that trip, a shiny new engagement ring that I intended to put on her finger. My plan was to spring the ring after we jumped out of a perfectly good airplane. 

We had a full day and night in Gurnee Mills, IL planned before the big leap. There are two reasons people go to Gurnee Mills. The most common is to visit Six Flags Great America. We had visited Six Flags quite recently, so we opted for the second most popular destination in town, the Gurnee Mills Outlet Mall. 

When we first got to the mall, we parked just outside the Bass Pro Shop, so we decided to made this massive outdoor sport shop our first destination. We were greeted by many taxidermied animal heads that were hung in the store's huge foyer. The only mounted animal collection I've ever seen that was any bigger was in Wall Drug.

A small sample of the many dead animal heads that greeted us
We knew we were in for something big, and the rest of the store didn't disappoint. Among the displays of boats, tents and guns were several more taxidermied animals such as a bear and a moose, and a giant pond with a fake beaver dam and real fish. 

The budget was pretty tight back then (I had just purchased a diamond ring after all) so instead of buying things, we played a game where we were allowed to choose one thing in each store that we would purchase if we had unlimited funds. This boat was my pick. 

We had a blast at the Bass, and we were just getting started. We wandered from store to store, played our game in each place, and laughed a lot in the process. 

An illegally snapped photo from the mask store
The whole time the proposal was in the back of my mind, but I tried to pretend everything was normal. I raised a bit of suspicion when we stopped for drinks at the Rainforest Cafe and I opted to purchase the souvenir glassware, something I never do. Luckily the suspicion passed and my secret was kept under wraps. 

At one point Miss Tires pulled me into a Zales to look at engagement rings. I feigned interest, knowing that decision was already made. 

The most unique feature of the Gurnee Mills Mall was the giant slot car course. It was the largest slot car track I had ever seen. We plunked down some cash and had a few races, each of which was fast and fun.

After our shopping trip, we checked into the Grand Hotel in Gurnee, which was our major motivation for choosing Gurnee as a destination. It was a special hotel that featured crazy decorations and themed rooms. There was  Egypt room and a Paris room, a jazz room, a Disney room and more, each with unique features and decor.

A hallway illuminated with black lights guided us to our room.

We chose the rainforest room, which included tropical animals painted on the walls, a palm tree lamp, a jacuzzi tub and a giant toucan that was waiting on the bed to greet us. It was a bit cheesy, but also quite charming. 

We got great use out of the jacuzzi, and we also enjoyed peeking into the other themed rooms while they were being cleaned. Unfortunately, the Grand Hotel is now a Super 8. While the themed rooms still stand, Trip Advisor reviews imply the hotel has gone downhill since our visit. Go figure. 

That night we had dinner at Joe’s Crab Shack, a chain restaurant that offers gaudy decorations and an attempt at a sea shanty-type vibe that doesn’t quite come across. We had a fun time laughing at it all while we chowed down, and in my head, I was thinking about how a lot of people propose at dinner and how stupid I would look if I tried to propose there. I probably would have gotten a slap instead of a fiancee. 

I was nervous when I woke up the next morning, and not only because of the impending skydive and proposal. The weather added a layer of anxiety, as the forecast predicted rain. This unfortunate turn of events could ruin my whole plan. As we drove north towards Wisconsin, we were relieved that we didn’t see any rain, just lots of cloud cover. We figured we’d be ok for the jump. 

It was a short drive from Gurnee to Sturtevant, so I had just enough time to tell Miss Tires about the delightful conversation I had with a gentleman named Mike when I called Skydive Midwest to confirm our reservation. I told her about how we bonded because we both had Massachusetts roots and were huge Red Sox fans, and I added that he knew my Aunt Ruz and Uncle Charlie from his temple in Norwood, MA. I also said I’d have to seek out Mike when we got there, and she was delighted to hear we might get some special treatment because of this connection.

It was all an elaborate ruse. In reality, Mike and I only knew each other because I called ahead and told him I was going to propose after our jump, and he was helping me orchestrate the whole thing. The story was just a cover to justify seeking him out when we got there. If you're going to make up a cover story, make it as specific as possible. 

The rain was still holding up when we got to Skydive Midwest. Once we checked in, I left Miss Tires to wander the grounds and I headed over to Mike’s office with my heart pounding. When we spoke over the phone, he recommend I leave the ring in his capable hands. This would guard against losing the ring during the jump. While the suggestion sounded wise, I was a bit reticent about handing the most expensive item I had ever purchased to a stranger. I went through with it anyway, as I trusted Mike, and I knew there was a metaphor about trust in there that worked well with the idea of proposing. It was almost as significant a metaphor as the one about taking a huge leap into the unknown inherent in the dive itself.

During my meeting with Mike, I learned about a rather unfortunate obstacle. Apparently rain was not much of a threat to skydiving, but the real problem was cloud cover. Jumps occur at an altitude above the clouds, so when clouds are present, there’s a risk one could jump and hit a plane flying below the clouds they didn't know was there. The cloud cover was still present, so all the planes were grounded. Mike assured me that he’d do everything nature would allow to get us up, but of course there were no guarantees. 

With that in mind, I made my way back to Miss Tires and tried to act like everything was fine, even though another layer of nerves had been added to my already jittery mindset. We waited as patiently as we could for the clouds to break up, speculated on the weather with other jumpers and held out hope as we sat.

There was an event going on that day called Tandem for Troops, a fundraiser hosted by Skydive Midwest. The fundraiser offered some extra activities, including corn hole and a raffle. We tossed some bags and bought some raffle tickets to pass the time. 

After an hour of waiting, a couple associated with the event came up to Miss Tires and me and offered to take us on a tour of the planes. We gladly accepted, and we thoroughly enjoyed learning about the two planes that were being used that day. One of the planes had been used in the Wesley Snipes movie Drop Zone. The couple couldn’t have been nicer, and I was so touched that they’d bring us on this tour, knowing they were aware of our situation. When Miss Tires asked me why they invited us and no one else, I shrugged and said it must have been because of my connection with Mike. 

The tour provided a brief respite from the agony of anticipation, but there was plenty of wait still ahead of us. The sky was thick with clouds, and we became less and less confident that we’d get to jump. I started coming up with contingency plans for the proposal in the event that things didn't work out. After another hour of waiting, I was even more sure it wasn't going to happen. I took a walk around the grounds to call Jon, my best friend and confidant in such matters, and ran some of my contingency plans by him. As I was explaining the alternatives, an announcement came over the loud speaker. They were requesting that Miss Tires and I make our way to the hanger. The jump was on!

A whole slew of emotions hit me as I met up with Miss Tires. All the while, I was trying to play it cool. Miss Tires wondered out loud why we were the first to go when there were many people there before us waiting to jump. I just shrugged it off and said Mike must’ve pulled some strings.

We were outfitted with literal jump suits and introduced to our tandem jumpers, our pilot, our camera men, and one other guy whose purpose was unclear to us. Our whole crew boarded Wesley Snipes’ plane, and off we went. 

When we reaches a certain altitude, the random guy in our crew opened the plane door and jumped out. We were caught off guard by this. About a minute later, the jumper radioed up to the plane and shared some data. The remaining crew listened intently and then shared looks of concern, followed by some devilish grins. It turns out the jumper leaped out to gather additional data that would indicate whether we really could make the dive. The result were iffy. They decided to let us jump. 

I went first. As the plane's side door opened, I got a serious lump in my throat, and a simultaneous rush of excitement. I didn’t get much time to process this, as there were only about fifteen seconds between the door opening and my jump. My tandem jumper asked “You ready?” and before I got a chance to answer, he hurled us out of the plane. 

The jump was exhilarating. Free-falling was such an intense rush, and I expressed this by yelling for joy as we descended. The speed of our jump was making ripples in my face, and it was so cool to approach the clouds from above and jump right through them. When the parachute deployed, we began a gentle, scenic float down to the ground. As we approached, the weight of my next act caught up with me. My heart started pounding and my stomach started turning, and not just because of the subtle loops we were doing while we made our way downward. 

I totally botched the landing, and I didn’t care. With one thrill of a lifetime down, I had another one fast approaching. When I received the ring from Mike, my nerves settled for a second, and then shot right back up again. Joy, fear and excitement surged through my entire body as I watched Miss Tires approach from the sky. 

We had a quick moment to celebrate the jump, and just a deep breath later, I launched into the speech I had prepared. I told Miss Tires about how much she meant to me and how much I loved her, and told her I wanted to be with her for the rest of our lives and have babies together. It was a blast to watch her as she figured out what was going on, shrieked, and momentarily went into shock. With that, I got down on one knee, pulled out the ring, and asked for her hand in marriage. 

Thankfully. she accepted. I placed the ring on her finger, and we kissed and embraced. Our crew and the staff cheered, hooted and hollered while we enjoyed our first seconds as an engaged couple. Though I had gone through quite a bit to get back on the ground, I felt as if I was walking on air. We held hands and beamed while we walked back to the hanger. As we did, they announced our engagement over the loud speaker, and the awaiting jumpers cheered for us. It was a truly special moment, and the entire place was feeling the love on our behalf. 

We hung around for another half hour or so, reliving our jumps and accepting congratulations from many strangers. Mike came by to say hello and we came clean to Miss Tires on our elaborate ruse. Shortly thereafter, they announced that they'd be sending up more planes, so we sat and watched as many more divers came down with parachutes deployed. 

The whole experience was touching and unforgettable. I was so thankful to the staff for making our time so special. If you want to go sky diving, I can't recommend Skydive Midwest enough. I bought a few more raffle tickets on my way out to express a tiny sliver of my gratitude. 

With the planes and the jumpers in our rearview, we drove back home ecstatic. We made many phone calls to family and friends and rejoiced all over again, while resisting the temptation to start planning our wedding right then and there. Most importantly, we reiterated our love for each other and vowed to keep the excitement going for the rest of our lives. It’s a promise we have both kept.

Much to my surprise, our involvement with Skydive Midwest continued. Two days later, I received a phone call from the person in charge of the raffle. Turns out I won the grand prize, a free flight lesson at the Aeris Aviation club, a private hanger adjacent to Skydive Midwest that offered flight lessons and plane rentals.

It took us almost a year, but in the summer of 2010, we finally cashed in on our winnings. I didn't expect it to be much more of a thrill than driving a car, but boy was I wrong! It was an absolute blast from beginning to end.

The day started with a tour of the facility, which featured several hangers housing really cool planes, and an adjacent club and bar with huge TVs and comfy leather couches. It got me dreaming about how cool being a member there would be.

After the tour, we hopped into a small cesna. We were equipped with headphones that would allow us to communicate, and Miss Tires (who would soon be Mrs. Tires, but not yet) took the back seat while the instructor and I took the front.

I thought my involvement would be minimal, but the instructor encouraged me to stay with him, and as we worked together, the plane took off. He kept reminding me that the plane wanted to fly.

Once we were airborne, I was invited to fly the plane myself. I had to stay below the level of the clouds because I was a new pilot, but as long as I kept that promise, I was allowed to fly wherever I wanted. Miss Tires took photos as I flew.

Flying was an absolute thrill, and the scenery below was beautiful. It was easy to see how people could get hooked on flying. The lesson was a full hour long, but I was enjoying myself so much, it felt like it went by in five minutes.

When it came time to land the plane, Miss Tires held on for dear life. There was no reason to worry. The instructor and I worked together, and we stuck the landing. As we taxied back to the hanger, I had a huge smile on my face. It really was one of the coolest things I had ever done.

The next summer, Mrs. Tires and I got married on a beach in Mexico. It was a wonderful ceremony that will be covered when this blog eventually goes international. The proposal that got us there was thrilling and memorable, and because of that, Sturtevant, WI will always be a special place for us.

Wisconsin, Part 1: Dells and Door
Wisconsin, Part 3: Milwaukee and the House on the Rock

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