Front page | Essays index


Golden Boys


I read an article recently in my newspaper that discussed recent moves to regulate liquor advertising, both on TV and in the print media. The concern seemed to be 'lifestyle' advertising, in which the focus is not so much on 'Brand X Beer' itself, but on the establishment of a connection in the viewer's mind between 'Brand X Beer' and 'What a wonderful life!' Stunningly beautiful people, all with perfect teeth, perfect hair, perfect clothing, etc., engage in exotic sports activities under a perfect blue sky ... You know the kind of advertising I mean.

Now although I don't intend to portray myself to you as a 'wimpy' type, I must admit that when I was younger, even though I knew (1) that it was only advertising, not reality, and (2) that I didn't desire that kind of lifestyle anyway; repeated viewing of such images did leave me with the feeling that out there somewhere were people who really knew how to live. People who really 'had it together'. The life I was leading was substandard and boring. I was not one of the 'beautiful people' ... the 'golden boys'. I was not, and would never be.

Now, at age 43, I can easily laugh about such thoughts, but in my late teens and early 20's, I don't suppose I was laughing much. The difference of course, is that over the intervening years I have done enough interesting things, and notched enough accomplishments on my belt, that my self-image is quite secure, and I no longer feel 'substandard' in any way at all. I am the equal of any man out there. But along the way, I had a bit of actual contact with the world of those 'golden boys' ... and I think it's a good thing that I don't have a TV in my home any more, because if I saw any of those lifestyle ads now, I'd probably hurt myself laughing too much ...

I was 28 years old, living by myself, and working as branch manager of a music shop. The head office was a couple of thousand miles away, so there was a fair amount of independence and responsibility attached to the job. I did my work diligently, although I wan't really suited to it (I didn't have enough drive and creativity, but behaved too much like a caretaker ...). One day, I was chatting with one of my employees about this and that, and for some reason the subject of skydiving came up at one point in our conversation. It must have stuck in my mind somehow, for later that day, under what crazy influence I can't remember, I looked up a skydiving club in the phone book, called for information, and made a reservation to take their 'first jump' course the coming weekend. When my colleague heard about this, he decided to join me, and the following Sunday found the two of us driving out towards the farm that served as a 'drop zone', each of us I'm sure, hoping that something would come along to put a stop to this silly adventure ... a flat tire ... something ... anything!

But nothing came along, and the two of us spent the day undergoing the necessary training and preparation for the jump. And then, late that afternoon, there we were, 3,000 feet up in the air, bundled up in the gear, sitting in the open doorway of an airplane, looking rather unbelievably out at the ground so far far below.

Of course for a first-time jumper, the system is pretty foolproof. An automatic wire pulls the ripcord, the chute is huge and basically uncontrollable, the instructor chooses the location to jump ... All you have to do by yourself is get out the door. (And perhaps the instructor helped me with that too ... How else would I have got that boot-shaped bruise on my backside ...?)

It was an astonishing experience. I remember nothing at all of the jump itself. Nothing. But I will never ever forget the feeling of standing up in the muddy field with the parachute lying tangled all around me, and nearly crying with delight ... I did it! Me! I jumped out of an airplane!

The two of us were back again the next weekend. We were hooked. And for the next year or so, until I moved away from the area, we were regular visitors (more than regular ... when I left the music shop I lived on the drop zone and jumped daily for three months!) We bought chutes, joined the national skydiver's association, and started the climb up the proficiency ladder. My friend was more of a 'free spirit' than I, and his climb was much more rapid than mine, but after some months I too was diving head first out the door at 10,000 feet for a free-fall lasting nearly a minute, swooping and sliding around the sky, and then opening the wing-shaped chute and flying it home to the target spot.

It was a wonderful hobby, and it was very satisfying to feel the steady development of skills. And of course, unless you've done it yourself, I can't possible communicate to you the incredible sensations of flying around all alone up there in the wide, wide sky ...

But I'm getting away from my story. One day, one beautiful blue day, a group of visitors came to the drop zone. A group of visitors with perfect teeth, perfect hair, perfect smiles ... Can you guess what I'm going to say? Yes, a bunch of actors, and a video production crew, there to make a beer commercial. Our job, we regular club members, was to hang around in the background doing our normal things, and provide the shots of skydivers skydiving. The 'far' shots, that is. The 'close-ups' were done with the 'perfect' actors. As none of these people were actual skydivers, the shots of them coming in for a landing were done by suspending them from a harness hooked up to a crane. They were strapped in, hoisted up into the air, and then swung around on the crane arm as they were lowered to the ground. The camera of course didn't show the crane, and I suppose the finished effort was probably quite realistic, showing them coming down from the 'sky', landing lightly, and popping a "Brand X' beer ...

(I should mention that despite what that stupid commercial implied, beer and skydiving were never mixed at the drop zone. The key to the drinks cooler only came off the hook after the plane's ignition key went onto it ...)

We 'real' skydivers sat back and watched the filming process with some amazement, and of course, boundless scorn. There they were, right in front of us, the 'golden boys', objects of all that teen-age envy ... Here they were, with wide perfect smiles and wearing those perfect jump suits, dangling stupidly from that crane, while we, the 'normal' guys, went quietly about our 'normal' business, throwing ourselves out of the open door 10,000 feet up ... The experience of watching those actors, and the experience of being a skydiver in general, gave me a new perspective on things. It made me realize not that "Hey, I'm a golden boy," but that there simply is no such thing ...

Perhaps out there somewhere are people who really know how to live, people who really do 'have it together'. Perhaps. But I don't think you'll find them by following a trail of 'Brand X' empties!