A decade of Skeletonwitch: Falling in and out of love with my favorite band

I don’t remember the exact year or time, but it was probably around 2008 or 2009, when I was introduced to a thrash/death metal band called Skeletonwitch on XM radio. They had such a great sound, and I was so impressed with the music that I bought all of the band’s albums I could. Then I started seeing the band live as much as I could. I bought their t-shirts, beer mugs, posters, signed limited-edition memorabilia. I loved the music and got to know the band members. This is the story of my relationship with a group of five metalers from the Midwest–how I got into it, the multiple states (and continents) in which I saw the band, and my eventual withdrawal. This is the story of the band I have seen the most times in the most places. I call it, A Decade of the Witch.

I’ll save you the background on the band, which you can read on Skeletonwitch’s Wikipedia page, and I’ll start my story at the first time I saw the band play live. It was at a place called Jaxx in Springfield, Virginia, located in a strip mall next to a great Afghan restaurant, some time in 2009 or 2010. They had such incredible energy, and I loved the music. I was at the front of the crowd, or in the mosh pit, for the entire set. The next day, my neck hurt from headbanging so much. My body hurt from taking blows from others in the pit. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way. There was much something about the music and the energy of the show that I couldn’t help myself.

Each Skeletonwitch concert, I would find myself as close to the stage as possible or in the middle of the mosh pit, sweaty and gross, covered in other people’s sweat, beer, and sometimes blood (never my own). The five members always seemed crammed on whatever tiny stage they were playing on: vocalist Chance Garnette in center stage, bass player Evan Linger and left-handed guitarist Scott Hedrick on stage right, and guitarist and Nate Garnette, Chance’s brother, flanking the other side. Dustin Boltjes hammered the drums in the back.

Because they were both genuinely good guys (and capitalists), they always hung out at their merchandise table before and after their set. They took pictures, signed merchandise, and hung out with fans, and this was how I got to know them.

They were from Ohio, and as I graduated from Ohio State, the buckeye state was the start of our conversations. Then I learned that Chance and Nate were brothers from a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, the former being the elder of the two. Chance was vegan, and loved Chipotle, and drank quite a lot. Nate had a long-time girlfriend and was the driver of the band’s van (as well as the mechanic). Scott lived in Athens with his girlfriend and had graduated from Ohio University a few years before the band started to tour nationally. Evan was from northern Ohio, and Dustin was from Indianapolis.

Because I was so into the music and the band, I did whatever I could to ensure I could see them live, which included taking a rest and recovery period from a year-long assignment to the US Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq to see them on tour back in the States. About a month after I returned from Iraq, I drove to Pittsburgh, where my brother was attending college, to see the band again.

The next year, in 2013, I got deployed back to the Middle East with the US Navy and, as luck would have it, Skeletonwitch was touring as soon as I got back home. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t return to the DC area until after the band’s show there, so I decided I would do something I had always wanted to do: follow the band on their tour.

Three days of Skeletonwitch in the Great Plains

I decided that I would “tour” with the band for three days on three consecutive stops through Oklahoma and Missouri. When I arrived at the venue of my first of three shows in Oklahoma City, I got out of my rental car and saw Scott in the parking lot. I yelled out to him. He turned his head, looking for the voice calling his name in the dark. He looked in my direction, recognizing me as I got closer.

“Yo! Parker!” He paused. “Wait, you’re not from here, right? Aren’t you from like…the east coast?”

“Yep,” I said nodding with a grimace. “Check this out. I missed your show in the DC area, so I flew out here, so I can see you guys three days in a row.”

“No fuckin’ way! Are you serious?”

I nodded. He laughed and smiled. “Dude, gimme a hug man. That’s incredible!” He called out to Nate, who was close by. “Nate! You’re not gonna believe this!”

When the show started, I was at the front of the stage in my usual spot and stayed there for their entire show. After they finished their set, I talked with Scott and Dustin and told them more about my trip and that I would see them the next day in Springfield, Missouri. They both gave me their numbers to text and keep in touch while on the road.

The next day, I checked out of my hotel, drove to Springfield, and walked about 20 minutes to the venue. Again, I was right up front, thrashing away with Springfield’s metalheads. And I did the same thing the next day in St. Louis. By the end of the three days, all of the members voiced their appreciation of my support to the band, some still in disbelief that I flew halfway across the country to see them for three days.

By the end, I felt like I had started to develop true friendships with the band members, particularly Scott and Dustin. “Definitely text me stuff to watch and listen to,” Dustin told me. “It gets boring on the road.” Scott told me to keep in touch and let him know if I ever made it through Athens, Ohio.

Skeletonwitch plays an entire show…instrumentally?

The following year, in January 2014, Skeletonwitch was touring again, and I of course saw the band at the Fillmore in Silver Spring, Maryland. I brought my GoPro camera, attached it to my head, and ran around the mosh pit.

And again, later in 2014, Skeletonwitch toured again. I texted both Scott and Dustin letting them know that I would, of course, see them in at their show in Virginia, but also in New Orleans, the latter of which would happen with my friend Joe who lived there with his family. The Springfield show was great, as usual, and I expected more of the same for the show a few weeks later in New Orleans. When Joe and I entered the venue, I went up to the merchandise table, which was manned by a friend of the band named Josh.

“Hey, man, did they tell you about Chance?” he said to me. I had seen Chance at the band’s show in Springfield and everything seemed fine. Neither Dustin nor Scott had said anything to me about it, so I shook my head. “He’s not here,” Josh said.

“Why not?”

Josh said he couldn’t provide details, only indicating that there had been an issue because of Chance’s drinking and that the band was going to play the show without him. My eyes grew wide and I looked a Joe. “Dude, Chance isn’t here. What are they going to do?”

By the start time of the show, of which Skeletonwitch was the opening act, the four members of the band, without Chance, walked onto the stage and started playing, and ripped through their entire set instrumentally. It didn’t matter to the crowd. They (and we) were just as into it as any other show I had seen. When I talked with the Scott and Dustin afterwards, they wouldn’t say much about it, other than that Chance had some things to deal with.

A few days later, the band released a statement to the music media indicating that Chance had some “serious personal matters to attend to,” but he had actually been kicked out of the band for “battery on a family/household member,” according to court filings. The band decided to continue on the tour, which surprised (and amazed) the other bands on the tour, more of which you can read in an interview article in Pitchfork.

Chance had been fired, and as the frontman of a metal band, that meant a lot. The frontman’s (or frontwoman’s) stage presence drives the energy of a crowd. The frontman is almost always in the center for any of a band’s photography and marketing materials. The frontman is a huge part of the band’s culture, as he is usually the one who writes the lyrics, and that can have an outcome on how a song is crafted. I didn’t know what would come of it, but all of us in the metal community hoped the band would go on, find a new vocalist, and keep making music.

About a month later, after the tour was over and the band members had returned home, I took up Scott on his offer to hang out in Athens. I told him that I would be coming his way on Thanksgiving weekend as Joe and I we were attending the Ohio State-Michigan football game in Columbus. We had been every year together since 2004; it was our annual pilgrimage.

Instead of going the most direct and fastest route via the highways, I told Scott that we were taking the scenic route through West Virginia and up the southeast side of Ohio, coming through Athens on our way to Columbus. “We’re gonna do the same route home on Sunday, so if you’re around, maybe we could meet up,” I texted Scott.

“Yeah, man. Sounds awesome. Let’s do it.”

The day after The Game (another Buckeye victory), Joe and I drove down from Columbus to Athens and pulled up to Scott’s house. I knocked on the door and Scott answered, welcoming us into his home and introducing us to his girlfirend. He offered us some beers, showed us around, and brought us into his recording space. It was a small room, no bigger than 50 square feet.

“Hey, you brought your guitar with you, right?” Scott asked me.

I nodded and smiled. “Go grab it and we can jam for a bit.”

Before we left for the trip, Scott asked if I wanted to bring my guitar, so we could jam and he could show me some Skeletonwitch guitar riffs. Excitedly, I ran out to the car, grabbed the case out of my trunk, and brought it inside. A minute later, there we were, three of us–Scott, Joe, and me–playing Skeletonwitch music together, with the guy who wrote the music. It sounds cliche, but it was a dream come true. Scott was (and is) and incredible musician, and learning the tricks and nuances of the music he wrote (stuff that I had been trying to figure out for years) was an honor.

After we played a few songs, Scott invited us to his Sunday tradition, Mexican food at a local joint in Athens with a bunch of his friends. Joe and I agreed, walked to the restaurant, and we all pigged out on tacos and enchiladas before Joe and I hit the road to head home. It was a great Sunday afternoon: metal, tacos, and friends.

I go international to see Skeletonwitch

A few months later in early 2015, I texted Scott and said that I was going to do something crazier than the time I followed the band for three days through the Great Plains. “I’m going to come see you guys in Berlin.”

“What?!?! Seriously?” he wrote back.

A friend of mine was getting married in Poland, as his wife was a first-generation Polish-American. As the groom explained it to me, “everything costs less in Poland so you can get 10 times as much for one third of the cost.” As luck would have it, Skeletonwitch was touring Europe and would be in Berlin the Thursday night before the wedding, so I worked out my travel plans to see the band in Germany, adding another country to the list of places I had seen them play. After my flight from DC landed in Copenhagen, Denmark, I took a train to Berlin, where I saw the band at a small club.

While I intended on purchasing a ticket, Scott insisted that he had my name to their comp list, so I obliged. When I entered the club, the bouncer checked my name off the list and let me in, and I took my place in the front of the stage, just as I always did. Europeans love themselves some metal, so it turned out to be an exciting and fun atmosphere. This time the band did have a vocalist, a guy named Andy Horn from the death metal band Cannabis Corpse. He couldn’t replace Chance, but he did a fine job.

After the show, Scott convinced the club staff to let me backstage, saying that I was going to help them load their gear into their van. They let me backstage, but instead of packing gear, Scott took me to a green room where the band members where drinking and eating. It was a fun experience to be back there with them, something I had never done before, even if it was a small metal club with some mid-level death metal bands (they were touring with a band called Goatwhore). But I did really enjoy their music and their company and was grateful for the experience. I called it a night around 1 o’clock, when said goodbye to the band and walked back to my hotel before rising incredibly early to catch a train to the most epic wedding I had ever attended, and almost getting stuck in Europe because I didn’t know a specific rule about air travel.

I kept in random contact with Scott and Dustin throughout the rest of 2015 and saw the band in March during the first stop of their 2016 tour. The band had a new full-time-member-of-the-band vocalist, Adam Clemens, and although they hadn’t released any new music yet, I was excited to see him perform. The show was great, as they played lots of my old favorites, and I was excited to see what they could do going forward.

Making my pitch in Brooklyn

The band released a four-song EP in the summer and toured again later in the year to generate support for the release and the new vocalist. When I looked at the tour schedule, I immediately noticed that I had a problem. The tour date in Baltimore was a Saturday night, the same day I would be in New York City for an all-day work event. As luck would have it, the band had a show in Brooklyn on Friday night, so I booked my train early enough on Friday to get to New York and see the show there. Another show…another state.

It was really important that I saw the band because, in the preceding month, I had put together a proposal, something I wanted to run by Scott and the band when I saw them. I had always wanted to write a book and recognized the chasm between metalheads and “regular” people who think people who wear black and listen to metal are weird, different, or [insert judgmental adjective]. As a writer, I thought I could tell the band’s story and put it in terms the non-metal world could understand and even relate to. These were a group of guys who had to make the same decisions as everyone else. You picked a company to work for. They picked a record label. You have to travel for work. They have to tour. You have to save money for the future. They have to do the same. You have to consider your family. They have to consider their families. And so on…

I felt like I could make that connection between the two sides and write a heavy metal book with a personal, humanizing side that non-metalheads would be able to understand and might just be interested in.

On Friday night, October 28th, I took the Subway under the East River, walked across the Pulaski Bridge, and found my way to the Saint Vitus Bar, a famed establishment in the NY metal community (and beyond), one I had never been up until this point.

When Skeletonwitch took the stage, I had my first experience with the band’s new music. Unfortunately, I didn’t care for it very much…it was different than their previous stuff. It was darker, more melodic, and less thrashy. I wondered how much of the change was from the new vocalist or if it was just the band trying something new. Either way, I just wasn’t into the vocal style…it just didn’t seem to fit the music, as he was more of a black metal vocalist than a death metal vocalist (you can read more about the difference here).

Nevertheless, I was determined to make my book pitch, so after the show ended, I talked with the guys for a bit and joined them outside by their van. I pulled Scott aside and told him about my idea. He seemed interested, so I reached in my pocket and handed him a sheet of paper with the proposal on it. “Oh, shit, man. You’ve got this written out already.”

I nodded and asked him to read it over, consider it, and let me know what he thought. I reinforced that I would be willing to follow the band at my own cost to do the project, so it would come at no cost to the band. He said he’d consider it and that we’d be in touch.

As it was late, and I had a big day the next day, we said goodbye and parted ways. As the months passed, I never heard anything from Scott. I reached out a few times, but would rarely hear back.

New vocals, new sound

In 2017, the band went back home, rested, wrote new music, and recorded a new album, which came out in 2018. While I was disappointed that Scott (and/or the band) wasn’t interested in my proposal, I was excited and still wanted to support the band, so I bought it the album the day it was released. Again, just like the EP, the music just didn’t do it for me. It wasn’t my style…it wasn’t Skeletonwitch, at least as I knew them. It sounded different…seemed different. For the first time in about 10 years, I didn’t want to listen to the band’s new music.

Despite my lack of interest, the new album, Devouring Radiant Light, was praised by a lot of the metal music industry for evolving into something more than thrash metal. But I didn’t care for it, and Dustin might not have been into it either, as he left the bandshortly before the new album was released. “It was time for me to slow down,” he texted me when I asked him about his departure. “But things are good.” (Dustin is now married, an Indianapolis DJ, and the frontman of an emerging band called Sacred Leather.)

From the Skeletonwitch I originally knew, it was now 40% different. But it wasn’t just the members who were different, Scott had changed, too. Around this time, he broke up with his girlfriend, left Athens, Ohio, and moved to Brooklyn before settling in Los Angeles. He stopped smoking and became a marathon runner, a chronicle of his own that you can read about in Decibel Magazine.

In the interview, Scott said, “I had this major life change and moved out into my own place and started doing my own thing. I found confidence and started writing so much more music. My creative side and running became weirdly linked. I would go for these runs and listen to what I was writing, which was the majority of [the new album].” I was truly happy for Scott, as it was clear he was growing personally and professionally.

And that was the new Skeletonwitch. A black metal vocalist takes over for the alcoholic, abusive original, whose brother was still in the band (and I can only imagine that plagued him to some degree). The drummer quit for a more steady life. The former chain-cigarette-smoking, marijuana-toking left-handed shredder became a creative long-distance runner.

The band changed, but I didn’t want them to. I wanted fast speed and thrash metal with death metal lyrics that would make you laugh if you tried to take them seriously. I didn’t want lyrics with meaning and new chord progressions. But, as they say, doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. For the band to keep attracting new fans and grow personally and professionally, they had to evolve, and I respected them for doing so.

When the band toured in 2019, for the first time I decided not to see them live and am not sure if I will again. And that’s okay.

In the end

I obviously never ended up writing a book on Skeletonwitch, although I wrote and published a book of my own stories, and much of the Skeletonwitch story ended up being chronicled in the Pitchfork article anyway. So this post is a version story I wanted to tell, albeit much shorter and much less than I wanted it to be.

Going forward, I probably won’t listen to the band’s new music and I probably won’t see them in concert again. That said, I’m sure I’ll always listen to the old Skeletonwitch and play along on my guitars and drums as best I can, and I’ll snuggle on my couch with my wife and daughter underneath the my quilted blanket comprising 16 Skeletonwitch t-shirts that my wife got for me as a present.

To the current and former members of Skeletonwitch, I wish you all the best in the world. Thank you for a great 10 years of music and fun, including at least 15 shows in six states and two countries (and two continents, for that matter.) I’ll never forget those incredible times I “worshiped the ‘Witch.”

Watching Hunters on Amazon reminded me of my visit to Auschwitz

The train tracks just ended. They entered the plaza underneath a brick archway and then just stopped. I had never seen train tracks just end before, as every time I had ridden a train, usually with my grandfather, they always continued on somewhere else.

Not these.

And they didn’t need to go anywhere. Their purpose was not commerce, leisure, or adventure. It was death. I was standing on the platform on which hundreds of thousands of Jews stepped on their way to the gas chambers at the Nazi’s Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.

It was the summer of 2000, and I was on a six-week trip to Europe and Israel with about 40 other kids my age, most of whom I knew, as many of us had attended the same Jewish sleep-away camp each summer, Camp Joseph and Betty Harlam, in northern Pennsylvania.

I don’t have any pictures of my time visiting the concentration camp. I found pictures of the Czech Republic (our preceding stop) and Hungary (our subsequent stop), but none from Polish town about an hour west of Krakow. It was the same place where, according to my Polish great-grandmother, many of my ancestors were herded into gas chambers where they inhaled Zyklon-B poison gas, died, and then their flesh and bones were turned to ash in a crematorium.

Because I don’t have pictures, I struggle to remember all of what we did, but I do remember a few things I’ll never forget.

I’ll never forget walking underneath the sign to the entrance of the camp that said “Arbeit macht frei.” Work makes you free. To the Nazis, freedom for Jews was death, and in many cases, the Jews worked until they died.

I’ll never forget walking through the brick buildings, now turned into museums, containing piles of hair, clothing, luggage, eyeglasses, gold teeth, trinkets, and money that was taken from their rightful owners. Each pile, behind glass, was several feet high and several feet wide.

I’ll never forget the iron trays of the crematorium, which to that day still contained the ash of the bodies it burned.

I’ll never forget listening to a survivor of Auschwitz stand with us and describe what it was like to be back in the same place where he lived under Nazi rule just 55 years before.

I’ll never forget walking along the train tracks, underneath the brick guard tower at Birkenau, and standing on that platform where so many Jews would be murdered minutes after their arrival.

I’ll never forget participating in a Jewish service, led by a rabbi, and saying prayers on the very same train platform that the Nazis used to try to vanquish the very act we were doing. And I’ll never forget that the sun started to peek through the clouds as we were doing it.

I’ll never forget standing on top of a mass grave, sunken somewhat as the flesh of the dead had rotted away, and finding small bones, mostly the small bones of fingers, hands, toes, and feet that had risen to the surface. “Take one with you,” our guide told us, “so we can bury them in Israel where they belong.” I took one, put it in my travel pouch, and buried it under a tree in Israel a few weeks later.

Unfortunately, that’s all I’ll remember. But as I said, I’ll never forget.

Recently, my wife and I started watching The Hunters on Amazon. I had no idea what it was about, though several of our friends had recommended it without giving away the plot. By the end of the second episode, we had watched reenacted scenes from the Holocaust, including many of the horrifying yet true examples of how the Nazis tortured Jews.

My wife was shaken.

“This is really messed up,” she said. She had seen Schindler’s List, she noted, yet this was especially moving.

I wasn’t as affected as she was. “When you grow up Jewish,” I told her, “you’re taught about this at an early age and it is something that stays with you.” I described how many of my ancestors, who didn’t leave for America in the 1920s as my great-grandmother had done, died in the Holocaust. I told her about my visit to Auschwitz, including everything I mentioned above.

Many scenes in the show are disturbing, of course, but I had seen worse. I had seen it first hand, and while I don’t have any pictures from that time, I’ll never forget.

No one should ever forget.

I almost got stuck in Europe because I didn’t know this rule about air travel

Almost five years ago to the day, in early 2015, I attended a wedding in Poland. My friend, the groom, was marrying a first-generation Polish-American and they thought it would be incredible to have a wedding in Poland, so all of the bride’s family could attend, as they were older and had less money and ability to travel than the groom’s American friends and family. So, they made the decision to have the wedding in Luszyn, Poland. It was about 90 minutes west of Warsaw.

A small town, in the middle of nowhere.

Nevertheless, I agreed to go and used all of my United Mileage Plus miles to book a round trip flight from Dulles International Airport to Warsaw, laying over in Copenhagen on the way there and Frankfurt on the way back.

Except, I wouldn’t make the layover to Warsaw, and that decision was by choice.

I had decided that, instead of making the connection in Copenhagen, that I would take a train from the Danish capital to Berlin so I could see my favorite thrash/death metal band Skeletonwitch who were in the middle of a European tour. I’d been to metal shows in Europe before and they were awesome, so I decided that this would be just as great.

When my plane landed in Copenhagen, I saw that I had already missed my connecting flight to Warsaw, so I thought it fit into my plan to take a train to Berlin.

Me on a ferry that connected two of the different train tracks between Copenhagen and Berlin.

I hopped on and found myself in the German capital about seven hours later. After visiting the Olympic Stadium and witnessing a crushing thunderstorm come through the city, I left my hotel, only a few blocks from the club where the band would be playing, grabbed some food and saw the show.

The next morning, very early, I made my way via the Berlin subway system to the main train station and took a train east into Poland.

About four hours later I got to my stop, a town called Kutno, the last stop before the train service ended in Warsaw. Kutno, as I was told by the wedding party, was closest to Luszyn.

And there, just as the groom said, was a car with big black letters that read “PARKER.”

I walked up to the car and saw two men standing next to each other. “Hello!” I said loudly. They acknowledged me and continued talking in Polish to each other. One of them had an Iron Maiden t-shirt on. I pointed, and said, “Yeah, Iron Maiden. Great t-shirt.”

The burlier of the two men looked at me, “No! I take you to Luszyn!”

“Okay,” I said smiling. “You take me to Luszyn.”

I hopped in the car, having no idea where we were going or where Luszyn really was, but about 45 minutes we arrived at a large mansion and I saw a few familiar faces out front. I paid the driver probably way too much, and got out of the car.

The front of the mansion in Luszyn

Then began the most epic three-day bender of a wedding weekend I had and would never known. But this post is not about the wedding, its what happening trying to get home. Sunday, the day after the wedding and party, we took a bus to Warsaw and many of us checked into a hotel downtown. I crashed early and woke up around 5:30 a.m. to catch my flight to Frankfurt which departed at 7:45 a.m.

When I arrived at the airport, I got out of the taxi, grabbed my bags, and went to check-in at a self-service kiosk. When I scanned my passport, I received an error message.

“No itinerary found”

What? How did I not have an itinerary? I walked over to the main line and waited for one of the attendants behind the desk. When it was my turn, I approached and explained my situation.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t seen an itinerary for you,” the attendant told me in her Polish accent. “Because you booked through United, you’ll have to call them.”

“May I use your phone?”

“I’m sorry, our phones do not dial internationally.”

What? Was she serious? This was an international airport in Europe. How did the phones not dial internationally?

“You can go to the airport hotel and maybe they can help you.”

I grabbed my bag and walked out of the airport terminal, turning right toward the hotel, at which point I saw the groom’s parents.

“Hey, Parker! Where are you going? Planes are this way!” the groom’s father joked.

“Yeah, I tried. Apparently I don’t have an itinerary.” His facial response showed both disbelief and concern. “Maybe I’ll see you in there.”

When I arrived at the hotel lobby, I told the woman at the front desk about my situation and she graciously gave me a phone card to dial the US number for United Airlines. When I called, the phone card credits started running down quickly, so I knew I had to speak fast.

“Thank you for calling United.” I heard the female voice say. “Please call back in an hour as our computer system is offline for routine maintenance.”

“Please I need help!” I spurted out. “My reservation has been cancelled.”

“I’m sorry, sir, please call us back after an hour…”

The phone call cut off. I was out of minutes. At this point, I had a choice: I could freak out or I could be calm and wait the hour and see what could be done. My normal mode of operation would be to freak out, but I had just had an incredible weekend, and didn’t want to ruin the high, so I remained calm, sat in the lobby, and journaled about the weekend. When the hour was up, I approached the front desk again and told the woman what happened.

Feeling bad for me, she handed me her desk phone and told me how to call the United States. It was incredibly gracious of her, a gesture I’ll never forget.

By the time I called United, my flight to Frankfurt had already departed. A woman answered the phone and I explained my situation. I had my confirmation number and a copy of my itinerary with me, so I didn’t know why I had a problem.

“Sir, your reservation was cancelled because you did not complete your itinerary.”

“What does that mean?”

“You did not check-in and board your flight from Copenhagen to Warsaw. If you read the terms and conditions of your itinerary, you will see that you are required to complete the itinerary as listed or it will be cancelled.”

I had no idea that was the case, but I remembered that I missed the original flight to Warsaw anyway.

“Well, I was planning on completing my itinerary, but my flight getting into Copenhagen was late, so I missed the connection.”

“Yes, sir, and we rescheduled you for another flight.”

“Yes, I recall that, however, I had to get to Berlin, Germany by a certain time, and the new flight time would not have gotten me there by my deadline, so I took a train instead.” I was lying my ass off, but I needed to come up with some excuse for why I broke the policy.

“I see, sir,” she responded. “In the future, please let us know if that is the case, so we can update the itinerary. I’ve gone ahead and reinstated the rest of your itinerary, and have booked you on the next flight to Frankfurt because you have already missed your originally scheduled flight.”

“Thank you so much,” I said, taking a cleansing and relaxing breath, knowing I would get home.

When I went back to the airport, my itinerary was listed and I checked in for my flight to Frankfurt. When I arrived in Germany, I found that my flight to the United States was already boarding so I had to make a run for it. The problem is that Frankfurt’s airport is HUGE. I had transited through a number of times and knew it was going to be close. I ran, and ran, and ran, and eventually got to my gate. I must have run at least a mile.

Huffing and puffing, as I approached the gate, the attendant smiled. “You’re fine. You have plenty of time,” she told me.

I handed her my ticket, boarded the plane, and took the eight hour flight home. At least it all worked out. It was a far closer call than I would have liked…

The reason it was so important for me to get home was because I was teaching my volunteer music classes at the Sitar Arts Center that evening at 6 p.m. EDT. My flight from Frankfurt was scheduled to land at 3:55 p.m. If I did everything right and had a quick customs trip, I could make it to the Adams Morgan neighborhood of DC in just enough time.

After I got off the plane, I hopped on a bus that dropped me at the Rosslyn Metro station. From there, I took an Uber to DC and walked into the arts center at 5:56 p.m.

Most of the students in my class were already in the classroom waiting for me.

“Do you know where I woke up today?” I asked the students.

They shook their heads.


A blurry picture of the plane and train tickets I used on my advance.

Fox News commentator Marie Harf still owes me $40…and has since 2008

The following is a true story. The quotes I include maybe not be exact, but they are close enough to what I remember happening…

In July 2007, I started working at the CIA as a military analyst on Middle East issues (as the CIA’s review board allows me to say). I worked on the sixth floor of the New Headquarters Building, as I was lucky enough to get a seat along a window, something usually reserved for veteran analysts as this was prime real estate in the cube farm we called home during the work week.

My office had a lot of analysts in it, and so did the one next to ours, and the one down the hall, and the one across the hall, and the one in the other corridor. Our floor comprised myriad analysts covering issues all over the world.

One of those analysts was Marie Harf, who was then a fellow analyst and is now a mid-level Fox News contributor. I met Marie through my normal duties, attending joint meetings or briefings, and through regular intra-office interactions between analysts our age. A lot of us were younger, in our mid-20s, as we were part of the post 9/11 hiring surge.

As Marie and I became friends, at least that’s how I saw it, she said that she was going overseas for a 45-day trip to a country in the Middle East. I was only a few months on the job when she told me the news, so I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to take a trip of my own. Still, I thought it was great that she got to go and asked her to get me something.

“If I gave you money, would you buy me a traditional kafia?” I asked, referring to the traditional Arab headscarf. She agreed and I handed her 40 dollars in cash. To be clear, I gave her two, 20-dollar bills. The ones with Andrew Jackson on them.

When she returned, I sent her a message welcoming her home and inquiring about my kafia. She said she had it and that she would bring it in for me.

This is where things start to get a little strange.

After a month or so, I hadn’t heard from her, so I reached out again and asked if she had brought in my trinket.

Again, I got the response that she would bring it in soon. Okay, I thought. No problem.

Then it was another few months, and I still didn’t have my kafia. I inquired again.

“I have it by the door to my apartment,” she told me. “I’ll bring it in, okay?”

Then it was a few more months. No kafia. I reached out again.

“Parker, I’m really busy, okay? I’m sorry that it’s not the first thing on my mind when I get home.”

I responded: “Well, I just thought that one of these days you might have written yourself a note to remind yourself, and considering it’s by your door, you might just remember to bring it in.” I received no response.

So I basically gave up at this point. I wasn’t going to get what she said she got, if she even got it at all.

In 2009 or 2010, about a year (or maybe two) after this, I reached out to Marie and asked if she would be interested in two tickets I had to an Ohio State football game in Columbus. I had some extras that I wasn’t going to use and I knew Marie was from a suburb of the Ohio capital and grew up an Ohio State fan, although she went to Indiana University for her undergraduate degree.

“Yeah, maybe,” she responded. “I’ll let you know.”

“Okay, sounds good,” I wrote back. “And maybe you could include that $40 you still owe me.”

She laughed (at least she typed that she did) and said that, yeah, maybe she would consider it. I never heard anything more and never again reached out.

In 2012, around the time I went to Iraq for a year, Marie became a CIA spokesperson and eventually moved into the State Department’s press office, and according to Wikipedia, has been a Fox News commentator since January 2017.

I presume I won’t ever come in contact with Marie again, but Marie, if you happen to see this, please know that I’d like my $40 back or a kafia from a Middle Eastern country (though I have many of them already).

I’ll take either option. The choice is yours!

I feel strange about the Thunderbirds flyover

Along with thousands of others, I witnessed today’s flyover of the Air Force Thunderbirds and (I presume) the Navy’s Blue Angels. I didn’t leave my apartment; I could see it just fine from the view from my sunroom that overlooks Fort Myer.

As the planes approached from the northeast and turned to the north along the Potomac river, I thought two things:

  1. I remember back in 2005 when I flew in an F-16 (the same plane that is used for the Thunderbirds).
  2. It’s kind of strange that we used a military marketing troupe as the sign of gratitude to health workers.

And I kept thinking about the second thought. These planes are generally used at air shows as recruiting tools to woo young Americans into thinking about joining the military, and of course they are also used for flyovers at sporting events, which also serve as recruiting tools.

So why was it that they were now being used as a tool to thank the health care industry?

In the United States, unless you live under a rock, you of course realize that our military is the pride and joy of the country. It’s the one thing you’re not supposed to boo. Even if you don’t like the wars, you still support the troops. Red, white, and blue. It’s something everyone can rally around.

And I suppose that’s why the flyovers are taking place, using them as a “rally ’round the flag” type of thing. A “we’re all in this together” type of thing.

But then I thought further. How many of these air escapades were we doing? I remember back in 2005 in South Carolina a conversation I had with the operations chief for the 77th fighter squadron.

“Parker, if you lose consciousness in the plane, we’ve got to do a full mission abort and all the planes have to return home,” he said. “These planes cost $16,000 per hour to fly. Remember that.”

$16,000 an hour of flight time for an F-16. I saw 12 planes in the sky today, and presuming they were in the air for an hour, it cost about $200,000. Every time they do another one, it costs that much more…and on and on.

So then I think to myself: what’s the purpose of all of this?

If the government wanted to thank health care workers, wouldn’t it be best to have governors, senators, representatives, other elected officials, famous people, and really anyone who has influence stand outside of a hospital with a big sign that says “thank you!”? Then the media can cover it, people can watch on social media, etc.

Why do we think we should use weapons of war as a sign of gratitude to those who protect life?

Like I said, it just seemed strange…

When I was 14, my parents asked if I was gay. This is the story of what happened.

I was brought up in a Jewish household, and my grandmother was the youth director for the regional reform Jewish youth group. If it wasn’t explicitly stated that I would participate in the regional youth group when I became of age, which was 8th grade, I felt compelled. Besides, my grandmother was a youth director…that was pretty cool in and of itself. My grandmother could hold it down with a few hundred teenagers…and everybody respected her.

I’ll never forget my first regional event. It was in Raleigh, North Carolina, which meant I got to ride a chartered bus for five hours and watch movies on the little TVs on the bus and meet different people. When we arrived at the synagogue in Raleigh, I hopped off the bus and went up to as many people as I could, saying to each: “Hey, do you know Harriet? She’s my grandma.” Everybody loved her and it gave me an in to meet people.

As I met more people, I made more friends, but keeping in touch between events was difficult, as this was 1998 and 1999 and we had no email and no mobile phones. To maintain contact, we sent letters and cards to one another and, sometimes if I had a few dollars, I would make a long distance phone call and pay my parents for the bill I racked up.

This picture was taken at a youth group event. I must have been at least 15, probably 16, as my hair is short (I cut it shortly after my 15th birthday).

Jeremy was one of the friends I met, and he and I would be come quite close during these events. We hung around each other, put our arms around each other as we walked from place to place, and sat next to each other in the different activities. He was a genuinely nice guy with a beaming smile, so big in fact that his eyes seemed like they squinted shut when he laughed or smile wide enough. Jeremy was a good looking guy, so girls were definitely into him. But was he into them? I didn’t know, and I wasn’t sure because one time Jeremy kissed me on my cheek. Was Jeremy gay? Bisexual? I didn’t know, and I didn’t ask. It didn’t matter. I enjoyed his company. And whenever I got back from an event I told my parents about what happened, talking about how I had a lot of fun with a boy named Jeremy. (And yes, my grandmother loved him).

Another friend I met was a guy named Kevin, who was from North Carolina. He and I kept in touch on the phone and would talk every few weeks. Kevin was a smart guy and far more mature than me, even though he was less than a year older. One night, as we were talking, Kevin recommended a book to me called Chaos, Gaia, Eros. He said it was a book about philosophy. I didn’t really know what philosophy was, but it sounded interesting enough (or at least something I wanted to be interested in so I could be philosophical like Kevin). So later that night, I went downstairs and talked to my dad.

The thing was, my dad told me that he would buy me any book I wanted, as he wanted me to read more. So I tried to capitalize on this and mentioned Kevin’s recommendation.

“How did you hear about this book?” he asked.

“My friend Kevin told me about it.”

“What’s it about?” he questioned further.

“I don’t know really. Kevin said it’s about philosophy.”

“Is it about gay philosophy?”

Kevin had previously told me that he was gay…and bisexual…and straight. “I find it easier to tell different people different things,” he said to me one night. Like with Jeremy, we were all just trying to figure out who we were, and I suppose Kevin was no different. So when my parents asked, at one point, whom I was talking to, I told them about Kevin and must have mentioned that Kevin was gay.

In this moment, all I knew was that I had a friend who recommended a book, and I suggested it to my dad hoping he would buy it for me so I could talk about it with the friend.

My dad never bought it for me, and I never got a copy of my own.

I don’t know how long it was after this conversation about the book, but I’ll never forget the night that I reference in the title.

My mom called me into the kitchen and asked me to sit down at our kitchen table. I was on the long end, in the middle, and my parents flanked me, my mom to my left and my dad to my right.

My dad broke the silence. “Parker, we need to know.”

“Need to know what?” I asked.

“We need to know,” he repeated himself. “Are you gay?”

This will forever be a flashbulb moment in my life. It’s something I’ll never forget. And I’ll never forget the feelings, emotions, and thoughts that ran through my brain in the instants that followed this question.

Was I gay? I didn’t know. Was I bisexual? I didn’t know. I had thought about it, but I was 14, and I didn’t know much of anything. I did know, however, that my both my grandma and mom had either walked in on me or seen me kissing girls, so I thought that should have been a dead giveaway.

The thing you have to remember is that I grew up in a conservative house, and that was why they phrased it in the way they did: “We need to know.” Did they need to know my sexuality? Did it matter? It must have to them, or it wouldn’t have mattered.

“No,” I responded affirmatively, yet while looking down at the table.

“Parker, we need to know,” they both said, pressing further. It would be years before I would take my first polygraph exam, but this was my first experience with an interrogation.

I continued denying it until they let me go back to my room for the rest of the night. As I grew into my later high school years, I dated a few girls and had some relationships after college, marrying my wonderful bride in 2017. By then, I hope the question was answered for my parents.

For years they actually denied that the situation occurred, insinuating that I was making it up. “Parker, we did not do that,” my mother would say emphatically, laughing it off as if it was a joke. But it wasn’t a joke. It actually happened, and it’s one of the situations I think about today when I see the LGBT community fighting for equal rights. As I have written before, I don’t care if you’re black, white, green, blue, or orange, or if you are tall, short, male, female, non-binary, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, transgender, or anything in between. I only expect that you make the world a better place by contributing to the betterment of society.

My daughter gets to be whoever she wants to be. And I’ll support her no matter what. If she wants to talk about her sexuality with me and her mother, we’ll listen and provide whatever unconditional love and support she needs. After all, that is the most important thing a parent can do.

And, no I never did end up reading Chaos, Gaia, Eros...

20 years after WWII, Hogan’s Heroes made fun of Nazis. 20 years after 9/11, we don’t have a sitcom about terrorism. Here are five reasons why.

One of my dad’s favorite shows growing us as a kid was Hogan’s Heroes, which portrayed a group of Allied airmen held prisoner in a Nazi prisoner of war camp. But they weren’t there because they couldn’t escape, they were there to cause havoc on the Nazis by sneaking out of the camp and blowing up bridges, maintaining spy/underground networks, smuggling other prisoners and goods, all under the nose of the buffoonish Stalag 13 Kommandant Colonel Klink. With his portly, sheepish sergeant-of-the-guard Sergeant Schultz at his side, each episode made the Nazis look more imbecilic than the next.

An interesting fact about the show, that not many people know, is that Corporal Louie LeBeau, the French character in the show played by Robert Clary, was actually a French Jew and was sent to a real Nazi concentration camp during the war, spending much of his time in Buchenwald.

Imagine that…

A Holocaust survivor (who is still living at 94 years old as I have written this), with the Nazi identification number A5714 tattooed on his arm acting as a Nazi prisoner of war in a show that was made a mere 20 years after the war ended and he was liberated from the real camp in which he was so harshly oppressed.

The Nazi regime brought the world to its knees. Some estimates suggest 85 million people died across the world. Nazism was a horrible scourge and the damage it did was only so widespread because of the invention and implementation of mechanized warfare.

So that got me thinking. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. As a result of those attacks, I, as a member of the 9/11 generation, spend almost two years in the Middle East and South Asia, as a member of the CIA, State Department, and US Navy. If the tragedy of September 2001 never happened, I never would have gone overseas in those capacities to support the wars and military operations that only existed because of the attacks.

America launched the War on Terror and invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in November 2001 and March 2003, respectively. Since then, at least 480,000 people have died, according to researchers at Brown University. While relatively few people have died in the War on Terror compared to World War II, I ask the question that I pose in the title: will there be a show satirizing the conflict?

I think there are five reasons why it won’t happen.

The first consideration here is that the current conflicts are not over. While the number of US troops in Iraq remains few and far between, America still has somewhere around 14,000 troops in Afghanistan. World War II had a definitive end and used the Marshall Plan to rebuild a European continent in crumbles over the next decade. When Hogan’s Heroes was released, America had already fought and finished with the Korean War and was well on its way to the Vietnam War. Therefore, you might say, “Well, we couldn’t fathom doing a similar show while the war is still going on. It wouldn’t be right.”

That could be true, but consider the movie Guadalcanal Diary, which was released in the United States on November 5th, 1943, a mere nine months after the actual battle ended. The war was still raging in the Pacific against the Japanese imperial military, and the film industry was busy making movies about it. We’ve done it before, so why would we not do it again?

The second consideration is that the 9/11 acts of terrorism were committed by Middle Eastern Muslims, not light-skinned faux-Christians like the Germans of the 1930s and 1940s. To create a show that makes Middle Easterners and/or Muslims look like buffoons and incompetent dolts would almost certainly be deemed as racist and xenophobic, regardless of the fact that the show was satirizing terrorists whose plans to attack America were continually thwarted.

The third consideration regards the lack of “victory” in the wars. Did the United States “win” the war in Iraq? Both Operation Iraqi Freedom and the subsequent Operation New Dawn, in which primary responsibility for the security of Iraq was handed to Iraqi Security Forces, were completed and all US troops withdrew from the country in December 2011, and it only did so because the status of forces agreement that permitted US troops to remain in the country expired. But did the US “win?” Sure, US forces won many battles…

In Afghanistan, I think even the most patriotic American is hard-pressed to say that the United States military has been “victorious” in the South Asian nation. It doesn’t have as many troops today as it did when I was there in 2008, but a reduction in troops hardly means victory. The Taliban still fights, Kabul still endures car and suicide bombs, and the opium export continues.

A fourth consideration is the fact that 9/11 was committed on US soil, in multiple states, and is visceral because of so many Americans involvement in it. All of the direct combat actions undertaken by the United States happened on foreign soil, across vast oceans. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred when Hawaii was not yet a state, albeit it joined the Union 18 years later in 1959, and even that is a five hour flight from the US mainland.

The fifth and final reason is that terrorism remains a constant threat, one that perhaps has dissipated in recent years, but still remains. Nazism also has remained a threat, most recently seen en masse in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, but its threat to overrun the world and enslave and entire cultures has subsided.

With those fivereasons combined, I don’t think we will see (at least for a long time) a silly weeknight sitcom poking comedic jabs at kafia-wearing Muslims hellbent on the destruction of America. And that’s probably a good thing…

The stay-at-home order reminds me a lot of when I was in Afghanistan. We got through it then, and we’ll get through it now.

The novel coronavirus has decimated our daily lives and almost every state is under a lock-down order for citizens to stay at home. As an extreme extrovert, I find energy and enjoyment through interactions with people, so I knew limited my outside contact would be difficult, but after a few weeks, I’ve gotten in to a rhythm and have found that this stay-at-home order has many similarities to my time in Afghanistan in 2008.

Back then, I was posted to Bagram Air Base, northeast of the capital Kabul. Life was restricted. I never left the base, and rarely left the small camp in which I slept, worked, and relaxed in a variety of Conex containers converted into our bunks and office space. I exercised in a near by gym adjacent to our camp, and the only time I did leave was to get something to eat.

I started work early in the morning and continued throughout the day, taking meal breaks, and an afternoon respite to exercise and shower. In the evenings, I watched television or a movie or read a book. Life was quite simple. I worked, ate, exercised, slept, and relaxed (a little) for the 65 days I was there. In Afghanistan, I kept in touch with family and friends via a communal laptop. We didn’t have Wi-Fi back then, and iPads, tablets, etc., didn’t exist. There was no Skype or FaceTime, but I emailed and made plenty of phone calls.

Almost 12 years later, I find myself doing the almost the same thing.

My family lives in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in Arlington, Virginia. My wife and I sleep in our bedroom and relax in our living room. I work from home, posted up at a small desk in our sunroom. I eat in our dining room and participate in livestreamed yoga classes on my living room floor. The only time we leave is to take our daughter for a walk or to go to the grocery store.

I start work early, taking breaks throughout the day to eat my meals, play with my daughter, and exercise. I generally work later than I normally would have because I don’t have to commute and don’t have much else better to do. At night, we might watch a documentary or play a board game or video chat with friends and family. I’ve grown accustomed to this new life, just as I did in Afghanistan, which admittedly is difficult for me because I’m an extrovert who thrives on interactions with people.

It sucks, but yes, I know it doesn’t suck as much as other peoples’ situations. I don’t have the virus and I haven’t lost my job. I understand people have it a lot worse than I do. This is just my situation and how I am reminded of how I have done something similar in the past.

I got into a rhythm back then, just like I have done now. I got through it then. We all got through it back then. And we’ll get through this now. It’s just going to take more time.

Until this is all over, remember that this situation sucks for everyone and it probably sucks a lot worse for a lot more people than you. Be kind to one another. Help each other out. Donate to causes that need them. Be smart. Smart inside. Keep your distance. Follow the experts’ guidance. We’ll get through this.

This is the story of when I was skydiving and had to pull my reserve parachute…on my 32nd jump

I was never addicted to skydiving, like many jumpers are, but I definitely enjoyed it. There was something incredible about how we as humans defied our natural physical limitations and learned to fly. We created systems called airplanes that took us miles above the ground, and then we jumped out of those airplanes and somehow landed safely on the ground. It was no inherent knowledge that led us to this feat, it was science, trial and error, and a sense of innovation and adventure.

My I made my first skydive when I was barely 19 years old. I had been selected to attend the US Air Force Academy’s Freefall school, a program that taught mostly Air Force Academy cadets how to jump out of planes. Being in ROTC, I was one of a select few who also got to attend the course.

It wasn’t intended to make us operational paratroopers, but more so to teach us about accomplishing missions in high-stress situations. And it did exactly that, as we found that this training program was the only one in the country that allowed jumpers to perform freefall skydives and pull their own ripcords without a trained instructor jumping along side of them.

When I returned to Columbus, Ohio for my sophomore year of college, I proudly wore my basic parachutist badge and looked up the Ohio State Skydiving Club. About a month later, I made my first private skydive and the rest was history. I jumped more and more, only paying for the jumps and necessary training when I had the funds to do it.

Eventually, I had made 10 skydives, and then it was 20, and I found that I was making jumps at different drop zones across Ohio, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. I even bought my own harness and parachute system.

On my 25th jump, I exited the plane with my instructor, whose name was Kelton Jago (sounds like it is out of a movie). We did a few in-air maneuvers and I landed on my target. With that, he signed my skydiving license, and I joined the thousands of others who were approved by the US Parachute Association to jump out of perfect good airplanes with other non-instructors who also wanted to jump out of perfectly good airplanes.

A few weeks later, I was 21 years old and decided to spend the weekend at Skydive Delmarva in Laurel, Maryland. It was almost like driving to Ocean City, so I decided to bring a tent and camp there under the stars. I could jump all day Saturday and then wake up in the crisp summer and bright sunlight so I could jump again on Sunday.

On that particular Saturday, I made a few jumps with other skydivers, including an eight-person formation, the largest I had done before. As the day became late and we only had a few more runs of the aircraft, I wanted to jump one more time but was already tired of packing my own parachute, so I had the registration desk charge seven dollars to my account to have one of their staff pack my chute for me. Lots of people used the feature, especially if they had the money to pay for it.

So I handed my parachute to a blonde-haired teenage girl. While I don’t remember her name, she was well-liked by the staff and jumpers, and had been packing parachutes for some time. When my turn in the plane came, I grabbed my rig, checked it over to ensure everything looked good, and boarded the plane.

As is standard procedure, the person sitting behind you in the plane gives your pilot chute, the small parachute that helps deploy your main parachute, is reset and ready to go. If there is anything wrong, you don’t jump out and instead take the plane ride back down. Everything looked good on mine, and I checked the person in front of me. She was good, too.

My group of four jumpers took our position in the door at the back of the fuselage and exited the plane. We did a few maneuvers in the air, rotating our bodies while staying close, and grabbing on to each others’ arms and legs in various positions. As we approached about 6,000 feet, all of us did a 180-degree turn, and I brought my arms to my sides and extended my legs which gave me forward movement to separate myself from the rest of the group, all of whom where doing the same maneuver. I quickly checked above me and saw no other jumpers and then waved my arms above my head, the standard signal for a person about to deploy a parachute.

I brought my left hand above my head and my right arm back to the bottom of my rig, grabbing the pilot chute by the small hackeysack that protruded out. I yanked out the pilot chute and threw it out to my right side and waited for it to catch air and pull the pin that held my main parachute in place. About one or two seconds later, I felt my body go from belly-to-earth to feet-to-earth as my parachute began to fill with air and I began to slow down.

The first check when deploying a parachute is to check your shape, spin, and speed, checking the shape of the canopy to ensure it is rectangular, ensure you’re not spinning, and ensure that you’re now moving at a good speed under canopy.

When I looked up, I immediately knew something was wrong. My 230-square foot orange and blue Sabre II canopy looked like it had been cut in two uneven pieces, like a lopsided infinity symbol. On the left side was a larger portion with a smaller one on the right, and they were split in the middle with one of my parachute lines that was supposed to be under the canopy, not over top of it. Worst of all, I was in a violent, uncontrollable spin.

My Air Force training kicked in. I had a line-over, one of four major malfunctions that required an immediate cutaway of my main parachute and deployment of my reserve canopy. A major malfunction was classified as something that, if it stayed in place, would cause death or serious bodily harm. To safely deploy my reserve, I had to ensure I was at a high enough altitude because if I was too close to the ground, my reserve parachute wouldn’t be able to open in time and I’d hit the ground before I had a canopy safely over my head.

I looked at my altimeter, which had a digital display and was attached to my left wrist. I was at about 4,000 feet above the ground…I had plenty of room to cutaway.

As crazy as it might sound, I didn’t hesitate for a moment. The time that it took for my main parachute to deploy and for me to notice I had a malfunction and check my altitude was a matter of no more than five seconds. In the next instant, I looked up at my canopy and said aloud…

“Here we go.”

I looked down at my main cutaway handle and grabbed it with both hands. I then shifted my eyes to my reserve parachute handle and focused my gaze there while I pulled the first. I then moved my hands to the reserve handle and pulled that. Before I knew it, my reserve parachute, a gleaming white canopy, was fully inflated above my head. It was rectangular, I had no spin, and I was flying forward at a good speed.

Again, my training kicked in. The most important thing I could do was orient myself to the drop zone, as my reserve canopy was smaller than my main, and I was therefore flying faster than I was used to. That meant I could hit the ground harder if I didn’t have a good landing in the middle of the drop zone. As I entered the landing pattern, I saw my orange and blue canopy floating away into the cornfield adjacent to the runway. The most important thing was getting to the ground safely. The canopy could wait.

Pulling your reserve was a huge deal. It was a rite of passage, albeit one I never wanted to experience. Many jumpers wait 1,000 or more jumps to get that experience, so as I landed, people started running up to me.

“A reserve pull!”

“What happened?!”

“What kind of malfunction was it?”

I was just happy to be on the ground, as this was a near-death experience I never wanted, especially on my 32nd jump…my seventh jump since becoming a licensed skydiver. But it was what it was. As I gathered my gear and walked back to the prep area, people kept asking me more questions.

“What happened?”

“Did you try and clear it?”

“Did you pack your own chute?”

I actually hadn’t. It was one of the packers at the drop zone. “Actually, no,” I said, turning around to answer that question. “It was actually packed by…” I said as I pointed toward the packing area.

And there she was. It was the blonde teenager who packed my parachute. She was crying.

“I’m so sorry! I feel so bad! Please…I’m so sorry!”

I walked up to her and smiled, putting my hand on her should. “Hey…it’s okay. I’m fine.” I told her how I made it to the ground and that the reason I did is because I had a reserve parachute. “That’s what they’re for.”

A few minutes later, a girl named Lisa, whom I met at the drop zone earlier that day, walked up carrying two parachutes, hers and mine. “I tracked it and landed next to it in the field, so I wanted to bring it back for you.” I thanked her and wrapped it up in a ball.

I spent some more time that late summer afternoon looking for the two rip cords I used to cutaway my main parachute and deploy my reserve. I couldn’t find them and gave up my search after about an hour.

Later that night, the drop zone had a big bonfire where we all drank some beers and talked about our jumps for the day. One of the other experienced jumpers came up and asked me about my reserve pull.

“So what kind of malfunction did you have?”

“I had a line-over. Cut my canopy right in two.”

“Did you try and clear it?”

It was the second time I heard that question, but now with a bit more time and less flustered, I thought more about it. “What do you mean, clear it? It’s a major malfunction. That’s an immediate cutaway.”

The guy explained that at 4,000 feet I had more than enough time to try to grab the line that was over my canopy and pull it down one side. “It might not work, but you had a few thousand feet until you had to cut away.”

Well the Air Force didn’t teach me that! I thought to myself. I thanked him for his insight and said with a smile that I’d consider it next time.

I eventually went to sleep that night in my tent and made a few more jumps the next morning with a rig I borrowed from the drop zone. When I returned home that afternoon, I had dinner with my parents and grandparents.

“How was skydiving?” my mom asked me.

“It was good. I had to pull my reserve.”

“Well, at least the Air Force taught you well.”

And she was right. If I hadn’t had that training, who knows how I would have responded. I’m just glad I had the training I did and was able to make the right decision when it mattered most.

I kept jumping that summer and on various weekends during my senior year. The last jump I made, however, was in the fall of 2006 when I was living in Cleveland. My new job required work six days a week and I just didn’t have the time to skydive regularly. When I moved to the DC area, I suffered a few herniated discs in the next few years and knew that, most likely, I would never jump out of a plane again.

My skydiving career ended with 55 jumps, with more than 40 minutes of freefall time. I met great people along the way and did some pretty crazy jumps, like a zero-gravity exit and pulling my canopy at 12,000 feet. I did sunrise jumps and sunset jumps. The highest altitude I ever jumped from was more than 17,000 feet. I’ll never forget meeting Adam Abelow, the head of the skydiving club, who gave me a ride to get my first civilian jump, or Jen White, who coached me (for free) on many of my jumps. I’ll never forget driving with Chase Volz to Aerohio and always stopping to get Arby’s on the way back to Columbus. I’ll never forget getting my license and the time my grandparents came to watch me jump.

A few pictures from my skydiving days.

Coronavirus closed the Sitar Arts Center and now, our students have nowhere to go. Today, we need your support more than ever.

In December 2014, I was working in the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs and it was time to generate lots of interest for the federal government’s Combined Federal Campaign, which supports local and national charities. I looked through the list and thought it would be interesting to invite a local non-profit called Guitars Not Guns, which taught at-risk youth how to play the guitar in the hopes that a musical outlet would keep the kids away from violence.

I subsequently joined the non-profit and was placed in January 2015 at the Sitar Arts Center, teaching group guitar classes to middle and high school students. As the semester went on, I fell in love with the students, the center staff, and the center in general. It was a place of hope and inspiration for a lot of kids who didn’t have much at home or in school. It was a place where children–from infants to high school seniors–could go for solace, support, and a variety of arts education.

The students could learn to play almost any instrument, and develop skills in video game coding, painting, photography, film making, stage acting, dance, and more. After my first semester I returned to teach more, and then became involved in helping to build the stage set for the summer musical. Then I found myself on the gala committee, and most recently, had discussions with the executive director about joining the leadership council or board of directors. I’ve become more involved because my love for the center and its students continues to deepen each day.

When my wife and I welcomed our daughter into the world last year, one thing was clear: I would continue volunteering my time at the Sitar Arts Center. I could cut back on other things, but my music classes would remain. The student were too important.

During the past five years, I have come to love my students, and something tells me that they love me back. I’ll never forget last year’s spring gala. One of my students was selected to receive a $10,000 scholarship to attend a music internship and they were going to surprise him with the award at the gala in front of hundreds of Sitar’s supporters.

And when the moment came, there he was, by himself, on stage, playing his bass guitar (that the center donated to him) like he was possessed. All I could do was stand in the back of the room and rock back and forth like a nervous third parent. And when he finished, he took a bow, and the award presenter got up on stage and told everyone the news of the award and scholarship. My student received a standing ovation.

His parents were so proud with beaming smiles and tears of joy. When he got off the stage, and while hugging his father, he looked up at me. I just gave him a head nod and a smile. A few moments later he walked up to me and gave me a hug, too.

“Thank you,” he said in my ear.

“That was all you,” I replied. “I didn’t do anything.”

“You helped me.”

“I’ll always help you.”

We both cried in each other’s arms.

He was a student who seemed depressed when I first met him, and now he was full of life and energy. He was happy. His grades improved. He wanted to go to college. And while it would be too simplistic to say it was only the Sitar Arts Center that helped him get there, it certainly was a big part.

And that’s why I’m asking for your help. The coronavirus pandemic has caused Sitar to close until the end of the academic year, which means that all the students who were taking private lessons or group classes no longer have that option.

Many students don’t have their own instruments at home to be able to practice, so their skills atrophy. The group dance, art, and photography classes can’t run. The positive, supportive atmosphere at the center isn’t there without the students.

Today, we need your help. Please. Anything you can do to help us out weather this storm is worth it, whether that is a monetary contribution or a donation of a musical instrument you no longer use that could be in good hands with a Sitar Arts Center student.

Doing what we can to ensure these students are engaged with their arts education will keep them off the streets with a daily focus on something positive in their lives. For students who don’t have much, this is critical to keeping progressing. We are trying to find ways to get students the arts education they need through video chats and other online platforms. We are creating training and practice content and delivering it electronically. But we still need support to create all of this and get it to the students.

Please consider donating whatever you can today via the button below.

If you have musical instruments or anything else you can donate, please contact Naomi Cohen at naomi@sitarartscenter.org.

Thank you for even reading this, and it would be even better if would consider sharing this post on your social media pages, so we can continue to spread the word about the support that Sitar and its students need.