Ask Christian Arnold how his day’s going and the answer is always the same. First, an amused look turns into a huge grin. Then, the simple words he repeats every day: “Best day, ever.”
In recent weeks, that perspective was adjusted due to a whirlwind of activity. First, Christian joined classmates in a graduation ceremony. A few weeks later, he circled Indiana in a plane at 13,000 feet, strapped into a parachute while tethered to someone he’d just met.
All the while, Christian sang the lyrics from his favorite Tim McGraw tune.
“I was living like I was dying,” Christian said. “I heard it on the radio that morning, and it stuck with me.”
It all started the day of his high school graduation, when he listened to the commencement speaker, Steve Beres. The Service Members and Veterans Affairs Manager for Regions, Beres suffered a traumatic injury in 2002 that caused his loss of vision.
Beres shared his motto with the students at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. “Don’t take no for an answer,” he explained. “I may have lost my sight, but I have not lost my vision.”
The words alone drew a standing ovation from students, faculty and families. But what happened next created an audible gasp, leaving even Beres wondering if he’d gone too far. Just before his speech, he had a coworker randomly distribute envelopes to the graduates. They contained Amazon gift cards Beres purchased himself. But two of the envelopes also included messages in Braille. The first read “runner-up,” the second declared “winner.”
Then Beres explained that the graduate who received the winning envelope would go skydiving with him. And, should the winner decline, the runner-up would join him.
As Beres explained his plan, Christian’s mother, Candy, got an adrenaline rush of her own.
“I think I was more excited than anyone, and I was praying Christian would open the right envelope,” she said. “This is what we do. We go whitewater rafting. We go hiking. And now, I wanted us to go skydiving.”
Beres is an adrenaline junkie, too. He first jumped while in the Army, then served his community again as a law enforcement officer. Since losing his sight, he’s tested his limits by whitewater kayaking and downhill skiing. Then there are the bungee jumps – from the 829-foot apex of the Stratosphere in Las Vegas, from the rim of a volcano in Mexico and from a span over the Columbia River gorge.
“You can actually touch the water there,” Beres said. “Those are fun. They give you that weightless feeling, but the free fall is short-lived. It’s nothing like jumping from a plane.”
When he first considered a return to skydiving after his injury, he was rebuffed.
“I said to myself, ‘There’s no reason I can’t do it.’ The first skydiving place I called, I explained I was blind but I was a military veteran with over 3,000 jumps. They laughed and hung up,” Beres said.
The next call drew interest, but Beres was told he would be too much of a liability. Finally, he found a skydive company owned by the brother of a man he served with in the military.
Beres resumed doing what he loved – and soon included his children.
“It’s something we do together,” he said. “You turn 18 and throw yourself out of the plane.”
Like Beres, Candy Arnold is a veteran. She served the Air Force in a civil engineering unit that included being stationed near the 82nd Airborne in North Carolina and a tour in Saudi Arabia. She returned stateside shortly after for Christian’s birth. Christian was born without eyes. He is also living with autism.
Long before Arnold knew Beres, she was determined Christian would follow the same motto of never giving in. So when Beres appeared at the commencement ceremony, and spoke of skydiving, she was all on board.
“I got to witness the guys in the 82nd Airborne jump, but I never got to try it for myself. So I told Steve there was just one stipulation: I was jumping, too,” she said.
Skydive Indianapolis is based in Frankfort, a northeast jog from the state’s metropolitan center. Upon arrival, the three were given a crash course in safety.
“They have you watch a video, sign a waiver saying you can’t sue,” Candy said. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is intense.’ They already have you strapped on in your harness before you get to the plane. The person you’re strapped to is behind you. You’re basically sitting in their lap. My person checked my straps like 20 times. ‘Are we OK?’ ‘Yes. Just checking.’”
Then the plane ascends. Jumpers go through a last-minute checklist. At 13,000 feet, a door is opened.
“When you lose one sense, you have to rely on other senses,” Beres said. “I think, after losing sight, it’s actually easier.”
With vision, “the lower the jump, the scarier it is,” he explained. “When you jump at 2,000 feet, you can see cars and people, so you get a sense of scale. In this case, we jumped out at 13,000 feet. At that height, you lose part of the scale. You can see the curvature of the earth, but not the scale.”
As the door opens, the jumpers move toward the exit two-by-two. A few seconds of sheer terror gives way to a feeling like no other in the world as the tandems hurtle unimpeded toward the earth below.
“You’re eating air,” Christian said.
“The initial free fall is about two minutes,” Candy added. “You’re flying. Once the parachute unloads, you’re floating, and can really enjoy it.”
For even the most veteran jumper, the experience is unique to any other.
“That’s the best part,” Beres said. “Even though you can’t see there’s nothing better than the sense of floating on air.”
Safely on the ground, the trio shared their mutual experience, then started plotting the next great adventure.
“I invited Steve to go whitewater rafting with us in West Virginia,” Candy said. “He’s invited us to go to Orlando where they have an 18,000-foot jump, or to do a zip line over alligators. Now, he’s really adventurous.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Regions has been partnering with the Indiana Blind Children’s Foundation, a philanthropic foundation that supports the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, over the last few years to bring in programs and speakers like Steve Beres to make a big impact on children with visual impairments.