I suppose I should avoid making a fuss about Michael Aronin’s decision to jump out of an airplane two miles above Maryland farmland. Lots of people sky-dive, and from the time he was a boy, Aronin wanted to be included in the “lots of people” of American life.
Still, attention must be paid.
And besides, Aronin’s jump presents an opportunity to tell you about a remarkable guy who always makes me laugh, awes me with his persistence, and reminds us all to love and embrace our differences.
Michael Aronin was born 53 years ago with cerebral palsy and what appears to have been a genetic predisposition for humor. When we first met, in a radio studio in the early 1990s, he had already graduated from Towson University, embarked on a career as a standup comic and motivational speaker, and perfected a devilish smile.
Aronin joked about everything, including himself — his slow and strained speech and his staggered walk, particularly. He performed in Los Angeles shortly after a scandal involving drunk airline pilots had erupted. “I flew in today from Baltimore,” he said, his body tilting to one side. “I got stopped at LAX. People thought I was an America West pilot.”
The crowd at The Improv howled, exactly what Aronin wanted. He’s been chasing laughter most of his life.
“From a very early age my parents instilled in me humor,” he told an audience. “Instead of getting angry and frustrated — and we all do, don’t we, disabled or not? — my parents taught me how to use humor to get through challenges. And, in turn, I learned how to use humor to make others feel comfortable around me. Because, let’s face it, when we meet someone who is different, we get uncomfortable. We don’t know what to do, what to say. ‘Is this person mentally capable?’ I found using humor broke down that barrier right away and let people know, ‘Hey, I’m OK with who I am, so please be yourself around me.’”
Aronin, who lives in Pikesville, grew up on Long Island and attended New York public schools. His late mother, Faith, was an elementary school teacher and insisted that her son with CP be in classes with his peers. “Back in the ‘70s, they just shoved kids with any disability in special ed,” he said. “But my mom really fought the school system to have me mainstreamed, and that set up my whole outlook on life — being around everyone else and fitting in.”
Aronin graduated from H. Frank Carey High School in Franklin Square, New York. “My classmates were awesome,” he said, when I asked how he was treated by others. “Of course, I got teased and mocked, but I still say hello to those people every time they hand me food at the drive-thru window.”
Aronin had some busy years as a comic, and at one point won “Handicapped Star Search” on Howard Stern’s radio show. Aronin’s day jobs were in human resources for the federal government; he’s currently employed by the Social Security Administration. While his standup career has slowed, he’s still listed with a speakers bureau and had a lead role in the 2017 feature-length film, “Special Unit,” a farce about cops with disabilities that comedian Chris Titus was determined to make. Titus said he wanted to show people with disabilities as “the capable, angry, funny, demanding, fearless” people they are. If the movie offended anyone, Titus didn’t care. It’s all part of the ongoing effort to mainstream people with challenging conditions.
Aronin is all about that. So he decided to jump out of an airplane to mark his 53rd birthday.
Two weeks ago, Aronin and his 20-year-old son, Jon, went to Skydive Baltimore, between Churchville and Aberdeen in Harford County. The jumps at Skydive Baltimore are tandem jumps, meaning novices dive while hooked to experienced instructors.
Aronin’s partner was Darren Lewis, a longtime freelance instructor with about 7,400 jumps over 25 years. In winter months, Lewis works as a caregiver and physical therapist. He’s looked after people with disabilities and chronic health problems. He’s also jumped with people who are quadriplegic, paraplegic and who have Parkinson’s disease. His oldest customer was a 94-year-old man who had sky-diving on his bucket list.
Once assured that Aronin could get his body into the classic sky-dive arch — that is, pelvis forward, belly toward earth — and that he could raise his legs for the bobsled-like landing on grass, Lewis gave the thumbs-up. “Hey, Michael,” he shouted, “I am going to take you sky diving!”
When the plane reached about 10,000 feet, Aronin and Lewis went out the door first, followed by Jon and his instructor. The free fall, at 120 miles per hour, lasted about 40 seconds, with the remaining descent of 5,500 feet under parachute.
“The rush and sound of the wind died down, and I felt calm and peaceful,” Aronin said. “The landing was not bad at all, just as Darren explained. I was shaking when I stood up on the ground from all the adrenalin, not believing what I just did. I looked over and there was Jon about 20 feet away. We smiled at one another and gave each other a big thumbs-up. It was amazing and something my son and I will always remember having done together.”
I asked Michael what’s next on the Aronin bucket list.
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