One day I decided to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. The opportunity presented itself while I was a story producer for the then “PM MAGAZINE” television show. In preparation, I spent 4 hours hopping backwards out of the back of a moving pickup truck, practicing “parachute landings” where you theoretically roll with gravity to lessen the ground’s jarring impact. Yeah, right.
go, Go, GO! Yeah, right.
Eventually I ended up standing on a strut in the prop wash of a laboring Piper Cub seven thousand feet above a sweltering Louisiana countryside. I was suitably terrified. The jump master had just tossed a weighted ribbon (that looked alarmingly like an unfurling roll of toilet paper!) out of the cabin door jamb, and my eyes had followed it down, down, down until it became a fluttering, blurry speck as tears were blown across my squinting eyeballs.
“GO!” shouted the jump master, pointing at me in a shooing motion, and grinning.
I can not begin to tell you how difficult it was to will my white-knuckled fingers to let go of the wildly vibrating wing brace. Every atom of my being rebelled against that one simple action. “Go, go, GO!” he shouted again. “NOW!”
A chute opening. Not a finer sound in the world.
I gritted my teeth, relinquishing my death grip in a text-book perfect spread-dead eagle exiting posture. I watched the static cord strip out of the airplane and yank my chute free from the pack. “One, two, three.” I began counting, remembering that if my chute hadn’t opened by the time I got to ten, I’d have to begin a cutaway procedure and release my spare chute. I noticed right away the chute cords had become twisted and — rather than opening — the chute was flapping like laundry on a windy day. Streamers, was the correct term, I thought. I remember the crew talking about how streamers usually became — SCREAMERS! My brain began working so fast I snapped my legs in the opposite direction of the twisting lines without even thinking. I literally spun the chute open little by little, during which time the part of my brain that was supposed to be counting was clamped shut tighter than a clam on a grill.
POOF! The sound of the chute opening was the finest sound I’d ever heard. Thankyouthankyouthankyou.
The terrible roar of the airplane engine was gone. Not a hum or putter or pop anywhere. I was alone. Utterly. Above me, my parachute canopy bloomed magnificently, looking like the inside of a balloon; below, a tiny field the size of a postage stamp swayed beneath two dangling tennis shoes — MY tennis shoes, one of whose laces, I noticed with deathly focus, were untied. Funny what you notice when you’re drifting along at 4,000 feet.
A buzzard soared by giving me a top-to-bottom view, warily watching me from under its wingpit. A faint upward breeze washed over my body. “Hello, Buzz. Goodbye, Buzz.” Funny the stupid things you say when you’re drifting along at 3,000 feet.
Kinda what my chute looked like
“Hey, Tim!”came a reply, clear as a bell. But it wasn’t the buzzard, of course. It was my cameraman (an accomplished sky-diver) some two thousand feet below me now, on the ground shouting while he was was taping my descent: “What a GREAT streamer — look out for those trees!“
I landed not-so softly in the middle of the field, flip-flopping like a wounded fish rather than someone deploying off the back of a pickup. My heart was racing, blood-borne adrenaline purging normal blood flow like a fire hydrant hose sweeping out a gutter. The chute exhaled around me. I lay on my back, arms and legs splayed on the warm, green pasture. A bee scooped up pollen from a dandelion inches from my face, then flew away.
“Ha, ha, bee! I can do that, too.”
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