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THE PARACHUTE ON MY BACK

 

 

A true story about fear

Today I have to parachute from an airplane, twice.  I close my eyes hoping to separate the excitement of anticipation from the expected fear of heights.  My only relief is that in a few hours, after my second parachute jump of this day, I will probably never have to do this again.

I nervously question myself – what was I thinking?  I was perfectly aware of my fear of heights beforehand, although that was exactly one of the reasons why I volunteered for military parachute training.  Now my sensations are a combination of nausea, fear, and dizziness.  But this is nothing compared to my first jump earlier in the week.  The first jump was different.

Jump Week, Day One.  The propeller cargo plane reaches altitude within seconds.  While leveling out is a jolting surprise, I realize that twelve hundred feet is a far cry from the leisurely thirty-three thousand feet of a plush airliner - one of many shocking differences I am about to encounter. 

My eyes dart around the bloated cargo plane as I sense an immediate increase in my level of fear.  Every vibration of the plane elicits a new shudder within me.  I search for some reason not to believe in what is about to happen.  “We’re not gonna do this,” I think.  “It’s all a big joke.  They’re gonna land the plane, let us out, and let us in on the big secret.  ‘Now you’re in on it; don’t tell anyone (wink, wink).’  We’ll have a great laugh.”

“FIVE MINUTES,” announces the jumpmaster.

“Five minutes?  We just took off.”  In reality, we are probably nearer than five minutes before dropping our first load of human cargo.  After all, the drop zone is only a short drive from the airfield.

Encumbered by his own parachute and harness, the jumpmaster waddles toward the tail of the plane.  He tugs on a long metal lever and lifts the airplane door inside and up into the plane.  The open door is a source of radiant white light.  The jumpmaster repeats this procedure and opens the door on the left side of the plane.  I find this fascinating before realizing that,      oh my God, I am inside a plane with the doors open!

“STARBOARD PERSONNEL, STAND UP.  PORT SIDE PERSONNEL, STAND UP.”

Two columns of jumpers stand up and face rearwards.  After a few quick checks and other procedures, they will be ready to jump.  I refuse to accept what I see.  They are getting up - they are actually getting up - they are going to do this – we are going to do this!

“HOOK UP.  CHECK STATIC LINES.”

Clang, clang, clang!  The twenty jumpers attach their static line hooks to the long wire stretching the entire length of the plane.  These hooks will yank open each parachute as the jumpers go through the door. 

“STAND IN THE DOOR.”

The first jumper shuffles forward.  He faces the open door and carefully grasps each side of the doorway.  Beside the door are two light bulbs.  The light changes from red to green.

“GO.  GO.  GO.”

Woosh, woosh, woosh.  Within seconds, the first ten jumpers are gone.  They are no longer a part of this plane.  Before I can understand what I have just seen, there go the other ten.  The bright white light swallows them, too.

The plane banks to make another pass.  My group is next and I wonder how will I, in the following few seconds, find the strength to jump from this plane.  My mind rushes through our training over the previous two weeks.  There were fearful moments then, too.  But this – this is so much more intense.  The plane levels out again.

“STARBOARD PERSONNEL, STAND UP.  PORT SIDE PERSONNEL, STAND UP.”

Follow orders, yes, that I can do.  I am packed in the middle of a column of ten jumpers.  I will concentrate on the back of the jumper before me.  I will burn a hole through him with my eyes.  If he goes out the door, I will go with him.

“HOOK UP.”

Clang!  My static line hook is in place.  We assume the shuffle position – left foot forward, right foot trailing behind, a slight bend at the knees, right hand to the side in contact with the airplane wall, left elbow out, and left hand about shoulder height controlling the static line.  The yellow canvas static line dangles from the wire overhead, over my left shoulder, and to the parachute on my back.

“CHECK STATIC LINES.”

This part I have been anticipating.  Each jumper is responsible for the final inspection of the jumper in front of him.  Make sure that their static line is not tangled under an arm or around their neck.  If they are fine, you slap them on the rear and shout, “All clear!”  The jumper behind me informs me that my static line is clear.  Whack - I smack the jumper before me with gusto.  This is my only mischievous satisfaction on this lousy flight.

At the head of the column is the first jumper – the doorman.  He is waiting for the order to stand in the door.  On the far side of the door, the jumpmaster stands with his two assistant jumpmasters.  One assistant will manage the static lines as each jumper goes through the door.  He will push the static lines to the back of the plane so that they do not interfere with the oncoming jumpers.  The other assistant is crouched low to ensure that there are no trip hazards in the immediate area of the open door.

Our parachute jump is imminent.  I spy around the other jumpers to keep an eye on the door.  The doorman moves into position.  The red light turns green.  “Go!  Go!  Gooo!”  One jumper goes out the door, then another, and a third.  I shuffle closer to the door.  I am close, maybe eight feet away.  There go the fourth and fifth jumpers in an unbroken line – I am next.  Then… 

I freeze - I can’t move - everything shifts to slow motion.

Suddenly, the three jumpmasters shift their focus from the line of jumpers to their one immediate obstacle - me.  Their screams barely register as garbled moans.  “Goooo!!!  Gooooooo!!!”  In a flash, six hands reach out, grab me, and fling me outside the plane.

I went through the door too quickly to remember it.  The outside sky is cloudy gray mixed with the blinding white light.  Events are rushing in a hazy blur. 

The first thing to shake my consciousness is my helmet.  It is sitting forward, shoving my glasses hard into my nose, and blocking a strip at the top of my vision.  As I reach to fix it, I notice my body locked in the rigid position drilled into each jumper during pre-jump training.  The training worked even in the chaos of the previous minute. 

My hands move up to grab the parachute lines.  Focusing atop these lines, I visually inspect the open canopy; it is fully deployed with no tears in the fabric.  I can, for the first time, release a reassuring sigh.  But more so, in looking down, I take in the scenery.  Shades of green, brown, and yellow rise to meet the hazy grays all around me.  Below me is Southeastern Alabama in late August – there is the rutted drop zone, pine trees everywhere else, a few scattered fields, and a farm farther out.  Strange, I feel no sensation of falling or fear of heights.  It is only relaxing to float down from twelve hundred feet. 

The ground seems to creep closer and closer.  Soon I can identify the instructors shouting orders from the drop zone.  “Prepare to land!  Prepare to land!”  I know what to do – keep your feet and knees together, don’t look down, look out to the horizon.  Failing to do this, a jumper tends to anticipate the landing and break an ankle.  Upon making contact with the ground, I absorb the fall by rolling onto my side.  Mine is a perfect landing.  Then it all returns – the frantic breaths, the sweat, the heat, the dusty drop zone.

It is time to quickly pack my chute and move out.  Before leaving the drop zone, however, I realize what lies ahead.  This was only my first jump.  I will have to do this four more times in the next three days.  I reassure myself that, if I can jump once, maybe I can do it a second time.  I will worry about the other jumps later.

Jump Week, Day Four.  I was still not sure how I was going to make it this far.  Perhaps the excitement will carry me through the last jump.  At the moment, my remaining anticipation is reserved for seeing my girlfriend, my brother, and his fiancé after tomorrow’s graduation.  What a story I will have to tell them.  But more important will be the story I will have for the rest of my life.  I willingly decided to face my greatest fear, the fear of heights.  While the experience was not altogether graceful, I will know the answer to the obvious question:  If I was so afraid of heights, why did I do it?  Because I did not want to wonder what it was like.  I wanted the quiet confidence to say, “I did it.”  Yeah, I did it.

 

Updated Sunday February 15, 2004.