Free fall

by Wolf Pascoe on April 9, 2012

I can fly. But I always I fly down. — Little Bear

There’s seldom reason to drop out of a perfectly good airplane.

But when my cousin Philip got leukemia, his brother Robert and I promised we’d accompany him on a parachute jump if he survived the bone marrow transplant.

Philip’s wife Jill had already started jumping, her way of shaking her fist at Providence, I suppose.

My cousins and I had grown up close, a few houses apart. Our mothers were sisters. We boys conducted expeditions into the gully that ran through the neighborhood, set off firecrackers, followed one another through school.

When I began my medical training, leukemia was supposed to be a rare disease. But Philip wasn’t even the first of my cousins to get it. (Another, on my father’s side, had died after her marrow transplant a few years before.)

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BOUNCE

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The idea of jumping was exhilarating, and gave Philip a sense of agency thorough his ordeal. How could I not sign on? Nora and I had just gotten married and Nick was a few years away.

“I’m not going along to watch you drop 18,000 feet,” said Nora.

“It’s only 12,000,” I said.

Philip survived the transplant. Jill, by then an experienced jumper, began indoctrinating us.

There are two ways to jump the first time, she said: tandem and freefall. In tandem jumping, you’re tethered to your jump master and his chute, along for the ride, more or less. In a freefall jump, you have your own parachute. Two masters jump with you sandwiched between, but you’re unattached. Once you pull the ripcord you’re on your own.

“What do you do if your chute doesn’t open?” I said.

“You bounce,” Jill said.

In the unlikely event that the main parachute fails to open properly, there is always a second, or reserve parachute packed in the system which will be used if necessary. On a tandem skydive your tandem instructor will handle this process should it be needed. On a freefall jump you will be trained on, and be responsible for, performing this procedure if necessary. —FAQ, Perris Skydiving School

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NO PROBLEM

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When Philip was strong enough, he, Robert, and I reported to the skydiving school in Perris for instruction. We had decided to go for the free jump. In for a penny, in for a pound.

Before the six hour class, they had us sign a long document absolving the school of all responsibility for any mishaps.

“If I bounce, can you beat this thing in court?” I said to Robert, who is a lawyer.

“I think so,” he said.

“Well, no problem then,” I said.

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SCHOOL TRADITION

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I was assigned two jump masters who would leave the plane with me, into whose hands I would entrust my life. They told me right away the most important thing I needed to know: I was supposed to buy them both a beer after we landed.

“A school tradition,” they said.

I gritted my teeth through the six hour course, then boarded the plane with Robert and Philip. As we took off, both of them looked green.

Everyone stood and lined up when we reached the drop zone. I felt an odd numbness as I approached the open door. I don’t know how to explain it. At 12,000 feet, the ground is so far away it doesn’t seem threatening. My jump masters were yahoos, but I was pretty sure they weren’t going to kill me.

I stepped out.

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RIPCORD

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I hated free fall, which lasted a minute. There was neither queasiness nor a sense of freedom, just a hurricane wind in my face. I was supposed to go through a whole routine of checking things during the drop, but the jump masters kept signaling me that something was wrong. Maybe they were signaling about the beer. I said the hell with it.

At 4,000 feet I was supposed to pull the ripcord. I refused.

“You bozos pull it,” I signaled.

The chute opened.

I remember thinking, “Pretty cool.”

A parachute nowadays is a rectangular wing, and it flies. I glided down alone through four-thousand feet of summery air. A little tug just before your feet touch ground, and you walk away as if stepping from a ladder. Of course I landed on my face, but I’m talking principles here.

My cousins were already down. We went off for beers arm in arm.

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CHOICE

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Jill continued to jump, but once was enough for us cousins. Neither Philip nor Robert liked free fall either.

Actually, one form of jumping I heard about did sound interesting: paragliding. In paragliding, you start from 18,000 feet and pull the ripcord immediately. None of that hurricane business. The wing is narrower and longer than a standard chute, and you can soar for hours on the slightest updraft. It’s the closest thing to being a bird. It’s also the most deadly sport, and Nora drew the line. I never went paragliding.

A videographer had taped my descent. I showed it to Nick recently.

“You looked green on the plane,” he said.

“No I didn’t.”

“Dad, it’s your choice if you like it or not,” he said. “I’m not one to judge.”

Where does this come from?

Philip is still cancer-free.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Barbara April 9, 2012 at 9:45 am

In high school, I longed to sky dive, to experience that feeling of flying. A friend and I made a pact that we would go together. Within a couple of years, however, I had a complete change of attitude about it. I didn’t even like going up in airplanes, much less jumping out of them. I doubted my feet would even leave the edge, anyway. Just before our 50th birthdays, my friend finally did it with his kids. He sent me the photos, hoping to get me to go with him the next time. I admit I was tempted… 50 is similar to 18 in that way. But thank goodness I’ve grown up again. No sky diving for me. Kudos to you for doing it, though, and I’m so glad your cousin is cancer-free!!
Barbara recently posted..Love, Allelujah!

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Wolf Pascoe April 10, 2012 at 1:00 am

As I read your comment and think about it, I’m sort of amazed I actually did it.

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jeff skorman April 9, 2012 at 11:41 am

One of my unrealized goals.Guess I have to make a pact.You are braver than I’am at least with sky diving.

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Wolf Pascoe April 10, 2012 at 1:00 am

At most with sky diving.

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BigLittleWolf April 9, 2012 at 2:06 pm

I always had a considerable taste for adventure, but usually confined it to learning a language and plunking myself in another country.

In college, I accompanied a friend to a skydiving school. Sat through the training with him. And as we were walking to the plane to go up, I said “nope, thanks very much.”

Never regretted it.

Then again, life has provided enough of a free fall in adulthood to more than satisfy any “adventuresome” spirit that remains…

A leap of faith is tough enough some days… But I’m very impressed that you and your cousins went through with this.
BigLittleWolf recently posted..Are We Raising Romantic Sons?

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Wolf Pascoe April 10, 2012 at 1:02 am

In my case, it would have taken more courage than I had to step away.

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david April 9, 2012 at 4:33 pm

I had a flying dream the other night. Quite amazing—one of three in my life that I can recall. Up, down, all around—even up above the atmosphere. Nothing like it.

And that will be enough for me
until I die
then I will fly
again.

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Wolf Pascoe April 10, 2012 at 1:02 am

Flying in dreams is the best. I flap. Nora just flies.

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Kyle Bradford April 9, 2012 at 7:33 pm

That winged flight suit is insane.

As for me, I’ll be staying in the plane where the drinks are.

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Wolf Pascoe April 10, 2012 at 1:04 am

A very sensible policy. I think paragliding used to be the most dangerous sport. That winged flying suit has got to be more problematic.

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Privilege of Parenting April 10, 2012 at 10:02 pm

I’m a strictly in-my-dreams flier—but hat’s off to you for doing this as an act of solidarity and love for your cousin. I feel nervous watching my friends do improv comedy much less jumping out of planes, but then again I’m not sure which of flying or comedy is the more difficult not to die at.

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Wolf Pascoe April 12, 2012 at 12:50 am

Maybe if your friends came on stage with a parachute?

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Jack@TheJackB April 11, 2012 at 10:56 am

I had a friend in college who was supposed to take me jumping but for a variety of reasons it never happened.

And then one of my classmates in an upper division art class started talking to me about it. In between discussions about Cubism and whether artists had better luck with girls he told me that he belonged to a club where it cost $40 bucks a jump.

There was an initiation fee that you had to pay first, but once you did it was only $40. He almost had me convinced to do it and then he told me that on his first jump he hated it so much he got sick in every way imaginable.

The man landed on Terra firma covered in crap and I couldn’t get beyond that. So I never went.

Every now and then I think about it, but it will have to wait until my children are at least 18.
Jack@TheJackB recently posted..Daddy Blog Like a Jedi Master

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Wolf Pascoe April 12, 2012 at 12:55 am

So . . . do artists have better luck with girls?

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Kristen @ Motherese April 11, 2012 at 2:59 pm

You’re a better cousin than I. The most I ever gave one of my cousins was a box of old Barbies.

I am impressed by your willingness to do something that scared you, to sublimate yourself to the solidarity of the group. I’m also impressed by Nick’s wisdom. Beyond his years.
Kristen @ Motherese recently posted..Ice Cream Sunday

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Wolf Pascoe April 12, 2012 at 1:00 am

As I look back on it, I don’t know how it happened. Barbies are more my speed.

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