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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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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