If your parachute doesn’t open, you hit the ground at 125 miles-per-hour. This means going from a vertical speed of 174 feet-per-second to a dead stop, instantly. The resulting energy (mass times acceleration) splinters bone and liquefies cartilage, and usually shoots your innards, if not through a ruptured abdominal wall, then directly out your anus. You might bounce, you might not. But to the folks who will have to convey you from the scene, your body will feel rubbery and limp, like a jump suit stuffed with applesauce and gristle.
I knew the risk, on that moonless March night in 1960, as I sat crammed behind the pilot, waiting to make my 152nd jump. It was the kind of stuff we instructors joked about every night in bars, when our students weren’t around. Creaming in, we called it, and buying the farm. I knew I was risking my life, and I wanted to write about it. But if you’d asked me back then what risking my life meant, I’d have deflected the question with a cocky grin. At the age of nineteen, my notion of the future remained as opaque and featureless as the California desert a mile-and-a-half below.
We’d taken off just after dusk from a nearby dirt airstrip, in a four-place Cessna-180. The aircraft, its right door and passenger seat removed, had been climbing steadily for twenty minutes. The whine of the Lycoming engine, combined with the staccato whap-whap-whap of the propeller, made casual conversation inside the cabin impossible. Hot exhaust swirled about in the turbulent air, its oily stink mixing with the odor of old upholstery, adding to the tension in my bowels.
The last rays of sunlight had long since abandoned the high cirrus clouds, leaving night to settle on the horizon. From my back seat window, I could just make out the lights of San Diego, eighty miles to the west, and I found myself staring at the glow the way a child might gaze at the sliver of light beneath his bedroom door. God knows, looking straight down into the darkness brought little comfort: from this altitude, our intended target, a white canvas cross lit by two sets of car headlights, looked like a life raft floating on an ocean of ink.
This was my first night free fall, and I made a mental note of the ways in which the onset of night had heightened my usual pre-jump jitters. Increased vertigo; anxiety about dropping my flashlight in free fall; fear of collision with another jumper in the dark. I intended to jot down these observations later. As the plane continued to climb, I wondered how Hemingway would treat the material. Men waiting to jump. That was the gist of it. It just begged for the kind of brief, declarative sentences that could rocket a writer to immortality. Men waiting to jump…
Bill Jolly, a veteran jumper in his late-thirties, sat on the floor next to the pilot, his back against the instrument panel. As I studied his rugged, impassive face for some sign that he shared my apprehension, he stifled a yawn with his hand. There it is, I thought. Men waiting to jump always yawn. No, that wasn’t it. Confronted with the jaws of death, men always yawn. No. A yawn is to a skydiver what spit is to a batter at the plate…
By this time, I was yawning. So was Jimmy Flynn, the 30-year-old, 275-pound karate expert who sat next to me on the back seat. Nerves. Little was known then about the behavior of the human body falling at terminal velocity, and even less about “relative work”—two or more bodies in free fall together.
Understand that the free fall part of a parachute jump takes place between the exit altitude (in this case, 7500 feet) and the recommended opening altitude (2500 feet). On this particular night we planned to free fall for one mile—thirty seconds—before opening our chutes. (Follow the sweep hand on a watch, if you need help imagining it. You’re probably aware that once the parachute canopy is open, the descent takes about three minutes. But try to remember, as this narrative progresses, that my failure to pull the ripcord at 2500 feet reduces that descent time to thirteen seconds.)
The plane banked steeply then leveled onto jump run. Jimmy Flynn, getting a nod from the pilot, slid forward on the seat and stuck his helmeted head out the door. His cheeks flapped in the prop blast and his bubble goggles buffeted atop his nose. Using the bottom edge of the doorway as a sighting device, he peered straight down.
“Where are we?” he called out to the pilot. “I can’t see shit down there!”
“Should be coming up on the target!” answered the pilot.
Flynn looked again, then raised his hand. “Got it! Jesus fucking Christ! Do you think they could have made it a little smaller?”
I tapped the glass on my altimeter, checking that the needle wasn’t stuck. The bulky instrument was strapped to my chest-mounted reserve chute and would be my only means of knowing when to pull the ripcord. I tested my flashlight—essential for reading the altimeter—then tightened the chin strap on my Bell helmet. My fingers trembled—something I hoped would go unnoticed by Jolly.
“Right ten!” yelled Flynn.
The pilot kicked right rudder, making a flat correction of ten degrees.
“Ten more! Ten more!”
Again the plane jerked right.
Flynn was screaming now. “No! Twenty! Twenty! Twenty!”
The pilot glanced over his shoulder, eyeballing me and smirking. I swatted his arm in response, which made him laugh. I welcomed his levity, wished it would spread. You had to laugh. Men waiting to jump must…
Bill Jolly wasn’t laughing. Indeed, he looked quite uneasy. Maneuvering to a kneeling position on the floor, he switched on his flashlight, then signaled me to do the same. I nodded, giving him a thumbs-up and winking. Still, his anxiety had unsettled me. I checked that my ripcord handle was secure in its elastic housing, then fingered the pins on the reserve chute to be sure they were seated. I tested the Capewell releases that connected the parachute to the harness, and felt the snap connectors on my leg straps. Everything was set. I’d done all I could. There was only the going now. I took a deep breath. We’d be in the bar in an hour, I told myself. Howling with laughter, scoring chicks.
“Ten more!” Flynn clutched his flashlight close to his body.
Were we that far off course? I wanted to see for myself, but Flynn’s enormous bulk prevented it. Stuck in the corner and squirming to get some leg room, I must have set my flashlight on the seat behind him.
Just then, without warning, Flynn yelled, “CUT!”
The pilot obediently throttled back, and the plane mushed to near-stall speed. Then, Flynn dove out the door—alone.
That wasn’t the plan. We were supposed to go out together.
The stall warning sounded. Jolly muttered something, then waved at me to follow, as he, too, dove out.
I felt like a sprinter still crouched on his heels after the sound of the gun. I managed to get out from behind the pilot, heaved myself forward into a standing crouch, duck-waddled a few steps to the door, and toppled out into the night.
When my body left the slipstream, I caught sight of the pilot staring down at me, his face lit green by the instrument panel, as he was sucked up into the heavens with the stars.
I didn’t realize I’d forgotten my flashlight until a few seconds after I stabilized in free fall. My oversight seems now to have been almost impossibly reckless, a foreshadowing of the years I would spend addicted to drugs and alcohol; an omen of future relationships carelessly entered and painfully abandoned; a portent of my episodic life. It steals breath from my narrative, tempts me to quit writing the story. But as I recall that night long ago I find myself less disturbed by the rash and impulsive carelessness that sent me out the door unprepared than I am by the faith that allowed me to hang in there as I fell.
My mind became serenely clear. It was not going to be any other way than this. Time could not be wasted thinking it might be. There could be no reaching back into the aircraft or looking away from what was happening. Like the time, ten years down the road, when a hospital administrator would tell me that my second child had been born “mongoloid.” Or the night, eighteen months later, after I’d come home from being with him, when the administrator would call to say he’d died. Or the night, five years ago, when I zipped my father into a body bag. Or the morning, a while back, when I photographed my mother’s corpse.
Falling face-to-earth through the night, ruled by the forces of gravity and time. I remember having to blink repeatedly to make sure my eyes were open. After a few moments, I could see the shiny steel housing around my altimeter. The instrument’s face remained dark, though, and its phosphorous needle too dim to read.
I felt the up-rushing cushion of air supporting my body and heard the flapping of my chest strap against the harness. I hadn’t fallen for ten seconds before my eyes began to tear beneath my goggles.
Executing a flat right turn, I searched for the target. Nothing. I shook my head, trying to clear the tears, and turned back to the left. Nothing. Once, when I thought I glimpsed it from the corner of my eye, I turned in that direction, but it vanished in the darkness.
The horizon was black, San Diego gone. When else has it seemed that dark?
In a sweat lodge on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. So dark in there I had to shut my eyes for fear they’d pop out of their sockets from straining to see. A darkness that illuminated disturbing aspects of myself: The black hole of failure. The ten thousand bar napkins on which I scribbled brilliant insights. The writing projects planned but never engaged. The decades spent laboring as a key grip on movies. The years wasted pretending that I knew how to love. The truth endangered by my fear of it. The laziness. The inspiration pissed away. The countless times I told this story in bars, giving it away to the wind:
So, there I am, falling through the night. I could pull the ripcord right now, of course, but then I’d drift for miles over the desert and it’d take them forever to find me, and everyone would think I panicked. Fuck it, I tell myself, keep going. Then I remember Flynn and Jolly are below me. I sure as shit don’t want to come crashing through their open canopies at 125 mph, so I go into a tracking mode, like this (I jump off my barstool and assume a delta position, like a ski jumper in mid-air): I’m traversing the ground at about ninety-mph—which doesn’t mean I’m falling any slower—and I keep tracking until I figure there’s enough distance between Jolly and Flynn and me, right? Okay, then I relax a little. But I don’t like all this blackness—it makes me feel antsy as hell—so I collapse one arm, and I do a half-barrel roll and extend my arm again, like so, and just lie there on my back, looking at the stars. Seeing Orion makes me feel better. Time’s gone by, but how much? I flip back over, face down, and tell my self again, No way in hell I’m going to make an ass of myself by opening high. But then I start to think, Shit, if I haven’t seen the target yet, I must be way out in the toolies, which means they’re going to have to come looking for me anyway, so…
By this time, I’ve kept my audience on the hook way past the time I was supposed to pull the ripcord. I’m standing there on the barroom floor, arms and legs spread as if I were in free fall. A few people are looking at me like I’m already dead. Then, I uncork the part they want to hear:
…So, I tell myself, It’s better to be seen as a coward than to cream in without a word. And I reach across my chest, take hold of the ripcord handle, and pull…
Even now, I can feel the sleeved parachute peeling off my back, and the nylon suspension lines ripping free of the rubber stows. I tense my shoulders, bracing for the opening shock. When it comes, I grip the harness, anticipating the second and final opening.
And then, just as the chute breathes fully open, my feet gently touch the ground, and I find myself standing next to a ball of tumbleweed.
The chute collapses onto the desert floor. I stare ahead into the night.
[Refer: This essay put the editors in mind of Jeff Freiert’s story “Outer Reef.”]
Image by David DeHetre via Flickr Creative Commons
Dustin Beall Smith is the recipient of the 2007 Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize in Nonfiction for his book, Key Grip. A Memoir of Endless Consequences. His essays have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Gettysburg Review, Hotel Amerika, The Louisville Review, New York Times Sunday Magazine, River Teeth, The Sun, Writing on the Edge, and elsewhere. His work has received Notable Mentions in Best American Essays, 2008 and 2009, and in Pushcart Prize, Best of the Small Presses, 2010. He has been awarded fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, and Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He has taught creative writing at the Writers at the Beach Conference, the Adams County Arts Council’s Imagination Station, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from Columbia University and teaches creative writing and first-year seminars at Gettysburg College. “Grace” is an excerpt from Key Grip, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company (2008); all rights reserved.