The jumpmaster tapped my helmet and shouted into the roaring wind. "On step...and go!" I'd been sitting in the open doorway, looking down, trying not to imagine the consequences of failure; trying to remember exactly how to exit—push off, arch, stabilize my body—and trying, in that last moment, to review the emergency procedures for a high-speed malfunction and what to do about a low-speed malfunction. All the while the cold logic in my head was getting mixed up with the hot fear in my heart.
I eased out into the buffeting wind. Both feet were planted firmly on the small steel plate over the right wheel, my hands on the wing strut, the wind screaming, the plane vibrating, the earth so terribly far below. Then came the sure knowledge that nothing separated me from a horrible death except some string and a bit of nylon cloth; this thought was followed by the desperate question all first jumpers ask themselves in the moment of truth: "My God, what the hell am I doing here?"
Stormville Airport is in New York's Hudson River Valley. Its runway is nestled between bright-green hills and blue-black lakes. Twelve years ago, when I was 49 and made my jump, a hundred yards west of the runway sat the sagging barn that housed the Stormville Parachute Center. It was owned and operated by Willy Sweet, a short, solid man then in his 60's. Willy had aged well, a Hemingway character: Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea. I asked if many men my age took up skydiving. "No," he said, "but I've made more than 2,000 jumps since my 50th birthday."
"Is it different now? Do you get bored with it?"
"No, never bored," he replied quickly, then paused for a moment. "But after so long, you can become careless." I waited, but Willy did not elaborate. My son Keith, who was 24 and who had decided to join me in my folly, wanted to know what it was like "when you let go."
"Can't really describe it," Willy said. "You just got to do it to know."
Keith and I walked over to the jump plane. It was small and old and battered. The exhausts were rusty, the paint faded and peeling. "Not much on looks, but she flies," said Bob, our instructor, an intense young man with thinning hair, a blond mustache, worn sneakers and a delightful sense of humor.
He introduced us to the four other members of our group: two young men, a tiny Japanese girl and Tom, a tall, balding man who seemed as fearful as I. We sat on a long table next to the barn. Bob stood before us explaining and demonstrating. "The first lesson," he said, "is the most important one. Get this and everything else will fall into place.
"Upon exit from the aircraft," he continued, "you will place both feet on the steel plate over the wheel. Your hands will be on the wing strut. As quickly as possible, move to the edge of the plate and swing your right leg out into space. Take a moment to get your head together and then push off. The object is to be in an arched, belly-down position when the chute opens. You do this by throwing your belly forward, spreading your arms and legs, arching and counting. Although you're attached to the plane by a static line that will pull out your chute and release it, we want you to get used to pulling the rip cord in preparation for free-falls. There will be a fake rip cord on the chute near your right armpit. We want you to find it, pull it, restabilize your body and then look for the chute above you."
"What if the chute isn't there?" Tom asked.
"Then you've got a problem," Bob said and smiled while we laughed nervously. "We'll cover that later in the day. After your chute opens, you will hear the voice of God. It will be Willy directing you down. There's a radio receiver in your jumpsuit pocket. Willy's the best. He could land you in a rain barrel."
Keith and I were to go up in the last lift of the day. The Cessna carried only five people: three jumpers, the instructor and the pilot. We had an hour's wait. It was four o'clock, and we were hot and tired.
My son and I shared a thermos of iced tea and then walked toward the jump shed, where Tom and two others were being snapped and buckled into their chutes. "Dad, why are we doing this?" Keith asked. "Couldn't we just walk away? We'll never see any of these people again." I'd been thinking the same thing. There was a churning in my stomach, and as the time of the jump approached, the fear kept growing. Keith was right. We still had a choice.
"I don't know why we're doing it," I confessed. "Pride maybe." I was glad he was with me. Had I been alone, perhaps I would have quietly ambled down the road, suddenly grown smaller, older. "I guess it's pride," I repeated. "That fits. Isn't it pride that goeth before a fall?" Keith laughed. We were resolved.
We stood with Tom's family as we watched the plane climb in a wide circle above us. Tom was to jump first. Even though you couldn't see the tiny figure out on the step, you knew he was there because the pilot shut off the engine and the drone of the plane stopped. Tom's wife pulled her daughter closer. We all held our breath. Then, against the blue sky there appeared a long, black streamer that magically bloomed into a splendid orange canopy. Dangling beneath it was a tiny speck—Tom—and we all breathed again.
When I put on the chute I found it surprisingly heavy but not uncomfortable. Willy adjusted the harness and checked the small radio receiver. Under Bob's direction, Keith and I went over the emergency procedures once again. Tom had returned, his family surrounding him, all talking at once. On our way out to the plane, he stopped us. "Chuck," he said, "whatever you do, don't miss the moment. I mean don't think about the direction of the wind or about landing positions or any of that stuff. When the chute opens, just enjoy the trip!"
Keith was to jump first. I'd be second. We too wished each other luck and were in the plane and airborne. A million thoughts ran through my head: "Good God, this little plane will be landing again in 15 minutes here at the Stormville Airport and I won't be in it! I'm coming down out of the sky in some other manner! The people at home were right. Only fools choose to jump out of airplanes 3,000 feet above the earth."
Our pilot was a bearded man named Drew. He would fly over the drop area the jumpmaster had selected. With the power off, he had to steady the plane while the jumper climbed out over the wheel—not an easy job because as the plane lost speed and approached stall conditions it would be thrown sharply out of balance by the jumper.
We were at jumping altitude. Bob opened the hinged door. It flew up and settled firmly against the wing, held there by the current of air. The engine noise and roar of the wind was deafening. The sudden view of the earth below brought a clutch of terror to my heart. "I won't be able to do it," I thought.
Bob dropped a wind flare, and Drew began turning the plane in a tight circle. I reached behind me and squeezed Keith's arm. The plane leveled out. The engine went dead. The rush of wind seemed even louder now. "O.K., Keith," Bob yelled. "Ready!"
I saw Keith for a second clinging to the strut, then, there he was, spread-eagled just outside the window and dropping from sight. The engine spurted to life. Bob assured me Keith's chute had opened and motioned me toward the jump position. We began a three-minute circle that would bring us back over the jump area. This was the worst time of all.
Drew cut the engine. It hadn't seemed like three minutes. Bob held my folded static line in his hand. "Ready, Chuck?" I nodded and dropped my legs over the edge, trying not to look down but looking anyway.
"On step and go!" Climbing out on that little step was a noisy, confusing experience. I'd been in South Pacific typhoons, bombing attacks and barroom brawls, and once a very long time ago, I stood on the edge of a garage roof with an umbrella in my hands trying to gather enough nerve to jump, but nothing, absolutely nothing, could be compared to that moment.
In addition to the fear, there was an overwhelming sense of loneliness. I felt the punishing wind and sensed the terrible pull of gravity. I pushed the fear back by concentrating on getting off properly, and I moved along the steel plate, careful not to slip or be blown away.... Keep hands from wrapping around the strut, but hold firmly.... Swing right leg out as far as possible.... Remember to push off so I won't hit the step when I let go.... Remember to arch...to find and pull the fake rip cord...to stabilize...to look up for the chute. It seemed I'd been out there a long time. "Go!"
There was not much of a dropping sensation, but there was a horribly loud ripping, banging, thumping collection of noises and a sense of helplessness and speed and violence and a quick, hard jerk. And. by God. there was the chute above me. blooming like the grandest, most outrageously beautiful flower in the desert. I felt better than I ever had in my life.
I looked down. In the far corner of the field was a tiny figure, waving. It was Keith. The silence was as astonishing as the view. It wasn't the silence of empty rooms, or of mornings on a flat sea. or of nights on an open plain. Perhaps the sudden leap from the deafening clamor on the wing to that serene, gently rocking descent accounted for the difference. In an instant, noise became peace, terror became joy. death became life.
In the first seconds after the chute opened, there was a rush of well-being, an urge to swing my legs back and forth, to laugh lustily. Willy had told the truth. You had to do it to know it.
Willy began directing me down. He seemed to know what was going on in my mind, and he spoke as little as possible. "'Right toggle." I pulled the right toggle and turned slightly. "A little left now." The ground appeared closer but not much closer than it had a few moments earlier. The lazy drift toward earth took about 2½ minutes, though it seemed much longer. I wished it were still longer than it seemed. Careful not to look straight down at the ground. I relaxed, knees bent, legs together. I hit and rolled and then it was over.
Tom and Keith helped me gather up my chute. Keith and I walked back to the jump shed together, close, feeling 10 feet tall. Just before we came to the crowded area, Keith stopped and turned to me. "Dad," he said, smiling, "you're one helluva guy!" It was one of the finest compliments I'd ever received. I felt, at least for the moment, that he was absolutely right.
Charles Greiner is a writer and a media consultant who lives in Patchogue, N.Y.