"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!"