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 2� 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.