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.