The first thing you used to do when you arrived at the center for a jump was sign the manifest, like signing in for a round of golf at a crowded course. When it was your turn, you buckled the large main chute on your back, the small reserve on your chest, and had your jumpmaster check you out. The last thing you put on was a football-type helmet, designed not to protect your skull but your ears. As the chute snaps open, the heavy fabric risers go zinging past your head, posing a threat of auricular amputation.
The center had a four-place Cessna for a jump plane. The pilot sat in the left front seat, with the right front seat as well as the right-hand door having been removed. The first jumper sat on the floor where the right seat used to be, facing the rear of the plane. The jump-master sat on the right rear seat, facing the first jumper. The man jumping second sat behind the pilot, and when his turn came he had to maneuver past the jumpmaster into position beside the open door. I never had to perform this ballet, since I was always the first man to jump. Joe used to say putting the fattest guy out first saved gas.
The jump altitude for novices was 2,500 feet. As you approached your altitude, the jumpmaster gave you a little pep talk.
"Now, I want to see a good strong push-off and a good firm arch when you're clear," he told me almost every time. "Get that head back and your arms and legs well out so your belt buckle is your closest point to the earth. When you go in for your ripcord with your right hand, don't forget to pull your left hand in over your head so your body will remain stable." In reply, all I could ever do was nod dumbly and wish I were in that prison down below.
As the exit point approached, the jumpmaster used to hunch forward in his seat and lean through the door opening, so he could guide the pilot in lining up the plane. My jumpmaster was always Georgie Tumlo, and what I remember most about Georgie, because at this point in the jump your brain is working feverishly and every little thing becomes etched in your mind, was how his face got all pushed out of shape by the propeller blast when he leaned out that open door.
When we got close, the first command, "Stand by," was yelled. You pivoted on your rump 90° to your left so you faced the door opening. Then you grabbed the sides of the door frame and put your feet out onto the step, a piece of 2-by-6 lumber bolted to the bottom of the plane. At this point the jump-master signaled the pilot to cut the engine and then gave his second command, "On the step." Now it really got hairy. With your feet on the 2 by 6, you heaved your entire body out of the plane, swiveled to your left again and grabbed the wing strut. Now you were facing in the direction of the line of flight, your body stretched out almost parallel to the ground, face down. This was the moment when that prison would look so good to me. ("The only thing those guys have to do is serve out their sentences," a fellow jumper told me one time. "They don't have to jump out of this stupid airplane.") Then a voice barked "Go!" and you felt a smart rap on your left shoulder. You kicked your legs backward, shoved off with your hands and you were on your own.
A tremendous feeling of relief comes over you at that moment—not later when the chute opens, but the instant you shove off. No more decisions, no more battles, no more risk of dishonor. As for the chute, well, of course it will open, don't be ridiculous. You go through the three-second countdown you have been taught: arch second, look second, reach second, pull!. Then you count to six, and if your chute hasn't opened by then, you drop your ripcord and reach for your reserve chute.
Ordinarily, it is a point of honor for a jumper not to drop his ripcord. This has humanitarian implications. The ripcord handle weighs about half a pound, and such an object dropped from 2,500 feet or so can wreak all sorts of damage on objects below. The exception to this caveat, of course, is a malfunction. In those cases the jumper needs both hands.
One of the refinements of modern sport parachutes is a device called a deployment sleeve, something the Russians really did invent a number of years ago. It drastically reduces the possibility of the chute's fouling on opening, and it markedly cushions the opening shock. In the three-second jump-and-pull situation I have been describing, your body has very little time to pick up speed, and the deployment sleeve virtually eliminates the opening shock. You hear a faint whomp, your body is tugged gently upright and that beautiful canopy billows out above you in all its glory. You hang there in the sky, with a view that's hard to beat, and listen for the talker to guide you in. (The talker, in the case of my jump center, was a man on the ground with a bullhorn whose function it was to guide novice jumpers toward the place they were supposed to come down. Nowadays, I understand, they use ground-to-air intercoms built into the jump helmets.) At this moment, the realization that the worst thing that can happen to you now is breaking a leg seems hilarious. A minute ago you were worried about how they were going to get you scraped off the landscape.
On my eighth jump I wound up in the power lines. It happened this way. Most jump centers insist that if a jumper is over 35 years old, or if he weighs over 175 pounds, he must use a 32-foot chute, one that lets him down easy, as a special precaution against broken bones. I qualified on both weight and age, but I was renting my equipment, and not owning a 32-foot chute was one of this center's cavalier quirks. So I made seven jumps with a 28-foot chute and had no trouble—the impact felt like a fall of about four feet. But for jump No. 8 they got me a 32-footer, and it threw the talker off by making my descent so slow. As a result I drifted too far.