There is a certain correctional institution located in upstate New York that has commanded a good deal of my attention from time to time. I have never been an inmate but there were times when I earnestly prayed to be transformed into one. Twelve times, to be exact. My preoccupation with the prison was the result of its proximity to a parachute jump center where I got myself involved a few years back.
Why a 43-year-old tax accountant would suddenly get the urge to take up sky diving is a question Sigmund Freud might have been able to answer, but I am no Freud (actually, I'm Caspar Milquetoast). So I'll spare you my rationalizations. All I know is that one day I found myself announcing to my wife that I intended to take up sky diving. Her total lack of response and my own need to prove something probably provoked the next step: showing that I meant it. I discovered there was a jump center about an hour's drive from my home, and—without investigating much further—I decided to go up there and look around. That may have been my basic error. This place was not what you'd call the ideal up-to-the-second jump center, as you will see.
I arrived at the local airport one pleasant September afternoon, said I wanted to make a parachute jump and was presented to a man we shall call Joe Sauer, who ran the jump center with a twin brother we shall call Rusty. Joe sized me up and asked, "You haven't been drinking any beer, have you?" I replied truthfully that I had not. (He didn't ask about double martinis.) Joe then put me through four hours of prejump training, took me aloft and let me make my first jump.
If I had thought that would be the end of it, I was mistaken. I found that a single jump failed to prove whatever it was I was trying to prove, and I started coming back for more. That's when I began making the acquaintance of the local prison.
The jump center, I soon discovered, was not recognized by the Parachute Club of America, because, said the PCA, there was no adequate landing area. What there was was a cow pasture, which occasionally contained cows. Joe reassured me not to worry about landing on one of them. "It doesn't bother the cows," he said. It bothered me, though. I never failed (except once) to land on, or in, one of the cow pies that infested the field. The exception was the time I landed in the power lines.
One thing I had convinced myself of before I started was that the sport was in no way hazardous—it merely appeared hazardous. The way I had it figured, the chances of your chute not opening were about equal to the chances of winning first prize in the Irish Sweepstakes. Besides, you had two parachutes, not just one, so the odds against both of them not opening were even higher.
I learned later that the above is a slight oversimplification. When you pull your ripcord and nothing happens at all, you have what is known as a total malfunction. If you must have a malfunction, this is far and away the best kind. In this case, your reserve chute, which you now pop, has nothing to get in its way and hinder it from inflating properly. As it happens, however, most malfunctions are not total. Usually trouble comes in the form of a partial malfunction, when you find yourself with a tangled bundle of cloth fluttering above your head. When this occurs, you must try to hand-feed your reserve chute off to the side, where it has a chance to inflate properly. Otherwise you wind up with two malfunctions—the dreaded "double mal."
During my jumping days I saw a jumper have this problem once—a fellow named Dan, from whom I picked up the phrase double mal. Dan was taking a long free fall when he began to tumble uncontrollably. He took the prescribed action for this by immediately pulling his ripcord. Unfortunately, one of his shroud lines got hung up over the top of his canopy, nipping it in the middle and giving it a kind of wasp-waist effect known as a lineover, bow tie or Mae West.
Dan knew instantly that he was in trouble and went for his reserve. But the malfunctioning main chute interfered with the second one, causing it to stream rather than balloon out properly, and he continued to plummet toward the airport with two faulty parachutes fluttering above his head. Miraculously, he never hit the ground. Instead, he lit exactly on top of the biggest maple tree you ever saw and came crashing through it without hitting any major limbs. His two chutes caught in the top of the tree and gently arrested his fall. There he hung, swaying in the breeze, without a scratch. When they got him down, he held out his hands to demonstrate that they were steady as a rock, but I noticed he did talk in an unnaturally loud voice for a while.
Most of the regulars I met in Joe Sauer's confraternity were young, but all seemed serious-minded about their avocation, which obviously occupied a great deal of their spare time. The special characteristic they had in common was a conviction that sky diving was an extremely meaningful personal outlet. None that I met was the obvious daredevil type. (I understand there are exceptions to this. Several years ago a guy on the West Coast named Rod Pack jumped from 14,000 feet without a parachute. The idea was to meet up with a friend who had jumped ahead of him carrying two parachutes, and for Rod to take one of them, buckle it on and pull the ripcord—all at terminal velocity of 120 mph. He reportedly got $10,000 for the stunt and some kind of a fine or scolding from the authorities.)