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Mary, my friend who is a stringer for one of the wire services, stood by us with a photographer. She was there to document in words and pictures whatever happened to me. At one point she ordered me to "smile and look at the camera." Mary could not have cared less about my need to concentrate or the fact that she had interrupted Harvey in mid-sentence. I felt like decking her on the spot, but I chilled her with a look instead. She walked away in a huff, angry that I didn't appreciate the importance of her photographs, and plopped herself down on the front fender of her red '67 Buick convertible.
I hadn't liked Mary when we first met, I had found her apparently void of enthusiasm and chock-full of slowly spoken questions that seemed to roll with great effort from her mouth. I'd grown to like and respect her since then, but my original feelings returned when I saw her sitting on the fender as our plane taxied down the runway, watching us through binoculars. The photographer was next to her, holding a long telescopic lens. Mary waved as we lifted into the air, and I thought this might be my last sight of her.
I had fought this battle between bravery and stupidity before. I wondered which of these two closely related qualities had brought me to this little plane with its door removed. "Bubba, why are you doing this?" It was the last of many questions Mary had asked me, and she seemed determined to get an answer before I jumped, as if it would be impossible for me to answer afterward.
"Because it's there," I finally said.
"What's there? What are you talking about?"
"Hell, I don't know." It had been a silly answer. "The sky, the ground, soft ground, who in God's name cares?"
The plane began its climb to 2,700 feet, much lower than the altitude seasoned divers jump from, and I didn't like that. "Why can't we dive from 10,000 feet?" I asked, thinking that the additional distance would delay the inevitable moment when the ground and I would meet. It was noisy in the plane and out the windows I could see only sky. That was a comforting thought. No one could be hurt out there in that softness. I began to repeat part of the litany taught us that morning: "When you hear the word 'go,' throw yourself backward into a spread-eagle, your hands far behind your head, your head back, your eyes wide open, and count to 5,000, 1,000...2,000...3,000..., as you spread." I remembered if my chute were not open by the time I got to 5,000, I'd have less than three seconds to pull my reserve chute. Oh God, what had I got myself into?
I'd done well in practice, jumping and spreading with the enthusiasm only absolute horror can bring, but my neck and joints still ached from the maneuvers Harvey had put us through. I had done especially well in my rolls, climbing the 13 steps to the platform and jumping off with my head up and my eyes closed. Upon impact I'd rolled shoulder first, not neck first, just as I'd been taught. Harvey stressed that it was important not to land neck first because "it's easy to break it that way." I practiced those rolls over and over.
As the plane continued its ascent, I kept thinking about a Reader's Digest article that I'd read years ago. It was about a man who had fallen 35,000 feet without a parachute and lived. Newton's law of gravitation aside, I began to believe that if men could survive falls from 35,000 feet, I would certainly be all right from a mere 2,700 feet. After all, that's only 270 stories.
But then I recalled all those short newspaper accounts of people dying from falls of three feet. I started to feel terrified that these moments, perhaps my last, were ticking away so quickly. I prayed.