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I don't remember the five people jumping before me, though I vaguely recall the pilot repeating the orders to them: "Ready!...Go!...Shift!..." I remember moving from Position 6 to Position 5, and, finally, to Position 1, right there next to the pilot and the wing that was just outside the large opening in the fuselage.
I felt ill and wondered if upchucking would indicate to the pilot that I shouldn't be allowed to jump. Suddenly I recalled the plane that had taken off that morning with the experienced divers, the guys who were going to show us neophytes how easy and safe all this insanity is. As the six of us watched the plane ascend, Harvey described the formation jump the divers would make. He then boasted that the club hadn't had a single fatality. "We don't have parachute problems here," he said, half holding that last word in his mouth as he ran from our group to the middle of the field to watch one of the experts descend. The diver was desperately trying to release his reserve chute without tangling it in the main one, which was fluttering uselessly in the slipstream.
The chute finally opened about 300 feet from the ground, and the man hit with such a force that he needed the aid of two people to make it from the drop zone. "That should actually make you feel better," said Harvey. He kept telling us that lightning didn't strike twice in the same place. I cursed when he said that. Lightning does indeed love to visit places again—and quickly.
I had carefully rehearsed everything that I would now face. But none of the dry runs had prepared me for the wind's tremendous velocity as I grabbed the strut. I hung on for dear life. There was no turning back. With more conviction than I needed to hear, the pilot said, "Once you're out there, you must go when I say go. If you don't, you can affect the stability of the plane, and I'll have to tip it and throw you off." Without knowing it, I began to wet my pants.
As I hung spread-eagled on the strut, I heard him yell, "Go!" But my mind wasn't ready. What if he had said, "No!" I thought. I didn't move. "Go!" he repeated. I forced my head in his direction, doing my best not to look down and hoping that this little nightmare would end quickly.
"What did you say?" I said as if I hadn't the slightest idea why anyone, much less me, would stand on a little step 2,700 feet—270 stories—above the earth with a parachute on his back. The pilot was becoming irritated.
"Go, damn it!"
I have no memory of letting go or if I spread-eagled. I do recall that my head was thrown so far back that, if my eyes had been open, I probably could have seen my butt. I didn't remember to count to 5,000, or to look for my chute to blossom, either. I also forgot that if it weren't open by 5,000, I hadn't quite three seconds to open my reserve chute. I do remember my body straightening when the main chute opened.
Floating through the air beneath a parachute is a wonderful sensation. You don't hear anything, not even the sound of the wind, because you're moving with it. I began to enjoy the ride, using my toggle lines to turn left and right. Then, with my back to the wind, I decided that, yes, this was an easy sport after all. I admired the Indian River and the expressway below. I enjoyed the view of the Cape Canaveral Kennedy Space Center. I even composed a song, Floatin' in the Wind, which I sang to the tune of Singin' in the Rain. I wasn't aware of or in the least bit concerned with the airport, which was my target. I saw no need at the moment to worry about where I was supposed to land. I was simply suspended in midair, believing, I think, that some giant clothesline in the sky was holding me up indefinitely.
I later learned that Harvey and several others on the ground were aware of my state of obliviousness. Some of them jumped into their cars and began to track me. Mary merely asked the photographer if he had a really long-range lens.