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The six of us were jammed together, frozen in quiet panic. No one spoke or looked around. We all knew that in a few moments our little plane with a big hole in its side would level off and the pilot would yell, "Ready!"
The person in Position 1 would then assume a crouched, crippled-looking stance, grab the right wing strut with both hands and carefully place his left foot on the six-inch foothold riveted below the opening. He would stretch his right foot as far as he could into the air so that it was nearly perpendicular to the plane. And jump.
"What in God's name am I doing in this plane," I thought. One thing was sure—I hadn't the slightest desire to jump out of it. I was going to, however. I may be stupid, but I'm certainly not chicken. Perhaps.
The now-defunct Titusville, Fla. skydiving club had issued me the challenge over the radio during one of the club's spectacular exhibitions. The show consisted of more than 400 parachutists landing along 48 miles of beach. Seventeen radio stations had formed an ad hoc network to cover the event. I was the network's announcer, as well as the organizer of the dive. While I was broadcasting from the roof of the 2100 Towers building in Cocoa Beach, Harvey Glass, president of the club, came down right in front of me, his toes barely touching the beach for several seconds in a riveting display of parachute ballet. As soon as he'd touched down for good, he grabbed Thunderchicken, another skydiver, and rushed up the 21 floors to be interviewed.
He'd planned the challenge that morning, knowing that it would be much easier for me to seem brave, or perhaps harder for me to seem a coward, if thousands of people heard his words. Harvey looked me right in the eye as he spoke into the microphone and with a great big grin from ear to ear said, "Bubba, I bet you wouldn't dare jump out of a plane."
"Sure, of course, I'll jump," I said. "It wouldn't bother me in the least." Thunderchicken just laughed. I think he would laugh if on a jump neither of his parachutes opened. I felt relieved that Harvey rather than Thunderchicken would be my instructor.
Harvey is a janitor by profession. He likes that type of work because it leaves him plenty of free time to dive, his only real love according to his wife. And Harvey is even-tempered and very precise, the type of person who makes a good teacher. Thunderchicken is perhaps a more talented jumper than Harvey, and he's much more famous, but he reminds me too much of a snake-oil salesman from Oklahoma. He wears funny hats and likes to spit tobacco juice long distances. And he can always give you a deal on a watch. "You like my watch?" he'd say through a cloud of cigar smoke. "Solid gold. You can have it for a sawbuck."
I distrust cigar smokers, watch peddlers and snake-oil salesmen who wear funny hats, especially when they're sky-divers who are impressed with their own bravura. Thunderchicken is renowned for diving out of balloons without a parachute. Only an elastic rope attached to his leg breaks his fall. He has skydived blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back. On this stunt he pulls the ripcord with his bare feet.
Thunderchicken is also very impatient. I learned that during a hot-air balloon race a few days before the Titusville skydiving show. We were riding in his balloon, which has a lightning bolt and a pink chicken stenciled on it, and I was having a magnificent time. Thunderchicken, however, was mad. A gas valve that regulated the burner and, thus, the amount of hot air in the balloon was sticking. Thunderchicken didn't attempt to adjust the valve with a screwdriver; he simply beat it into submission with a large wrench. Yes, I was happy this man wouldn't be my instructor.
Harvey had asked me to be at the diving center by 9:30 the morning after the exhibition, but I was a few minutes late, having gone to an early church service, my first in at least 10 years. When I arrived, five intense novices were sitting at Harvey's feet. "I want you to listen carefully to all that we're going to say and show you," he said. "If you don't, you probably will not be on this earth in three hours." I didn't like the sound of that. But I did listen very carefully. My lips moved perhaps a second behind his, repeating every word.