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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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