“I’ll bet that da—ed sergeant lied about the truck, too!”
That was the punch line to an old joke that had stuck in my mind at that particular moment. I think my Dad might have told it to me, or maybe I read it somewhere.
Anyway, about 20 seconds earlier, I’d stepped out of “a perfectly good airplane” and was watching said plane headed in one direction and me in another – that is me and my new best friend, an 85 kg (187 lbs) Austrian tandem parachute jump instructor (Mr. JI, for short) strapped to my back. We’d been the closest of 4 pairs of jumpers to the open door of the plane, and he’d rather casually uttered the command to “step out”, as though I was getting out of a car in a parking lot.
It was my wife’s fault. It seems she and her sister had coaxed a young female colleague from America to abandon our peaceful and feet-firmly-on-the-ground Munich beer gardens one pleasant Saturday morning to join them on this quest to jump out of an airplane over the Austrian Alps. (German women really have too much testosterone sometimes!)
I was conveniently left out of this conversation until the part, “Schatzi” (I was told it’s a German term of endearment translated as “sweetheart”, but I think it really stands for, “You unwitting puppet slave of mine”), “Would you mind driving us down to Austria?” (And, oh by the way, we’re all going to jump out of an airplane.)
So, here I was, a highly-trained (I think the lessons lasted 2 or 3 minutes) parachutist-to-be, with an 85 kg Austrian Mr. JI strapped to my back, door open. “Funny how these things go,” I thought, “It was their idea, but who do they want to go first?” My mind quickly assessed my life insurance policies – and the beneficiary of those – and yes, it was all adding up.
“And just how do I ‘step out’?”, I asked myself. “How do I even move my right leg, given I’m virtually immobilized in a deep crouch facing forward with this 85 kg Austrian deadweight on top of me?”
“And once I ‘step out’ with my right leg, just exactly what happens to my left leg? Does it actually come along with us?”
As if sensing this conundrum, Mr. JI lifted some of his weight off me and I managed to get my right foot past the door’s threshold.
“A journey of 3500 meters (ca. 11,000 ft) starts with the first step, I guess.” In this case, one step was all that was needed.
The next two seconds were perhaps the most unexpected of the jump. Note to self: “Sky skiing!” For those two seconds, the instructor had not thrown the two of us headlong into the void, but instead grabbed the wing with two hands – and there we were, “sky skiing”.
“Cool!”, I thought. “I wonder if one could tie a ski rope behind this thing?”
As I contemplated that soon-to-be “Next Big Thing”, Mr. JI let go, and there we were putting distance between ourselves and the plane – and closing the distance with the ground just as rapidly. Something about “9.2 fps squared”, if I correctly recalled the gravitational coefficient Mr. Stripling drummed into our young heads as we dropped rocks off the Sylvan Hills High Band Building so many years earlier. “Sorry, Danny, I’m not inclined to ‘do the math’ just right now. Maybe later.”
I was rather pleased to find at that particular moment that I was in the desired, head and feet up position, as opposed to the quaking, arms flailing, “We’re going to die!” tumbling pose I had anticipated. Like the guy who jumped off the Empire State Building said every ten floors, “So far, so good!”
It soon dawned on me there had been another useful piece of ground instruction, which I had apparently forgotten (it being all of 30 minutes in the distant past). “Remember to breathe!” I hadn’t and I wasn’t. I’d rather laughed off the notion with the 90’s equivalent of “Well, duh?”, but there I was – Not breathing. Well, highly trained as I was, I quickly resolved that and moved on to more advanced steps. Such as actually looking down. With my head still upwards, my eyes slowly sank from the plane to what awaited below.
“Geez! There it is, right where it’s supposed to be. The Ground.”
And that’s when I remembered the punch line.
See, during the Korean War, my Dad had been a Sergeant in charge of a shop in Japan that packed parachutes for the aviators, so there’d been this joke that came up now and then. It went like this.
An Army Drill Sergeant is teaching a new set of raw troops how to parachute.
“Awright you maggots, listen up,” he bellows, “Today is going to be your first jump! Piece of cake.’
“Now, the first thing you do after you jump from the plane is count ten seconds and pull your main ripcord. Your main chute will deploy and you’ll float safely to the ground.’
“But just in case the main chute fails to deploy, you need to count another ten seconds, and pull the backup ripcord, here. Then your backup chute will deploy and you’ll come down fine.’
“When you land in the drop zone, release your harness, fold and pack your chute and there’ll be a truck to pick you up and take you back to base.’
So, the Trainee is loaded in the plane, the plane takes off, the door is opened and he jumps.
“…8, 9, 10.’ He pulls the main ripcord, but nothing happens. The main chute doesn’t open.’
“After a few seconds exercising the colorful language so well known in the military, the Private again counts.
“…8, 9, 10,’ and pulls the backup ripcord.
Now his eyes slowly sink to the ground rushing up to meet him and he frantically searches the drop zone below. Thoroughly disgusted, he curses, “I’ll bet that da—ed sergeant lied about the truck, too!”
Fortunately, our 90 second trip was a bit more successful than the Trainee’s. We got to spend maybe 45 seconds in free fall and I enjoyed getting a feel for it, managing to turn myself (along with Mr. JI, simply by adjusting my arms into the wind. “Great, all those hours of holding my hand out the window of a moving car really did count for something!”
I suppose all good things must come to an end, and fortunately for us, our main chute opened as it was supposed to and we were soon in the next phase of the jump. Now things were much quieter and rather more relaxed. Except of course, that Mr. JI thought it a great time to demonstrate his mastery of dramatic loops, spins and rolls. “You’re just mad at me because you lost the war!”, I muttered, as the contents of my stomach climbed upward (wherever, “upward” was, at any given moment.)
Soon, we were coming in for our landing on a nice grassy field, and sure enough, he hadn’t lied. There was the truck.
I still thought it might be time to reconsider my life insurance policies.