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Sport Death (1978)

Sport Death (1978)

©1978, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (1978). Sport death: A personal view of the parachuting experience. Unpublished essay.

Thumbnail Photo: Mike Shoop in free-fall over South Korea, 1975.



Sport Death

A Personal View of the Parachuting Experience

By Dallas Denny


Relatives are like strangers. We pick our friends and acquaintances by mutual attraction, by shared interests, or by similar economic or employment circumstances, but we are, forgive me, stuck with our relatives. They are, for the most part, a heterogenous group of people of all ages but yours, people to whom you wouldn’t speak in a crowded elevator or invite into your home except for the happenstance of shared genes. They are overbearing and often condescending, to be gotten away from in youth as soon as we can support ourselves and thereafter visited or allowed to visit only because politeness dictates, and because, in a perverse way, we love them. Occasionally a diamond shines in a sea of coal and we find ourselves genuinely liking and respecting someone with whom we share blood ties; sometimes this even happens in our immediate family. I am fortunate in that I feel this way about several people in my nuclear family. So I was pleased to be riding country roads with my younger sister in the new Pinto which my parents had just bought and which emitted the smell of rotten eggs every thirty minutes or so, when the catalytic converter would clear its throat. At least it was my theory the catalytic converter was to blame; the Pinto was the first car in which I had ridden which was so equipped and the first which smelled of rotten eggs.

We were on our way to LaFayette, Tennessee to learn how to fall out of a perfectly good airplane. I was having a fine time talking with Donna for the first time in three years and marveling at what a fine, sophisticated lady she was turning out to be and at what a fine head she had on her shoulders.

Donna is one of the few truly good and sweet people I know. She is good and sweet because that is her inner nature; she doesn’t have to work at it. I’ve always admired her and I remember to my everlasting shame the time, when she was three years old and I thirteen, when I talked her into touching an electric fence. The jolt knocked her down and etched scars into my psyche that keep me from being senslessly cruel to anyone or anything, even to this day.

It had been years before, when Donna was possibly twelve and I twenty-two, that we had gone bicycling with Mike Shoop. We had paused on a hill to watch a small aircraft cut power and eject three black specks which traveled down, down, briefly merged into one, came apart, and then grew, miraculously, canopies which slowed them and settled them to earth as gently as leaves. We had sworn a solemn oath we would someday make a jump like that, and then had set out on our wearying way up the hill.

Then we had all gone our separate ways: Donna, to puberty and the pains of adolescence, Mike to the Army (he was one of the last draftees), and myself, to graduate school and the endings of a marriage. Mike, in the Army, had an excellent opportunity to jump, and good motivation. He was a non-paratrooper at a paratrooper base, in a word, a Leg. Legs were despised and held in contempt by the Airborne. Mike told me of a paratrooper, a hitchhiker he picked up: “He seemed like a very together guy. We talked about psychology, and philosophy, and stuff like that, and then he asked me what I did in the Army. I told him I was a company clerk, and he said, ‘You mean you’re a Leg?’ like he couldn’t believe I could talk about stuff like we had been talking about and not be a paratrooper. He showed me the wings tattooed on his shoulder. The Army gets some of its guys at such a young and impressionable age that they fall for all that brainwashing and bullshit in Basic Training and Airborne School.” No wonder Mike joined the Fort Campbell Sport Parachuting Club.

I watched Mike make his third jump. I was between quarters at the University of Tennessee and drove to Clarksville with our mutual friends Clyde and Rosie and Mike’s parents, Glenn and Darlene. We all stood around for the most part, as did everybody else.

Parachuting, at first glance, appeared to be a sport, like baseball, in which one spends the better part of the day waiting for an eventual few seconds of action. I remembered how, in Little League, I would find myself, after an eternity of waiting, bat in hand, facing the pitcher. My entire being would become a knife-edged awareness of Here and Now; the past and the future, and indeed, everything but me and the pitcher faded to wood of the bat in my hands, and the boy with the ball. A cold hand of anxiety would grip my insides as the pitcher wound up. It must be something like that, I thought, to climb into an airplane knowing you’re going to jump out—you and your heightened sensations, and the world forgotten. I thought it might be worth the wait.

Mike evidently thought the jump was worth the wait. I watched as, his turn drawing near, adrenaline animated him and sent him pacing, checking equipment, talking, laughing. He was target jumping. On his way down he overshot the mark and partially collapsed his chute so he would at least land close. He came down hard and bounced. Nobody else had come down that hard all day, but then nobody else had cared enough to collapse their rig in order to hit the mark.

You have to understand about Mike Shoop. He has a loose, haphazard, carefree personal style that courts disaster, but his karma is such that he always gets by with only minor mishap. His very style is what attracts his friends, but to be friends with Mike without sharing in these minor mishaps is like trying to get into a canoe without getting your feet wet. Both can be done, but the sacrifices in grace are worse than the mishaps. Some examples of Mike’s good luck: when, as an adolescent, he did something highly illegal and was, of course, caught, he was in the company of the son of a high-ranking policeman, so the entire affair was quietly shunted off into some paralegal NeverNever land and Mike got off scot free. Mike has drowned cars, been caught on railroad bridges by unscheduled trains, outrun the police, and gone swimming within thirty minutes of eating a heavy lunch, yet has hardly a scar on his fair-haired body. He is always getting to the essence of Truth in life while avoiding the Consequences.

So naturally parachuting became Mike’s lifelong hobby. I think he was originally taken by the glamour. Later, when I jumped, I felt like a puppet dangling there beneath my jumbo-sized beginner’s canopy, with very little of either directional control or dignity, but there at Fort Campbell, the old-time jumpers, flying around with their square parachutes in gaudy jumpsuits with matching helmets, really did look as if they had it together. One fellow zoomed in beneath a canopy that had all the color and appearance of fragility of a stained-glass window, landed lightly on the balls of his feet, and nodded to us. Then he grabbed up his rig, walked all of twenty feet to an open car, tossed the stained-glass into the back seat, and drove off with a big-busted blonde.

Mike had more than one hundred jumps on his log by the time he got out of the service and became a civilian jumper and urban cattle baron. I used to go out to his farm and leaf through skydiving magazines and listen to his descriptions of his latest jumps or nod approvingly at his newest rig. This was my ground school. I learned the terminology of the sport and the gear on the market. Finally, there came a day when I had the time and the money to spare. I called my sister, told her the time had come.

So there we were in my parents’ rotten-egg car, going to LaFayette. And then we were at the LaFayette airport. The most notable thing about the airport was the abandoned car. The burned-out remains of a Mustang convertible stood just outside the fence separating the parking area from the runway, near the gate, fifty feet from the airport’s single building. From the looks of things it had been there for a long time. When people tolerate junk cars in their airports, you know you’re really in the country. I asked the LaFayette cop (I’m sure there was only one) about it when he was standing around with the jumpers some time later, and he said strippers had brought it there by night and ravaged it. He made it sound like a sex crime. In the course of our thankfully brief conversation he mentioned that the week before somebody had left their car at the airport overnight and he, finding it, had called the tags in to Nashville. He told me with a serious face the fellow who owned the car was a known drug user. In country cop terminology that means that the guy had been busted at some time in the past for possession. I felt the hair on the back of my neck beginning to stand up as I got angry, but I managed to keep my mouth shut until he left. It’s some world when you leave your car at an airport to party and drive around with friends and wind up on the LaFayette policeman’s Most Wanted list.

I met an old high school chum there at the LaFayette airport. Mike Fedak signed in my senior yearbook above a photo of the band returning from the Orange Bowl, “This palm frond came over one thousand miles on a Greyhound bus with over fifty people on it. It was HELL.” Now he was a jumper. I told him I was convinced a static line jump was just an exaggerated carnival ride; that if the novice followed instructions there was little change of his getting hurt. Fedak looked at me with a peculiar expression and told me he had broken both of his legs on his third jump, when he had landed in a gully. He pointed out the gully to me.

Training was as simple as falling off a log. Donna and I jumped from the open tailgate of a pickup truck, perfecting the Parachute Landing Fall, practiced exiting from a parked aircraft, pretending it was in the air, and watched a parachute being packed. Emergency procedures were outlined and repeated. Then the training was finished and we were watching the last load of jumpers of the day. And a man nearly died.

He nearly died because of his own stupidity. Most skydiving accidents, in fact, involve human error rather than equipment failure. This particular parachutist was jumping a new rig, a rig without a ripcord for the main chute. The idea was to reach over the shoulder, detach the pilot chute from its Velcro fastening, and toss it into the breeze. Popular opinion among skydivers is that this is perhaps one-tenth of a second quicker than pulling a ripcord. This fellow did have a ripcord, and it was in the conventional position. What it didn’t do, however, was open his main chute. Rather, it cut loose his main chute in case of malfunction.

If you have a partial malfunction and have yards and yards of dirty linen trailing uselessly above you doing little or nothing to slow your meteoric descent, you want it out of the way before you deploy your reserve, to avoid entanglements between the two chutes. Conventionally, you cut the main away by using two capewells, left and right shoulders, each looking like a cross between a pop-tart and the pin on a fire extinguisher. The ripcord of his new rig made for a faster release in case of malfunction.

The jumper, after eight seconds of free-fall, didn’t toss the pilot chute. Instead, from force of habit, he pulled the ripcord. This cut loose the main chute which was still tucked neatly away on his back. Nothing happened, of course, and he continued to fall like a rock while his fellows’ chutes were blossoming around him. Then he remembered his new rig, but he did the wrong thing; he tossed out the pilot. It caught and pulled out the main canopy, which, having already been cut away from his rig, whipped clear and began drifting slowly groundward. He continued plummeting earthward. Two mistakes so far, and then the third: he froze. The crowd in the drop zone held its collective breath and watched in fascinated horror as his body disappeared behind a hill a mile or so distant, the reserve starting to come out but with no hope, it seemed, of opening in time. Then there was a flurry of motion. A jeep and a pickup sped away toward him, and then the other jumpers were coming in, landing hard to show their concern. They said his reserve had opened for an instant, and then closed as he hit the ground. It seemed likely he was dead or badly injured.

And then, incredibly, he was back, sitting unhurt in the back of the jeep, looking as if he had seen a ghost. Donna looked as if she had seen the same ghost. On the way back to Nashville she was sick, violently.

I seem to lack the direct connection between my brain and my viscera which some people have. I stopped at a drive-in and ate two hamburgers as we approached the city.

Although my parents showed up to watch me jump, Donna was conspicuously absent the next day. I think seeing the near tragedy had slammed home to her the idea that there was a chance, however remote, that she could die or be hurt. I heard a skydiver that morning call jumping “sport death,” and I realized just how true that expression is. You commit symbolic suicide every time you jump. I was glad Donna had arrived at the answer to her fear before she had actually been suited up and in the airplane. I put on my rig when the club’s aircraft was sighted coming in from Nashville.

I was the last to get in the airplane. I would be the first out. I sat with my back toward the front of the aircraft, beside the pilot, on the metal floor. I had to lean forward in the cramped cabin so he could see the instruments on the panel. My right hand covered the ripcord on my reserve chute like it had been told to do. One doesn’t want one’s chute deploying while still in the aircraft.

I would be jumping from three thousand feet. That’s less than fourteen seconds from the ground with no parachute. The other two jumpers would be getting out at eight thousand feet for a little freefall maneuvering (relative work or RW). None of that for me. I was jumping on a static line. I wanted that chute open even if I died of fright upon my exit. I pulled the end of the line to be sure the clip was fastened securely to the pilot’s seat, as my jumpmaster had told me to. Actually, I hadn’t liked the way he had brought the matter up. “Be sure to tug the end of your cord so you’ll know you’re hooked up. It’s funny— people will jump right out like you tell them to, a perfect stranger with their lives in your hands, without even making sure the line’s hooked.” He had grinned toothily. I tugged the rope again.

My thoughts, as the airplane began taxiing to the end of the runway, concerned gracefully getting out of the entire situation. Here, on the ground, I could lean over a little further, tug the jumpmaster’s sleeve, and ask him to have the pilot taxi the Cessna back around to the loading area. If I am any judge of character, Ron would have looked at me hard for a second or so, and then done just that. Later, he might have tried to persuade me to try it again. Once the plane was in the air, however, it would be a different story. The iron fist clutching at my stomach wouldn’t be sufficient to make me grab his arm. No, then the only thing that could overcome my pride and make me refuse to jump was cold, blind panic—the kind that completely overrides logical thinking processes. And, in a way, that was the reason I was wearing about forty pounds of man-made silk, bent double in a stripped-down parachute airplane in a town whose main attraction was a burned-out car at the airport. I had always wanted to know if logic could overcome that panic, or better yet, prevent its occurrence. My mind had carefully weighed the probability of a serious accident and decided that if I followed instructions I was just on a larger-than-life carnival ride, but I knew from experience my body often has thoughts of its own alone those lines. I tried not to think of the dropping-off sensation that happens when the rollercoaster goes over its first hump, and I completely ignored Mike Fedak’s broken legs.

The pilot turned the plane at the end of the runway and we were off, gathering speed, the acceleration making it easier to keep my back away from the instrument panel. As the blurring fence posts dropped from sight, I felt a weight lift as, for the first time I knew, really knew, I was going to jump. No hysterical scenes over LaFayette, Tennessee. Just me, following instructions, the reasons for some of which I didn’t understand, putting my trust in my fellow man. Yes, I believe the parachute will open. I tried not to think about Santa Claus and the tooth fairy and grinned at the other jumpers. I got the thumbs-up sign from Ron.

I watched the altimeter on the front of Ron’s reserve with great interest. At twenty-eight hundred feet we flew into clouds and the ground vanished. We climbed to three thousand feet and flew around for five minutes looking for a hole in the white mist. There weren’t any. Finally, about the time I decided we would return to the airport and sit around the lounge like gentlemen, sipping RC Colas until the sky cleared, Ron leaned forward and shouted something to the pilot. Then he told me they were going to let me out below the clouds. I told him okay, resisting the temptation to plead for those extra two hundred feet. I was sure I would need them. We could be half-way back to those RCs by now, I felt like saying.

Ron leaned across me and unfastened the door. It was hinged at the top, and just as he had said it would, the air pressure made it swing up and stay put. As we flew over the airport, Ron tossed the test chute out. It wasn’t a chute at all, but rather a dirt-filled can with maybe ten yards of crepe paper attached. I leaned out almost imperceptibly to watch it fall. No wonder people are always reporting strange things falling out of the sky. The pilot began to circle to correct for wind drift.

I knew what would happen next. Ron would touch my knee and say, “Put your feet out,” and I would put my left hand on the wing strut and stick my boots into the breeze. Then he would tell me to get out and I would slide my butt over the door frame and stand on the wheel, which would be locked in place so it wouldn’t turn. I would grab the strut with my right hand and, twisting ninety degrees, move up the strut until I was past the wheel, with my right foot hanging free in the breeze and my left foot resting on the wheel. Then Ron would say, “Go!” and I would push backwards, throwing my arms and legs out and arching my back. And counting. Arch, one-thousand. Two, one-thousand. Three, one-thousand. Four, one-thousand. The chute was supposed to open at four, one-thousand. If it didn’t there was a whole list of things to do. There was another list of things to do if there was a partial malfunction.

I didn’t think about the chute not opening as I climbed out onto the wing. It was an awkward business. I was, I swear, afraid of falling, but I sensed that Ron was impatient with me and tried to hurry. As soon as I was in place, Ron slapped my leg and yelled for me to go. I went.

I forgot to count. I told my friends later my mind was going full throttle, but it was as if my transmission was in neutral. As Ron had said would happen if I arched properly, the ground came into view and I was falling horizontally. Shouldn’t the chute be opening about now?

When the parachute did open it set me gently upright. The jerk I had been expecting didn’t occur; instead there was a sudden stillness as the wind quit whistling in my ears. I hadn’t been aware of the wind roaring in my ears and the airplane noise until the chute opened and they stopped.

I put my hands on the risers and looked up to be sure I had a complete opening. I did, but the canopy seemed a lot smaller than it was reported to be. I found the toggles which steered the parachute left and right and turned in the direction which was being indicated from the ground.

Then there was nothing to do until I got near the ground. For some reason I thought of suicide. Now, I’m not a suicidal person, not by a long shot, although the idea sometimes flits across my mind like V-2s once streaked across the London sky. I was merely interested in the possibilities. I decided the best bet would be to pop the covers of the capewells, hook my thumbs in the rings, and wait until I was at about two hundred feet to release the main canopy. The reserve shouldn’t have time to open. Otherwise, it would be necessary to wait until I had earned the right to freefall without an automatic opener on reserve, and then swan-dive directly into the ground. Of course, it might be possible to wriggle completely out of the harness…

I kept my hands as far as possible from the capewell covers, in case they should have ideas of their own, and life was very sweet. Until I started to get near the ground.

Suddenly every fence-line, every pothole, every tree in a quarter-mile radius became an enemy which could poke holes in my body or bend my arms and legs around in directions in which they were never intended to be bent. One fence, in particular, which appeared to be made of a particularly sadistic barbed wife, seemed to be right in my line of descent. I was so relieved to clear it I didn’t much mind that I was going to touch down in a patch of woods. I took one last look at the canopy, thinking it looked awfully small for a thirty-six footer, and then turned it into the wind as individual leaves began to resolve themselves from the greater mass. And then the jumpers at the airport were yelling for me to cover my face and I was crashing through the trees with my head in the crook of my elbow and my left foot tucked over the right so I wouldn’t come down with my legs on either side of a branch.

I hit the ground with only a slight thump, like jumping from a curb. My arms were a little scratched, but otherwise I was fine. I had survived it! I called out to reassure my parents and the rest of the spectators I was alright. I hoped I wouldn’t get too cocky about this.

I needn’t have worried. By the time I got to the drop zone the plane had landed with Ron and the other jumper. We waited for an hour and the sky cleared. My second jump was much like the first, except I exited at the full three thousand feet and landed in a field with the wind died completely away. By the time I was three or four hundred feet up, I knew I was coming down too fast and that I couldn’t do a thing about it. I’ve never felt so helpless in my life as I did when, looking past my booted feet, I watched the general greenness of the pasture grow into individual weeds at an alarming rate.

When I hit I broke to the right and rolled, but on first impact I knew I was hurt. Something deep inside my body, about where my coccyx was supposed to be, moved and bruised and stretched other components in the vicinity. I lay there in the field like a sack of bricks and began cautiously moving my legs until I was sure everything WAS bruised and stretched rather than broken.

As long as I held still, the pain was bearable, so I resolved to lie there and watch the airplane climb to let out the next jumper, a young kid who was making his third free-fall. He had botched the first two badly. Probably thinking about how hard he was going to land. All of us aren’t so lucky as to have our first landing gentled by friendly trees. He KNEW he was going to hurt when he came down.

I was sure most landings were like mine had just been. Skydivers didn’t let word of this leak out; hopefully, by the time a new recruit finds out, he is hooked by the adrenaline rush associated with the jump and willing to take the pain. I would be sworn to secrecy in a dark and mysterious ceremony behind the hangars. No wonder Ron had looked displeased when I told him of my soft landing in the woods.

So I lay there, a probably cripple for life, and watched the young fool botch his third free-fall, and remembered the old joke about the fall not being particularly bad but the landing being hell, and finally a couple of eight-year-olds from the drop zone showed up and asked me if I was all right. I told them, as they helped me to my feet, that I wasn’t badly damaged, but a person would have to be a damned fool to submit herself regularly to this sort of punishment. No sense keeping my mouth shut before the secret ceremony, even to Ron’s kids. We picked up my gear and I limped back towards the rusted Mustang visible in the distance.