By: John Carlson—
Once upon a time, I jumped out of a perfectly good airplane.
This was nearly 45 years ago, while a student at a small Christian college. The school was a place which prohibited many things that most young people considered fun, like smoking, drinking and dancing.
Falling through the sky trying not to wet your pants, however, was allowed.
Thus was born Taylor University’s Parachute Club.
About 20 young men and women drove to a small airport south of Indy one Saturday morning to begin the training that would culminate in our first jumps by early afternoon. Perhaps to weed out any chickens among us eagles, we were alerted early on to the host of bad things that could happen to us.
Being blown away from the airport’s drop zone was one. That’s because you wouldn’t hear the steering instructions yelled up via bullhorn by your instructor on the ground. “Right toggle!” or “Left toggle!” he would call out, depending on which wooden knob on your parachute’s risers you needed to yank to stay overhead and land into the wind. Land with the wind at your back and you would hit the ground in a speeding heap, possibly ending up with your legs pretzeled around your face.
This, I should note, was back in the days before tandem jumping was invented. Now students fall through the air literally attached to their instructors. The great benefit of tandem jumping is that from the very first jump, the student experiences the rush of free fall. Back then, new students didn’t free fall. Instead, your parachute was automatically opened by a “static line” in the airplane, to which the ripcord was clipped.
The downside of the old way was, when you jumped from that airplane, you were alone.
Besides being blown away from the airport, coming down on a tree’s stout branches was another no-no. Should that happen we guys, especially, were advised to hold our legs tightly together for obvious reasons. Hey, they didn’t have to warn me twice. Hitting power lines was also a bad idea. If it looked like that was going to happen, we were told, keep your body stiff to glance off them. But I think each of us figured if we hit power lines, our bodies were going to be stiff enough as soon as rigor mortis set in.
Then there were parachute malfunctions.
To train for that possibility, we were strapped into parachute harnesses, then strung up under a handy swing set. With our instructors screaming that our main chutes had failed to open, we practiced overcoming the urge to flap our arms, instead deploying our reserve chutes with panicky looks plastered on our faces. All this was as we dangled two feet off the ground. Meanwhile, through the picture windows of the airport restaurant about 50 feet away, laughing diners tried not to choke on their pork chops.
What this exercise really taught us was, if your parachute malfunctioned in that first jump, you were screwed. Still, nobody wimped out.
When it was time to take turns climbing into our Cessna 180 jump plane though, a funny thing happened. We were asked, who wanted to go first? A bunch of hands shot up, and most of them were attached to sweet little Christian gals going, “Me! Me! Me!”
A number of us guys, meanwhile, abruptly chose to renew our walks with Christ. Out behind the jump school’s equipment shack, we were fervently promising to never sin again, and maybe even become missionaries to Borneo, if only we didn’t plummet to our deaths. Already possessing a private pilot’s license, I was no stranger to the sky. But it suddenly struck me that going up in an airplane in which I didn’t intend to come back down was a remarkably stupid idea.
But I also knew that if, once I stepped off that airplane, I had the guts to holler “Geronimo!!!” like I’d seen paratroopers do in war movies, I would be a man.
Soon enough we were at 2,800 feet. The first jumper, a girl, scooted confidently to the raised door in the Cessna’s fuselage, grabbed the wing strut and swung out onto a rigged plank. The instructor riding with us signaled her to jump, and she disappeared like she was shot out of a cannon. Then, cautiously inching toward the door like a man with multiple hernias, I grabbed the strut, swung out onto that plank and let go with a holler.
“Geroni-WAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!” I screamed.
I’ve often compared the ensuing couple seconds to being an ant climbing up the slick white porcelain of a toilet bowl. Then, just when he gets near the top, it’s flushed. Instantaneously, there was utter, tumbling confusion. Then my parachute popped open with the most welcome kick in the crotch any guy could ask for.
It was a beautiful feeling, slowly descending through the azure Hoosier sky under that now old-fashioned 7T model parachute. But from somewhere I heard faint shouting. Stretching to reach the toggles, I began pulling them per instructions, the ground instructor directing me where the landing site was marked by a huge circle of pea gravel. Just before landing, I looked to the horizon to avoid bracing for the impact, then hit.
As you might imagine, it was an excited group of young folks who piled back into cars to make the drive north to good old Upland. Having just bonded in a unique way, we all joyfully compared our experiences, professed our newfound love for jumping out of airplanes, and made plans to do so again soon.
I meant it, too, but somehow things never worked out. Guess for me, once was enough.
A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with a unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.