IT CERTAINLY WASN’T LEGAL. However, this time my father’s disregard for rules was working in my favor. I was eleven years old and a mile up, packed into the belly of a Cessna 182. Four other goggle-eyed divers were on the same load, giving wide grins and thumbs-up. Gesticulation was the only means of communication given the whine of the plane engine and roar of winds outside.
My dad, the Tandem Master, sat behind me, his legs stretched out, straddling each of my sides. The cameraman sat beside us. There was no stinginess in the amount of duct tape on his helmet cam, none whatsoever. Between the extra foot of height it gave him, his mirrored goggles, big nose and baggy jumpsuit, he looked like an exotic bird.
I stared at the altimeter attached to my wrist, watching the needle make its way from low-altitude red zone, to the yellow warning altitude, until we were in the white, high up in the sky. At 10,000 feet, the three divers began crouching / walking towards the door. One of them tapped the pilot’s shoulder.
The plane’s engine cut, the propeller up front slowing to a stop. The plane door swung open. A loud burst of wind entered, but I could still hear all the divers count.
“One, two, three!”
I WATCHED WITH a child’s eyes as they were sucked out of the plane. The cameraman waddled quickly to close the door. The propeller whirled faster until it disappeared. I felt different parts of my harness clicking behind me, uncomfortably on the tops of my shoulders, on the sides of my back, on each hip.
My chest, already budding by eleven, groin and underarms all felt constricted. The goggles pressed a little valley into the top of my nose. I checked my helmet strap. I lightly touched the ripcord, remembering the talk we had before going up.
“Kiddo, you want to pull the ripcord, or you want me to do it?” my father had asked.
“I’ll do it!” I’d said.
“You sure? It’s your first time. Can’t let it go.”
“ I won’t let go.”
“Alright then. You lose it, you pay for it.”
Pull the ripcord. Keep the ripcord. Pull the ripcord. Keep the ripcord.
Dad held the altimeter in front of my face and gave me a thumbs-up.
“Love you, kiddo!” I felt him kiss the top of my soft leather helmet. It made my heart jump. He rarely said this to his children. If only he’d handed out I love you’s like he used duct tape.
MORE GESTURING FOLLOWED. The plane door opened and the cameraman gave me a double thumbs-up before jumping into the rush. With a sense of urgency we crawled to the door.
“Scoot to the edge, and put your feet on the step,” he instructed. “We’ll climb out on the strut. Then I’ll say, ‘Ready!’ and count to three. When I get to three, we’ll jump. Okay, sweetheart?”
It was happening just as he’d said. We got to the door and I dangled my legs. He began the count.
Still waiting for the “Two,” I floated backwards, the red belly of the plane shrinking as we flipped over and away. We floated toward the camera-bird, his jumpsuit catching wind to slow him down.
I needed no instruction upon our arrival in front of the camera. I gave a big toothy grin, followed by a double thumbs-up and, for good measure, I stuck out my tongue. It dried out immediately. After my 20-second performance, the cameraman floated away.
I became fixated on the altimeter. The needle finally reached the yellow point. I grabbed the ripcord and yanked.
“Hooyah! Good job, kiddo!” Dad yelled. “Everything looks good! Parachute is deployed! Got the ripcord?”
For a moment I panicked. Did I have it? I looked down the length of my arm. There it was, clenched in the little ball of my fist.
I raised it triumphantly. Adrenaline filled my head. My spirit lifted. I was ecstatic.
“Good girl. Just tuck it into your jumpsuit.”
I felt warm, being within my father’s approval.
“Just relax and enjoy the view,” he said.
The expanse of Oklahoma plains appeared beneath us. There were neatly sectioned squares of pasture and cropland, a mix of light and dark greens, browns and yellows. The red clay that lined the many ponds below looked like bright copper against the setting sun. The landscape was a tenderly stitched quilt, scattered with shined pennies.
I LIFTED MY FOGGED goggles and felt the sweat on my face turn cold. I looked down and saw our land. On the ground, our orange arrow was twenty-feet long, a giant’s game board piece. From above, it looked tiny. I pitied the poor student skydivers whose radio headsets went on the blink midair. They had to rely on that arrow for direction.
Skydiving is easy. It’s landing that’s hard. This was the joke. Ambulances often showed up after someone had a hard landing. It didn’t matter if it was a sprained ankle or broken back, my father described it as a “hard landing.”
The goal, spoken or not, was to hit The Peas, the circular pit filled with smooth gravel. We made circles in the air, gliding on the winds, always hovering just above that spot.
“When we get to the ground, if I start running, you run, too. Okay, sweetheart? Run as fast as you can. Got it?”
We got closer and closer. People started to surround The Peas, all expecting us to hit the mark. As we came upon the pit, two men ran up, their hands at the ready. We settled into the stones with a satisfying sound. My father landed on his knees and my legs splayed out in front of me. In one swift movement, the men lifted us up and unhooked me.
“Hooyah! Hit The Peas!” My father yelled.
“Yeehaw! Case of beer!” Another skydiver yelled.
People stood around in the circle applauding us. Other skydivers’ children looked on full of jealousy and awe. Someone yelled, “Photo!”
My father draped his arm around my shoulders as we posed. It was one of the few moments I felt close to him, which made it one of the best moments of my life.