Published in 2015 CWC Literary Review
The Picnic Table
It seemed silly at the time, jumping off a green picnic table I had just eaten off; but, hey, that was the drill––three feet to the grass, tuck and roll––no biggie. I repeated the little jump over and over until it became a mindless task, freeing my brain to contemplate other hazards. I regressed to a juvenile who knew better than to play on park benches, doing exactly what my mother would have disapproved of. Boy, if she only knew what I was about to do next.
Most of the butterflies occupying my gut earlier had migrated elsewhere, partly by the sandwich and coke I had gulped down, partly by the boring routine of leaping for the grassy turf, adding more grass stains to my jeans. I was about to make another death-defying leap from the wooden table when my ears caught the change in the Cessna’s engine flying high overhead: its prop had ceased biting at the air and transitioned into a soft murmur.
The familiar cutting of the engine called down to everyone’s attention. I cocked my head in unison with the others and searched for the white silhouette against a bright, almost-blue sky. A salute with a cuffed hand and squinted eyes helped me find the plane, five thousand feet above the picnic table.
In the plane’s muted wake a dark dot appeared, followed by two more. The plane’s engines kicked in again after disgorging its cargo and then banked right.
The three dots gained speed and plunged like rocks, racing each other for the ground. The closer they approached earth the less they looked like stones. They sprouted arms and legs, resembling winged insects, but without the wings. The lead insect spewed what looked like its entrails, streaming wildly behind. The trailing viscera opened and snapped into a colorful canopy, followed by a sound that reminded me of my mom snapping a damp sheet fresh from the wash. The other two followed the first’s example.
The three ice-cream-cone canopies with their suspended riders floated towards the picnic table, swaying and turning, like dandelion seeds riding soft breezes. The riders pulled at their toggles and looked like truck drivers or train engineers pulling on cords to give horn blasts, but there was no blaring, just the turning and swaying of the canopies. Their feet finally reached the plowed dirt under them, about fifty yards from the picnic table, and they did their tuck and rows.
The absent butterflies raced back from their short migration and clung to my insides again.
“Yeah, sure,” I heard a voice say.
“Okay, then. Let’s get you suited up and checked out.”
My mind raced to that hour, that hour one hour ago, that hour ago when I was at the packing tables learning how to pack a chute––my chute.
Fidgety fingers fumbled with zippers as they tried to stuff me into my jumpsuit. Images flashed past my brain in 8mm-time: my hands folding the nylon pleats of my chute as it lay stretched out on the packing table, like a long, dead, giant squid.
I’m sure I followed the right order. Didn’t I?
I visualized the nylon cords neatly splayed. No kinks. No knots. Right?
I know I paid close attention to the order of folding it all, neatly storing the chute into the backpack, topping it off with the pilot chute, and inserting the D-ring’s pin into place. I know I did. Thank God I didn’t have to pack the reserve chute.
“Where’s your helmet?”
“Helmet? Oh, yeah, it’s . . . it’s under the picnic table.”
“Well, don’t you think you should get it?”
“Yeah, right, the helmet.”
Behind me I heard the orange-striped Cessna taxi to a stop near the hangar. The prop revved and then sputtered to a stop. The smell of warm engine oil drifted over to the picnic table and made a statement: “Next.”
I climbed into my harness and cinched it tight, tight enough to barely stand straight but still be able to have children.
“Okay, we’ve got a few minutes, so relax.”
Yeah, right, relax.
I waddled over to the picnic table like the Hunchback of Notre Dame and sat. I noticed for the first time that the weathered table top was scarred for life with initials, names, and dates. The carvings appeared ancient, Rosetta Stone-like, only in green, not black. My finger traced the remnants of a partial name as if reading brail when the Cessna’s engine startled me, coughing to life, popping swirls of smoke into the air. My heart raced with the gunning rpms of the Cessna’s engine.
“Okay, let’s go.”
I followed two others and clambered into the door less, vibrating, noisy plane. The instructor jumped in after me, wearing his goggles and a giant smile. He turned to the pilot and with cuffed hand screamed something inaudible into his direction. The pilot nodded, gave a thumb up, and spoke into his mouthpiece.
The Cessna rocked as the engine gunned again. Its wheels rolled as we pivoted toward the runway, leaving the old picnic table and oscillating grass in its wake.
Not only did the plane not have a passenger door, it had no seats. The three of us sat and bounced on the thin, metal floor while our tight harnesses dug into our crotches. I sat closest to the open doorway and watched the rubber-streaked runway rush by as the plane gained speed. A couple of quick bumps, a sinking of my stomach into my groin, and I knew we were airborne.
I turned to the other two and smiled. It would have been useless to try to carry on a conversation; the cabin had become a soup bowl of engine exhaust, noise, and wind. We each wore our own mask of silent contemplation as the plane climbed in a series of lifts and drops, stair-stepping to three thousand feet. Again I wondered about the packing of my chute and if I had jumped off that scarred picnic table enough times. I went through the sequence of events that loomed in my mind. I hoped I had remembered everything.
The plane’s engine and prop droned on and on and on, like an Old-Timer telling a story everyone’s heard before but tried to ignore. To make sure we were listening, the Cessna shuddered and yawed as we bounced through turbulence. “Have I got your attention now?” it seemed to shout.
The Cessna started a right turn. The roaring, noisy air had cooled by ten degrees, I’m sure. The instructor read the ground and smiled while the wing pointed out structures to him on the landscape below. We leveled out. We climbed. We bounced. And we climbed some more. Another turn, again the wing pointed to the changing earth below. I shivered. I quaked. I blamed it on the frigid air seeping into the cabin.
The instructor tapped the shoulder of the pilot and offered a series of hand signals: three chops of the hand to the left followed by two V-shaped fingers. The pilot nodded. The Cessna yawed in two bumpy jerks and changed direction.
The instructor then pointed to me and signaled for me to put my goggles on. He craned his head out the doorway and read the ground again. Flexing four fingers repeatedly he motioned me forward to the door. I got to my knees and crawled like a toddler toward the howling wind until his palmed hand ordered me to stop. He reached out to me, grabbed hold of my static line, and tethered me to the plane. He then turned to the pilot and with a single finger, gestured a cut to the throat. The pilot nodded once and cut the engine.
The plane’s engine hushed, obeying the pilot’s command.
The instructor cocked his head several times toward the door and I knew what I had to do.
The frigid outside air froze time as I maneuvered my way out to a vast openness covered only by the plane’s right wing. Battered by gale-force winds I reached out and grabbed for the angled bar that connected to the wing. I struggled to place a foot on the slim foot rest that jutted from the plane’s side. The pummeling prop wash made movement slow and stubborn. The whole of me flapped like a worn flag desperately trying to hold on to a flagpole during a violent storm. It was nothing like the practice exit from a sleeping airplane in a hangar.
I managed to get both hands on the strut and both feet on the foot rest while the howling prop wash tried to pry me loose. I looked to the ground at the same time as the instructor. We both saw the small, gray circle on the brown, plowed field, not far from the hangar and picnic area. It inched along, moving its way under us, taking its sweet time. My eyes swiveled sideways to the instructor and awaited his signal. There would be no climbing back in.
The wind screamed at me. My body shook. White-knuckled hand grips tested the integrity of the plane’s strut. And then, the instructor leered at me, smiled, and mouthed––“GO!”
My fingers flashed open wide and let the prop wash flick me off the foot rest. I careened back, arms splayed outward like a falling scarecrow. I watched the plane abandon me and start to bank right. It looked like a toy model suspended in a giant, blue room. A fleeting glimpse of the static line thrashing about like a dry umbilical cord flashed just over my left shoulder.
My body began a cartwheel to the left and so I arched my back, hoping to make the reserve chute my center of gravity. Just as I started to stabilize, the hand of God reached out and grabbed for my pilot chute. I swore my chin touched my ankles as a loud pop with aftershock-like flutters thundered over me. An inflated, nylon dome hovered over me, calling for a quick inspection: every lovely green, orange, and white panel was present and accounted for. Trapped sky in the canopy escaped through the double-L vents at the rear, propelling me forward as well as down. It worked.
The near-silence of heaven overwhelmed me, compared to the last twenty-five minutes of engine whirr and spinning prop. The softest rush of air found its way into my helmet and whispered to me. A patchwork of squares, circles, and triangles painted in browns and greens spread before me with brown-gray hills pinched and pulled skyward. A gigantic bucketful of lake spilled unto the plain, staining the earth wet. Roads crisscrossed and meandered in the down-below-distance. So this is what heaven is like.
I yelled, “Hey!” The shout darted away like an escaping bird into the clear void leaving me behind in the heavenly quiet.
I played with the toggles, willing myself toward the landing zone, the circle over by the hangar. I practiced turning right, then left, and dumping air from the canopy. I floated. I sailed. I swayed. The ground ceased to spread out and it now rushed up to greet me; time to meet the dirt. Luckily, the circle was nearby.
My canopied-shadow slithered on the plowed field below and to my right, racing me to the ground. Its knees were bent slightly with feet together, as they should be; its hands were up high holding on to the risers, as should be; and its decent was not too fast, thankfully. We both hit the soft dirt at the same time, same spot, with same proper tuck and roll. I sprang to my boots, robotically grabbing the rigging, nylon cords, and canopy with outstretched arms. I did my figure eights to reel in the bundle of mostly white chute and carried it like a new bride. Planted in the field I began to breathe again.
The two other jumpers dropped in from the sky, after which we all climbed into the bed of an old pickup truck for a very short ride to the picnic table area. My body felt like jelly. No, it felt like a guitar with all the strings stretched and snapped free.
There was another trip up and another trip down that day.
In all, over the fall months of 1968, there would be a few more lunches at the picnic table and thirteen jumps total. The last eight jumps were all free-fall, no static line assist. The last was most memorable for a long drop, rapid ground-rush at opening, a scarred helmet where the rip cord slashed across it in a vicious yank, a violent canopy opening, and a hard thud into a cloud of explosive dirt.
I never returned to that green picnic table.
And I forgot to etch in my initials.