Gary Evans stared down at the tiny world below as the plane soared over the lush Californian Redwood Forest. The trees had climbed upward noticeably more since the last time Gary had been in a plane on the same journey before, only three months ago. Only last time, he hadn’t found the courage to jump.
He pulled away from the grimy window and looked straight ahead of him, counting the minutes until the jump. You can do it, man, he thought. You can do it this time. Gary squirmed around, partially from nerves and partially from excitement. It was sweaty and uncomfortable in the hot plane, and Gary thought he might wet his pants. The silk light cloth that he was wearing for his dive was not doing a thing to absorb the perspiration pouring from his pores.
“How you doing, Gary?” a voice boomed over the speaker. It was the captain, Gary’s father’s friend, who had been instructing Gary in skydiving for just under a year now.
“G-g-good, I think.” Gary’s voice was barely a squeak.
“Ready? I’m going to come back here and have Lewis here drive for me.” Lewis was the copilot. “I’m going to come back here and help you.”
“I’ll need it,” muttered Gary. The speaker shut off abruptly with a sharp click.
Minutes later, Captain Lopez entered the small cabin, his swarthy body filling up most of the space between the captain’s cabin and the passenger cabin. He held up his hand in a thumbs- up sign, and Gary returned the signal, having no excuse not to. I’m ready… I suppose, he thought.
The boy followed Captain Lopez to the hatch opening at the rear of the tiny plane. There, they geared up. Gary already had his jumpsuit on, the eccentric green grips for him to hold onto during the dive flashing at him. The captain secured a folded parachute to Gary’s back and placed an altimeter on Gary’s wrist like a watch. A few seconds into the dive, Gary was to look at the altimeter to see when he had to eject his parachute. But just in case he didn’t eject the main parachute in time, Captain Lopez gave him an AAD, or an automatic activation device, to activate the backup parachute.
Gary gulped. He hoped he wouldn’t panic if he forgot to activate the parachute.
Finally, the captain strapped a spinal protector to Gary’s back. Although it was bulky and uncomfortable to wear, the boy didn’t complain. He didn’t want to have back injuries for the rest of his life if something went wrong.
The captain’s huge frame shook as the plane vibrated. “Gary, are you ready? Hey, man, it’s OK. It’ll be fine.”
Gary remembered the fall, the exultation, the freedom he had felt on his first fall on tandem with Captain Lopez. He hadn’t felt out of control or even like he was falling. He felt as if he could do anything. Well, there wasn’t much he could do being strapped to Captain Lopez’s back, but he still felt it.
Gary nodded slowly, feeling as though he might urinate in his pants. He forced his legs forward and felt himself moving toward the hatch, listening numbly to the captain’s instructions.
“I’m going to open the hatch, OK? The wind’ll be whistlin’ in your ears, maybe even blow you around a bit, but just hold onto this handle and you’ll be fine. Then, when I tell you it’s time to jump, you’ll slip down the hatch head first—with your arms in front of you—and you’ll jump. Big X shape, arms and legs out like we discussed, yeah? Body straight and level to the ground. Le-vel. Got it?”
Gary managed to speak this time. “Yyes, got it,” he replied shakily. “Big X.” To show that he understood, he stretched out his four limbs as widely as he could.
Giving another thumbs up, Captain Lopez started for the hatch. He unlatched the three bolts that lined the opening and threw open the metal door, which banged outward with a dull thud on the bottom of the plane. Wind reached up through the door and slashed at Gary’s face, his exposed cheeks, and the skin around his goggles. Frantically, he grabbed onto the handle that the captain had indicated and hung on.
“Gary!” Captain Lopez roared over the din. “Get ready for your big X! It’s time!”
Gary’s mind was in turmoil. OK, this is it. Big X, remember. Big X.
He stepped toward the hatch, the wind whipping his hair and grabbing his clothes, teasing his jumpsuit. He lay on the floor and used his feet to push himself forward. He could barely see outside, with the wind right in his face, but he could spot the red-and-green treetops of the Muir Woods and, beyond that, the sparkling glitter of the San Francisco Bay. He felt the rush of air as he hit the howling air head on. He felt a boost from behind as Captain Lopez gave him an extra hoist, and he was off.
Gary Evans was skydiving.
The downward surge didn’t come for a few seconds. He was riding on the wind, gliding gracefully down away from the plane.
Oh my gosh, am I flying or skydiving? Gary thought as he whooped with glee. Then came the plunge.
Gary banked sharply, his hands splicing through the air and not doing a thing to slow his descent. He began to fall, and he upturned his X so that his hands and feet were tapered upward. Then he thought better of it and held onto the green grips on his jumpsuit. He had no control, and he was falling fast. It was hard to keep his legs straight out—his instinct was to curl up. The wind forced him down toward the treetops, but he angled himself toward the San Francisco Bay.
Gary’s arm got caught underneath his body, and something hard smacked into his arm. The altimeter! He read it quickly, and he could see that he was dropping fast. Taking hold of the cord that would eject the parachute, he counted down.
Five… gritting his teeth… four… biting his lips… three… eyes blinking frantically… two… screaming bloody murder… one. He yanked the cord with all his might and felt… nothing. The cord was stuck! Gary cried out in despair as he pulled out the severed cord from its connection to the parachute. He watched as it flimsily was carried away into the wind, and Gary thought that he was probably just as flimsy as that cord flying away. Hanging onto the grips with all his might, Gary tried to catch his breath and pretend he was just on a long roller coaster.
Suddenly, his falling speed changed. He felt as though he were being caught in the air, and he found it was easier to catch his breath because his chest wasn’t being pushed on anymore. Slowly, Gary craned his neck up to see a silky parachute billowing serenely above him, hanging onto him safely. The backup parachute had saved his life! Gary Evans relaxed and hung onto his electric green grips as he floated down by the San Francisco Bay.