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Stepping Out Over Taunton

By James L. Tyson

"They've got to be professional. They stake their reputations on it," the former paratrooper and veteran of more than 1500 jumps told me to calm my fears about skydiving. His expertise, khaki uniform and medal of the elite paratrooper corps would be enough to convince even the most timid in our group of a dozen Harvard students of the safety of skydiving. He must be right, I think, they must be professional. As he had said, they stake their livelihood on it, just as you put your life in their hands. After all, this is skydiving, the risks are high.

The Taunton Sport Parachuting Center would be a complex--hangars, training and meeting rooms, a cafeteria, office and parachute lofts. It would be the pride of Taunton, I imagined. It would grace the flank of their small municipal airport, attracting small town heroes, coquettes, and gawkers. It would be the center stage for a boy's dive into manhood.

South American natives throw themselves into masculinity and society from 90 foot platforms with 84 foot vines tied to their feet. In Taunton, Mass., they would jump from planes. Those who jumped and made it would be the heroes, the models and the mentors. Some would jump with aloofness, some would jump to teach, some would jump to die. But all of them, I thought, would have acolytes, attendants and trifles. The wind would wave their scarves, ruffle their jump suits and their hair like no one else's--even dust would look good on them, glistening on their cheeks and leathery necks as if it too came from the sky.

The bus bounds off 1-95, onto a potholed road past clusters of identical houses. The driver cranes his head side-long, "You're almost there. Just beyond this cemetery a bit." The graveyard flashes by. "Here y'are."

A small flourescent sign marks the upper side of a green trailor that rusts on four rotting tires: "The Taunton Sport Parachuting Center." An empty field of uncut grass stretches out from the trailor and road, stopping before a band of trees and marsh. No planes, no parachutes, no jumpers. The wind twists dust and leaves in a lonely, aimless swirl.

Soon cars gather around the trailer giving it some clubishness. I imagine its members as reckless romantics, with hearts that pump them out of planes, with a love for life so great that they're dying to risk it. But they slowly roll out of their cars, struggle to stand erect and stretch and scratch their heads, stomachs or buttocks. They yawn and speak of last night, of all that beer. A paunchy man, dressed in blue jeans and a dirty white sweat shirt ambles towards us. "You here to jump?" A moment of silence. "Well my, my name is Pete, I'm your rigger," he says. "That means I pack your chutes." Still silence. "Hey, don't look so worried, I didn't drink too much last night," he roars, hoisting himself into the trailer.

"Those of you here for the classes and jump, please enter and sign in please," a dark haired woman says. She passes out three forms, one for the American Sky Jumpers Association, one for the Taunton Sport Parachuting Center, and one for the sake of everyone but the sky jumper and his family, in case of the most unfortunate incident. The latter is an eight paragraph, single sentence document freeing the center, its employees, their relatives, the town of Taunton, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts from any responsibilities, financial obligations or guilt in the event of "the quickest fall."

"Have you ever had an accident?" one prospective jumper asks. The woman darts her eyes to him. "Well, usually it's their own fault."

"Yeah, but have you ever had any accidents?" he asks. "I don't know," she mutters, taking his forms and $60.

Outside the trailer a stocky man says that he's Bruce Maclaughlin, the instructor and jump master that will who will later on be the one who goes up in the plane with us and gives us the push out the door. Maclaughlin is as sharp-eyed and as brusque as a boot camp sergeant. He spreads his legs, arching and throwing his head back yelling, "ARCHTHOUSAND, TWO THOUSAND, THREE THOUSAND, FOUR THOUSAND, FIVE THOUSAND, SIX THOUSAND, LOOK" he looks to his left heel. "LOOK." He looks to a release on his right pelvis, "PULL". He pulls the release. "PUNCH." He punches open the imaginary auxillary chute: the litany for a jumper after exiting the plane. If the main chute doesn't open after a count of six-thousand, you must pull the reserve. After 17 seconds, he tells us, you may as well forget your reserve--skydiving becomes a "contact sport."

Two thousand, eight hundred feet above the trailer a single engine plane stalls, glides and drops two black dots. They grow. Their parachutes don't open but Maclaughlin ignores the two plummeting people. He looks steely-eyed at his charges, each of us with our heads tossed back, eyes wide open, jaws dropped, certain the two divers will, in less than 17 seconds, bounce and splatter on the grass. "Ooooo, ooooo" we say as two chutes blossom and the jumpers silently glide toward earth. Maclaughlin's brows are down, his lips pursed, his eyes still locked in on his students. "Snap out of it boys," he spits, "you just missed three minutes of information that could make the difference."

Maclaughlin laces his boots, puts on his jump suit, goggles and helmet. As jump master, he oversees the strapping in of the first three he will guide out of the plane. He picks three of us and indifferently directs us toward the suit up area. He kids us although we are grim faced and jokes with his comrades with the same type of wildness that would make him chuckle and shrug when hearing of a chain saw massacre.

As we are rigged for the jump my heart wildly pounds, my thoughts are on the first few seconds outside the plane.

The plane's engine coughs and sputters, its pilot sitting at the controls with a frayed Red Sox cap and a parachute. "Let's go," he yells. The jump master arranges us in a small Cessna with flaking paint. I sit next to the pilot, my back to the controls, staring out the window of the door through which I will soon exit. I watch as the plane rumbles down the runway, lifts and spirals over the center, the lakes, the large clumps and bands of trees and the long strings of high tension wires. The master standing at the door of the plane, straddles my legs, smiles and shouts over the din of the wind and machinery. "I'm hooking you up now." He attaches the beginner's 12 foot parachute line to the static line, the string of lines that supposedly will open the parachute, secured to the plane. I glance out the window, raise myself up to get a glimpse of the earth straight down, let out a short moan and settle back in the cockpit, gasping quickly and irregularly.

The door whips open. The jump master leans out the door, the wind kneads his face, ripples slowly run from the base of his nose to the bottom of his chin. He smiles, a grotesque smile with the wind flapping his lips at a palpitating rate, the setting sun giving them an orange-red glow. "Step out," he says. I move one hand out the door but it is forced back inside by the wind. I try again, grasping onto the wing strut. I force my feet out on the step, the first and last step, pivot, face forward and raise my right leg as Maclaughlin taught me. A torrent of wind pushes against me, against every muscle.

The earth is a mere blot, darkened at sunset and dotted with strings of insignificant lights and shadows. The propeller whirls, forcing air through my mouth, adrenalin through my system. I feel a light tap on my shoulder and I jump, thinking it is the jump master giving me the signal. "Where the hell is he going?" the jump master asks. "I don't know where he's going," my friend yells with a grimace, "you're the jump master."

I fall, back to the ground. One second, I flip around twice, no parachute. Two seconds, I twirl twice, still no parachute. Three seconds, I plummet, forehead toward the earth. Four, my harness tears at my hips and chest, swings my feet above my head. The parachute glides above me. The earth is a gray mound, Boston glimmers on the horizon. I make out a small rectangular building surrounded by dots, a small field and then trees and lakes. The air swirls silently. A band of trees approaches but I glance once more to the parachute, the sky and the horizon. The stiff branches of the trees mesh and grow larger. I cover my face, bring my feet together, and fall into the brush. At the trailer, Don hears loud snapping and sends out one of his assistants. Sal. Sal sprints across the field and comes to the edge of the woods. "You O.K.?" he yells. "Yeah," I answer. Sal bounds through the brush, crying, "It's the greatest, ain't it just the greatest?" "Yeah."

Sal stops, sticks his nose to mine and laughs, "It's the best thing a guy can do with his pants on."

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