John Webster fixed a sandwich of sardines and alfalfa sprouts on pumpernickel because Claire said sardines were good for his bones and alfalfa sprouts were high in an assortment of vitamins and antioxidants and had to suppress a chuckle that today of all days he was giving homage to her health food brainwashing. He piled the sprouts high, respecting the fact that their roots grew without soil—that he could relate to. He threw on two slices of Swiss cheese since he had no problems with cholesterol—the VA doc said his numbers were good—but mainly because he liked Swiss cheese and had a hankering for it. Today was a day for giving in to hankerings.
He wrapped the sandwich in waxed paper to hold it together better than a sandwich bag, and to allow him to open it more easily in the truck should he get hungry on the way. He threw a handful of cherry tomatoes into the plastic lunch sack, filled a thermos with strong, steaming coffee, and backed his pickup out of the drive before his son’s alarm clock would even think of ringing.
The sun hovered barely off the ground as if not sure it wanted to rise and face the day. Yellow-orange rays pushed newly ripe light into an Air Force blue sky. A sky unmarred by clouds. A glorious day for driving. Even more glorious for sky diving.
Ever since that February in Tay Ninh, when his mesmerized eyes watched those Sky Soldiers change the light of dawn into the drab of their silks, floating down under cover of nothing but air, ready for bullets to buzz by like ravenous flies at a picnic, he wanted to jump. But he was infantry, not airborne. He had to run through rice paddies. Run through knee high. Where the log he stumbled into might be an arm or a leg or a body sunk deep in stinking swampville. Run through shooting or being shot.
Sometimes he had floated alongside himself, only high, high in the sky—paratrooper high—-watching and thinking, Look at that poor sap, John Webster, running through that gunk, scared as a rabbit in a fox den, his legs pumping fast as his heart, dropping pellets to leave his mark, too dumb to see the way out. And even when that part of him, that part drifting high above, reconnected with the rabbit on the other side of the war, flying home to a land as strange as the one he left, what gave him most joy was looking out the window of that C9 medevac plane and thinking, Someday I’m gonna sail like those jump-boys, breezing through that uncluttered expanse of blue—just once. Just enough to feel the freedom.
He had told Claire about his desire. She told him he was crazy. “The ground’s where you belong,” she said. “Two feet solid on soil.”
So, he stuffed his dream in the same place he stuffed the unwanted images of Nam. But after Claire divorced him, the desire resurfaced. Resurfaced the very day he walked home from the divorce court. After all, he’d kept his feet planted on the ground for seventeen years.
That day in the pantry, he removed a five pound can of Claire’s favorite coffee. A sigh of relief escaped the can when he used his P-38 to cut off the lid. He held the can high over the trash and with a sense of pomp and ceremony, poured chicory smelling grounds over paper and boxes and cans. The patter reminded him of the machine gun fire that visited his closed eyes at night. Ping. Zing. Whizz. But this explosion didn’t clench his stomach like it had in Nam. The day of his divorce, the sound relaxed his gut. He carried the empty coffee can to his bedroom and mounted it on the chest of drawers he’d bought at Goodwill. Then he discharged his pockets of change, dropped the coins into the can and started saving up for the ride he’d take today. Time he thought about himself and what he wanted.
He opened the truck window, let the breeze smack the side of his face, mess his thinning head of hair—good practice for parachuting. He’d thought to tell his son where he was off to before he left, but while his son carried his name, he carried more maternal genes than paternal, which ensured he wouldn’t understand, and frankly, John didn’t want the hassle. Nor did he want to put his jump off till his offspring left home—the way Johnny Junior flitted from one job to the next, he’d never leave home.
The ride out to Stenson Field’s Flying Club would take six hours and fifteen minutes if he drove the speed limit on IH 35, which he intended to do—saving the thrill of speed for the jump. He ate in the truck as expected, not wanting to take the time to stop, except once to pull over and take a piss on the side of the highway behind a misshapen mesquite, its spine broken, the weight of living, of growing straight and tall, too difficult.
“I wanna jump,” he told the young kid behind the counter, wondering if the kid thought gray hair meant he was old. Hell, the gray had made a home on his head while he was overseas and too preoccupied to notice the invasion. He admitted to being shocked the first time he saw himself in the rehab clinic. Look at that poor old guy, he thought, struggling to get his crooked leg to push that ten-pound weight. Hell, he thought, the poor sap even had on the same gray socks with the red border Claire had sent him. And then, he paid closer attention and saw that he was looking at himself in a reflection of a reflection.
The sight was enough to keep him confined to his bed for two whole days, refusing to eat, refusing to talk. He avoided the clinic after that, negotiated a deal to do rehab in the hospital hallways or in the Mess between meals. Gradually he got used to the gray, the leathered lines in his face, the stoop of his shoulders. The inch and a half they had to cut out of his leg took longer. He waddled like a goddamn duck until the VA sprung for a pair of shoes with an extended sole. The day his discharge papers arrived, the day after his twenty-sixth birthday, he bought a bottle of hair dye. Dyed his hair every six weeks until about seven years ago. If Claire could stop being interested in him, why should he bother looking debonaire for her?
The youth slid a release of liability form across the counter. “You have a reservation?”
“Didn’t think I needed one. Your advertisement said classes are seven days a week.”
“That’s true, but we weren’t expecting walk-ins and Chuck took off when the afternoon looked clear. I can set something up for you for tomorrow—”
“I’ve driven over six hours and I intend to get into that sky today. Can you get Chuck back here, or you got other instructors? Someone who might want to earn a little extra cash for a private lesson?” He pulled out a money clip, the US Army emblem gleamed in spite of its age.
“You a vet?” The kid put a hand to his face and covered the worse of his acne.
“I am.” John fanned five hundreds.
“So’s my dad.”
“Navy. Special Ops.”
“Those guys are heroes,” John said.
“You all are.”
John narrowed his eyes and looked at the young person in front of him. Johnny Junior never spoke about his father’s service with such pride. “What’s your name, young man?” He was going to call him ‘kid’ but thought better of it. The boy deserved respect.
The boy threw his shoulders back, puffed out his chest. “William Arndt, Jr., sir. Billy to my friends.” The corner of his lips twitched as if eager to burst into a smile. “You can call me Billy, too. And if you want to tandem, you know, go up for a piggy-back jump, I could take you.”
Billy’s face reminded John of landmine-exploded terrain. Pits and gullies. Pink and red up-shoots. Some still oozing life. Everybody has an adversity to overcome, John thought. He hoped the boy’s made him stronger.
“What’re you gonna do with your life, Billy?”
The boy stared out the clear glass window in the reception door. Beyond the cracked and faded asphalt of the parking lot. Beyond the small hangar reflecting the sun’s rays off in the distance. Beyond the large expanse of blue.
John wondered for a moment if the boy was ever coming back.
“I’m not really sure what I want to do.” Billy’s gaze shifted to a wall of photographs. Men and women floating through the sky. Parachutes billowing. Helmets on their heads. Goggles on their eyes. Smiles on their faces.
“Maybe Special Ops,” the youth said. “Maybe Social Actions or the law. No matter what, I wanna be a pilot. Have to pull up my math grades, though, if I want to do anything meaningful.”
John crossed his arms and set them on the counter. He leaned forward. “Listen, young man. I mean no offense, but is there anyone else around here today I can piggy-back with?”
“I’m good, sir. I really am.”
“I’m sure you are. It’s just that . . . Well, you should be studying instead.”
“I’m on summer break.”
John pulled a hundred from his money clip and laid it on the counter. “This is for a math tutor.” He winked. “Or anything else you have a hankering for.”
“Really?” Billy stared at the money.
“Really. Now is there someone else who can take me up?”
“Pete’s in the hangar. Let me ask him.” He hesitated, staring at the bill.
“Go ahead, take it. It’s yours.”
The kid shrugged and shoved the bill into his pocket. “Be right back.”
John walked closer to the photographs and examined the faces of the jumpers. Yeah, that was the kind of ecstasy he expected. Like nothing else in the world existed except the sky and air, sky and air, sky and air.
“You want to jump today, I hear.” The scratchy voice didn’t fit for a skydiver. Had to be a smoker.
John turned around. The Michelin man—tires for a belly, tires for biceps—held out his swollen hand. John wondered how it would feel to have the bones of his hand crushed into cracker crumbs.
“I’m Pete Vargas, pleased to meet you.”
“John. John Webster.” He returned Pete’s firm, harmless shake. “Can you take me up?”
“Sure. If you don’t mind waiting. Got a little work to do on the Twin Otter before we take ‘er up. And we won’t have a photographer to record your jump, so if that’s important—”
“Not to me, it’s not.”
“Okay, then.” He reached over for the form John had filled out, gave it the once over, and handed it back to Billy. “You got a vehicle, I ‘spose? I suggest you empty your pockets, remove that watch. Lock up everything in your car.”
“Truck,” John said. “She’s a truck. Might be old and used, a little hard in the shocks, but she’s been good to me, so I need to keep the record straight. I drove here in that dirt-brown four-by-four out there.”
“Bet she’s older than I am,” the boy said. “How many miles she got?”
“Enough to earn a long rest.”
Maybe it was the tone of John’s voice. Or the way his shoulders sagged. Or the way he gazed out at his truck. Whatever it was, Pete stared at John as if he was sizing up odds at a table in Vegas.
“Jumps don’t take much time, Mr. Webster,” the boy said. “So a long rest won’t happen.”
“Never can tell.” John gave Pete a what-are-you-looking-at stare.
“Never can tell what?” Billy asked.
“Yeah, John. Never can tell what?” Pete’s tone carried less curiosity than suspicion.
John lifted his shoulders. Slow. Tired. As if burdened with a mountain of knapsacks. “Just . . . never can tell.”
“Well, I can tell you something.” Billy approached the cash register. “Your jump’ll cost two hundred dollars. Policy says we collect in advance. No refunds if you chicken ou—if you change your mind.”
“Mr. Webster can change his mind, Billy.” Pete locked his eyes on John’s beat-up truck.
“I don’t mind paying first,” John said.
“Pay after you land. It’ll guarantee I bring you down nice and safe.”
“But, Pete,” Billy said, “you always told me—”
“Biiiilleeee.” Pete dragged out the boys name like a snake hiss before a strike. “People are allowed to change. Isn’t that right, John? Changing one’s mind can be a good thing.”
“Don’t go changing policy on my account. I planned on paying before the jump anyway.”
“And I plan on you paying afterward. Lock up your belongings, John. Then join me at the hangar.”
The door flew open with Pete’s touch, easy as rice paper in a blue norther.
“Strong guy,” John said, not intending to say it out loud.
“He confuses me.” Billy gave that yearning stare at the sky again and his words seemed to float, to drift. “In the air, you feel weightless.”
Weightlessness wasn’t John’s mission. “Bet it’s like . . . freedom.”
He handed the boy three Franklins. “I’m gonna do what I set about doing, son. I want to pay before I leave.”
“It’s only two, Mr. Webster.”
“Tip Mr. Vargas when he returns.”
“Yessss, sirrrr.” He snapped a flat hand to his forehead in a sharp salute. “Enjoy your jump, sir.”
“I’m sure I will, son.”
John stepped outside and looked up at the inviting blue heaven. Pretty soon he’d be up there. Or down below. Pretty soon . . .
He removed his watch and billfold, the letter he had written the night before for Claire and Johnny. He left them on the seat of his truck, along with the house key, and the key for his vehicle—and the Air Force sunglasses he bought at the BX eons ago. Best damn pair of glasses for reducing glare in existence. He removed his dog tag from the glove compartment, slipped it over his head and tucked in under his shirt. He closed the truck’s door and gave it the necessary shove to connect the latch, but he didn’t lock it. Instead, he walked around to the hood and gave the dusty sun-heated metal two appreciative pats.
It took no time to catch up with Pete. John stepped into the shadow along Pete’s left side and matched the man’s even strides.
“Your jeans are good. So are those shoes.” Pete said.
“Only ones I own.”
“Well. Good. They’ll do just fine. You’d be surprised how many cowboys come out with those slip-on boots. We’ve got to loan them some tennies—not that they like it—but cowboy boots? Come on, they’d slip off before we’d drop a foot. Foot like in distance, not a real foot—don’t want to scare you none.”
John knew free-falling wouldn’t make him scared. He couldn’t even imagine what the sensation of fright would feel like. Somewhere along the way his feelings had all turned to a flat monotone of gray. Somewhere maybe back in Nam. Certainly somewhere in his marriage.
A younger, stocky version of Pete greeted them as soon as they entered the hangar. “Got it going good, Dad. Want to take a spin? . . . Oh hi.”
He nodded to John. “I’m Dan Vargas.”
John nodded back. “Howdy. You our pilot?”
A smile widened Dan’s broad marshmallow face and his eyes took on the ecstasy John saw in the office photos. “Sure am. You the fella who wants to go up today?”
“I am. John Webster.”
“Any relation to the dictionary man?”
“About the same connection as you, Dan.”
“Good one.” The pilot turned to his father. “I’ll do the pre-flight check. Come aboard after you’ve given him the spiel.”
Pete showed John to a small soundproof room. “I’ll explain everything as we go along, but if you have any questions, for God’s sake ask.” He pulled a contraption off a hook on the wall. “This is your harness. It goes right over your clothes. . . . Don’t be concerned with all the straps. It’s these clips that’ll hook on to me and the parachute. This goes over your shoulders, around your waist and around your thighs. It should be comfortable enough to walk in, but not too loose. You don’t want it too tight, either.”
John stepped into the harness as Pete held the leg straps apart and adjusted clamp lengths and cinched belts.
“We get mighty personal out here, sorry about that.” Pete yanked up at the material covering John’s crotch, cinched it to the thigh strap. “And on the way down, we’re gonna get close as butter on toast. This too tight on your shoulders, speak up now. We don’t want you to get gashes when the chute goes off and jerks you up.”
“It’s fine.” With each clinch of a strap, adrenaline bubbled inside John like water on a stove, growing in size, gaining speed. It would finally happen. He was going to jump.
“. . . you’ll make a banana,” Pete was saying.
“I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“To avoid having a rough jump, you’ll want to get into a banana pose. Like this.” Pete put his head up and back. “You’ll curve your feet back too. But when we first jump out of the plane, cross your arms over your chest like this.”
John looked down at the strap across his chest. Yes, that position will do.
“Once we get into the free-fall, you can spread them however you’d like. I’ll attach myself to your harness on the way up.”
“Any possibility the chute won’t open?”
“I packed the parachute myself. And I wear a backup. But should that highly unlikely event happen,” he patted his rotund belly, “fall on me and you’ll be safe.”
John wondered if this was Pete’s form of gallows humor. John certainly engaged in enough of it in Nam, but Pete’s face lacked the strain John and his buddies had when they joked about life and death.
Pete fitted John for a helmet. “I’ll tell you when to put that on. You don’t wear contacts, do you?”
“Okay. Try these on.”
John secured the goggles over his eyes. “These’ll do.” He removed them and followed Pete onto the plane.
The instructor indicated the seat in front of him.
John strapped himself in. Leaned forward slightly so Pete wouldn’t see his fingers practice unclipping the strap that went across his chest. There would be a hook holding his shoulders to Pete’s. No way he could disengage from that harness in time. But if he waited until Pete’s parachute opened, he could unclip his own chest strap, slip his arms free and bend forward at the waist. His torso would topple upside down and his legs would slip out of the thigh restraints like a cowboy in slip-on boots.
“Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the view. When we get to 14,000 feet or so, I’ll open the side door, hook you up and we’ll move slowly to the opening. I’ll pull you out, but remember to cross your arms at your chest and curl your feet.” He rested a hand on John’s shoulder. “You all right?”
Anticipation robbed John of words. He gave a thumbs up.
“We’ll be dropping at terminal velocity, that’s 110-130 miles per hour. It’ll be the thrill of a lifetime.”
The plane taxied out of the building, gained speed and noise as it ran down a single-laned runway.
“It’s too late to do anything about this,” Pete said, his voice raised against the engine, “but you didn’t have bacon or biscuits with gravy for breakfast, did you?”
John shook his head.
Pete leaned back in his seat. His laugh bellowed through the cabin. “Good.”
John settled in for the rise, closed his eyes and listened. The steady hum of the Twin Otter’s propellors carried him back to a different sound. The whap-whap-whap of helicopter rotors as rescue personnel fished for the wounded. He wanted to be rescued back then. And as he thought about his life now, he knew it wasn’t all bad. But this jump marked the end of his goals. One ultimate, irreversible—perhaps, glorious—finale would erase a future of disconnected relationships, unproductive living, deadness of emotions.
Didn’t he wish that boy, Billy, would overcome adversity? he asked himself.
Not the same, he answered. Not nearly the same.
The twin engines leveled out and Pete tapped him on the shoulder, signaled him to stand. The instructor checked John’s straps and smiled like he knew a secret. A gigantic elf with a secret. He raised his goggles and put them on.
John slid his own glasses over his eyes, secured the strap on the back of his skull. He pushed a helmet onto his head. After Pete checked the snug fit, John followed him to the open interior.
Pete gripped a bar in the ceiling and unlocked a wide door. A roar of sound rushed inside as he rolled the door open and locked it in position. He turned John to face him, putting a steak-sized hand on each shoulder. His gaze penetrated the lens of two sets of goggles. Searched as if hunting for something. Something important.
This didn’t seem part of the procedure, John thought. He wanted to blink, to shut his eyes to the probe. Instead he kept his eyes focused on Pete’s chin, wondering if Pete could see his plan. Wondering if Pete would make them land without stepping from the plane.
A long, long minute passed.
John raised his gaze to Pete’s.
“I’ve been there,” Pete shouted.
No smile. No gallows humor.
Wetness cooled the underarms of John’s shirt. He didn’t move.
“This is your ride, John Webster,” Pete yelled. “Make the best of it.”
He turned John around and fastened metal clamps to his thighs and shoulders. Sidled him up to the opening.
John gazed out at the boundless sky and before he knew it, he was part of it. He was falling, belly first. The speed of it caught his breath. The roar of it deafened his ears.
Pete’s arm wrapped in front of John’s chest. He gave a thumb’s up sign—although it wasn’t pointed up.
John returned the signal and they turned in a 360 degree circle.
Holy cow, John thought. Holy amazing spectacular . . . . A laugh jiggled against his ribs.
He gaped at the miniatures on the ground below. Buildings, trees, cars, all seemed fake. He’d seen this perspective before—from a plane—but now, plummeting through the air, the chilled, howling air, his cheeks flapping like hummingbird wings, it felt new. FELT. God. He was aware of feeling! He blinked back tears, not wanting the view clouded by joy.
Alive, he shouted within himself. I’m still alive. And it felt good, so good, laughter rumbled in his belly. He was soaring in his descent. His emotions were soaring. He could piss his pants he was so giddy.
He jerked backwards, upwards, as the parachute opened. He was floating now. Slower. The air quieted. He heard a tractor engine. A mockingbird call. A child laugh. Far away sounds yet as close as a neighbor.
His legs swayed. His feet dangling in the air, high above the ground. A ground approaching faster than he desired. He looked down at his chest strap. Inched his fingers to the leather. Ran them across the clamp. Ensuring it was intact.
And there, his feet suspended far off the ground, he offered a prayer of thanksgiving.