—Williamsport Sun Gazette headline
August 15, 2005
Ripcord: The fine line between thrill and terror. Fear billows breath into wind. That Saturday, witnesses gave conflicting reports. Tandem with her instructor, Julia jumped. On that they all agreed. They cheered the two distant bodies in flight, watched as the air cooperated. What they disagreed on was the building at the north end of Ogden Airport. When the sudden gust pushed, were the concrete blocks right there? Did the bodies first hit cinder? Or, as others insisted, did the parachute simply collapse? In the guise of wind, the unexpected can squeeze out the cloth’s air, drop divers instantly to asphalt.
“Particularly tragic,” explained Fire Department Battalion chief Steven Splinter, “many of the witnesses were family. What could be said? They saw it all.”
I had told my sister not to try. What is the point of risk? A false sense of strength. The lie that you’re invincible. Look at the instructor, ten years of training. Trust, I told her, has nothing to do with it. Damn it, it’s an airplane. I don’t care who’s jumping with you.
I admit it. Every time he took someone new, I was jealous. It was how we’d met, the long hours of instruction, the careful preparation, and finally the plunge into that vast blank of air. Exhilarating, yes. How can I explain it to anyone else? He was young and had just started teaching. I held his hand and jumped. All alone together in those clouds, the earth coming up toward us. The two of us. The world.
Was it the same with the others?
Unlike my other children, Julia couldn’t wait to be born. From the first, everything about her was emergency. I was grocery shopping when the cramps hit, doubled me over. Next thing I knew I was on the floor by a stack of canned baked beans, Jessica, Joannie, and Jo all crying. Someone must have called the ambulance, packed up the kids, contacted my husband. How? I don’t know. All I remember were sirens, the rush of doctors, going under into that sea of forgetfulness. Of course, they slashed my belly; got her out. She was blue from the get-go, but survived. No matter what, she survived.
She was my youngest but most impulsive daughter. At three, she wanted to be a fighter pilot like my own dad. At six, she climbed up on the roof to help me paint. Scared my wife to pieces, but she was OK up there. So confident and sure of her footing. Some Saturdays, I’d take her over to the local airport, just Julia, and we’d count the airplanes, talk about both of our dreams. It was one of those father/daughter things you hear folks talk about, but don’t understand until it’s you. Same with this.
It was all by the book. Routine. I’d worked with Vancleave before, had flown hundreds of drops. I assure you, nothing like this had ever happened. I can tell you, though, she was happy. Ecstatic, really. Wouldn’t stop talking about reaching her dream; making it. There was going to be a party afterwards. A real shindig. Right before she dove, she invited me.
I was checking flights on the computer when I saw them in my peripheral vision. At least I think I did. What I thought was, “There I am, finally doing what I want. Unafraid.” You know how sometimes you see yourself in others? Eerie. It must have been the split second before. I turned back to my screen. Then the sirens. The sirens.
The instructor, Vancleave, made it. The parachutes have been checked, double-checked, packed; the plane gassed up. Here we are on the runway. Don’t just sit there.