Sunday, September 4, 2011

Jump, Carolina, Jump!

     Sundays in the south can be rather slow, creating a perfect post-church scenario for lazy drives and long naps, so today, being a holiday weekend and all, we did just that. First, we stopped for a fabulous, family dinner at the Front Porch, where I really wanted the crispy, crunchy,golden brown, fried-to-perfection chicken, but feeling guilty, ordered the healthier baked version instead. That, of course, left room for steamed cabbage, broccoli casserole, raisin carrot salad and a hot buttered biscuit, which is what we call the "Weight Watchers" platter down here, because I didn't order the chicken fried.
     Feeling fat and full, we needed to drive around a little to let all that food settle and digest. We had picked up Uncle Henry earlier for church and lunch, so we dropped him back at the assisted living facility, or as he not-so-affectionately calls it, "The Prison."  He currently resides there until he completes physical therapy rehab, at which point Dr. Sam will set him free and let him move back home. He is, of course, counting the days.
     We dutifully signed him back in, wondering as always what they would do to him if we didn't sign him back in. Would they set him out on the porch and make him stay there until we came back or give him some demerits or maybe a spanking? I don't know, it just seems silly to have to sign a grown man in and out, as if he is on probation, but rules are rules, and we complied. The front chairs were packed with lonely souls, the ones who had no place to go, and they were all sitting by the door to see which lucky residents were getting picked up or dropped off for the afternoon.  It was sad and depressing, as always, to leave him there.
   My husband had never visited one of Chester's many claims to fame, our regional airport, so the drive home took a detour for that destination. Our community may be small, but our airport has one of the largest landing strips in the south, with several mile-long runways which were built to accomodate cargo planes during WWII.  As you might expect, there are no commercial flights and very little private air traffic coming in and out of Chester, but two major ventures have resulted from having a regulation length air strip in a rural community: gliding sailplanes and sky-diving. Today was a big day at the hangar, with sky-divers from up and down the east coast gathered for a holiday weekend of jumping out of airplanes with nothing but a nylon windsock between them and death.  As an added bonus,  a team of gold-medal skydivers were there practicing formation jumps and swoop landings. These were the big honchos of the parachuting world, and watching their butter-soft, spot-on landings was an impressive sight.
     We stood by the edge of the airstrip and watched the jumpers suit up, march across the tarmac, and climb into the waiting plane. With the side doors still open and the jumpers waving to the watchers, the plane taxied across the runway, soared into the sky, and began the climb to it's desired destination of 13,500 feet. We watched the plane climb, climb, climb, then begin a long, slow circle, higher and higher, finally leveling off and turning back towards the airport.  Small, black dots began appearing in the sky, the black dots gradually grew into colorful sweeps of para-sails, and before long, we could make out the dangling legs of the jumpers.  They glided gracefully through the sky, with some of the more advanced turning summersaults and twisting in spirals on the way down.  Upon landing, it wasn't hard to distinguish the professionals from the novices, as the former made gentle, smooth descents and the latter crashed hard and clumsily into the dust.
     After we had watched a few jumps, one of the managers, a former Special Operations soldier with several tours of duty in Afghanistan, came by to talk to us.  As a result of a severe war injury, he had spent several months in a coma, then a wheelchair, and  finally a walker. Fully recovered and jumping for sport now, he understood the frustrations of limited mobility. He was excited to see Sissey there and eager for her to experience the thrill of jumping out of an airplane and floating gently back to earth. He said there were still spots available and asked if we were ready to go up. I wasn't quite dressed for sky-diving, still wearing the crisp white skirt with a coordinating  teal and camel jacket in which I had been singing hymns earlier. Plus, in the event of a hard, dirty landing,  I wasn't too eager to ruin the fabulous Rangoni pearlescent Italian flats that I had picked up on my last trip to Charleston.
     "Don't worry," he said, "We have jump suits available for you. You can just suit up here and be good to go."
     My second worry was that there was a weight limit, and having just eaten a full Sunday brunch, I was a little concerned that I might be too heavy for a safe lift-off. He assured me, however, that I was within the safety zone, although he hadn't seen the plate of chicken I had consumed earlier, so I had my doubts about his professional judgement on that one.
     Finally, if we were jumping today, it was going to be a group effort, as I was not willing to meet my maker alone in case of an equipment failure. It was going to be one-for-all and all-for-one or not-at-all; we would take the risk together or it would be a no-go.  I had some major concerns, however, about how Sissey would make the landing. We would be jumping in tandem with a professional, he explained, and when it came time to touch down, we would have to lift our legs up and hold them straight out as the pro made the touch-down. This would keep the level of bodily harm to both ourselves and the tandem pilot to a minimum and ensure the safest possible reentry to land.  At this point, the manager said he needed to clear it with his boss, to make sure that it would be possible for her to make the jump, but he did not think it would be a problem.
     "Don't go anywhere, I'll be right back," he told us as he headed into the hangar in search of his boss.  A few minutes later, he returned.
     "Well, I have some good news and some bad news," he began, and I could quickly tell which way this conversation was headed.  Much to his dismay, the boss would not give the clearance for Sissey to make the jump.
      "It's a liability issue," he said, "but more than that, if something did go wrong, it would be devestating for the tandem pilot."
      I agreed with him, but wanted to add it would be pretty devestating for the jumpee and her parents as well if anything went wrong. 
     "The good news," he continued, "Is that there is a facility in Fayetteville that has a free-fall wind tunnel. You can go there and get the experience of free-falling without the risk of a crash landing. It's a pretty impressive place, where they train professionals and amateurs, and it would be a great place to get a chance to jump."
      He was as disappointed as Sissey that today would not be the day she would leap from an airplane and glide back to earth.  I had some mixed emotions, feeling both relief and regret, but with my well-shod feet planted firmly on the ground, I headed back to the safety of the car, ready for a nice long nap in my warm, safe bed.
      And somehow, I knew that we'd be calling Fayetteville tomorrow.

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