The sun was high in a cloudless sky. There wasn’t much wind, and it was hot and getting hotter. The students sat around in the shade of the hangar, waiting for the plane, a Cessna Caravan, that would take them up for their first jump.
One young man sat on the concrete, wearing a red t-shirt and jeans, with a backpack next to him. A young girl with sandy blond hair and a peasant blouse, also in jeans, sat leaning against the massive hangar door, twirling a daisy in her hands. Another young man, large and well-dressed, stood talking to someone on a cell phone, gesturing in an animated fashion. The last student, a middle-aged woman, sat somewhat off to the side, separated from the younger hopefuls. She was going over the rigging on her parachute, checking the fittings and buckles.
The jumpmaster came around a corner of the hangar. A slim man of medium height, he was nothing to look at, but he knew his business. He’d seen millions of skydiving students and there wasn’t anything he hadn’t seen before.
The jumpmaster came up to the young man in the red t-shirt.
“Got your chute, son?” he asked.
“Right here, Pops,” the young man replied, patting his backpack. The jumpmaster looked at the young man, then at the backpack, and then back at the young man.
“Right,” he said. “Let’s have a gander.” The jumpmaster took the backpack and, struggling to lift it, opened the flap and looked inside.
“There’s nothing in here but rocks, fella,” said the jumpmaster coolly.
“Yeah. Pretty smart, huh?”
“You’re going to jump out of a plane with just a backpack full of rocks?”
“Well, like, yeah man. It’s my favorite backpack. That pack and I have been all over the world, dude, so, like, I’m not trusting my life to anything else.”
“What about the parachute we gave you?” the jumpmaster asked.
“Not really my thing,” red t-shirt replied.
“Uh huh,” the jumpmaster replied, and set the pack down. “Well … why the rocks?”
The young man snickered derisively. “Duh. I don’t want the pack to blow off my back when I jump, you know? You step out of the plane into that slipstream and—whoosh—it might just get yanked right off my back if it’s not weighted down.”
“You remember what we told you in class, right, that you need a parachute when you jump out of the plane?”
“Yeah, well, I’m thinking that’s all just sort of up to interpretation, ya know, Pops? I don’t see it that way. I mean, what’s to prevent me from just calling this pack a parachute?”
“Right,” the jumpmaster said, shaking his head, and turned to the young woman in the peasant blouse.
“And where is your chute, miss?” the jumpmaster asked.
The young woman smiled dreamily. “Don’t really need one today.”
“You don’t need a parachute?”
“Nope. Carrying around all that baggage,” and here she made sort of a wiggling, waving motion with her arms and hands, “just isn’t me. I need to be free.” She smiled sweetly at the jumpmaster and tilted her head cutely and twirled the little daisy in her fingers.
“You know they told you in class that you need a parachute, right?”
“Oh, all that book stuff,” she replied. “Who really needs any of that, anyway? That’s just a way for your kind to make people like us feel trapped, constrained, and, you know, tied up. I told you, I need to be free. I can skydive, and I can do it my way.”
“Uh huh,” the jumpmaster said, and walked along a little way, coming to the large, well-dressed man who was still talking on his cell phone. The jumpmaster tapped the man on the shoulder.
“Half a sec,” he replied, holding up a finger.
“Gotta check your chute,” the jumpmaster replied. “Plane will be here any minute. When it shows up, you gotta get aboard.”
The man disconnected the call and slipped his smart phone into a jacket pocket.
“Yeah, right, fine.”
“You checked your chute?”
“Well, yeah, I guess.”
“What do you mean, ‘you guess’? Did you or didn’t you?”
The well-dressed young man scowled. “I got this chute from a friend.”
“A friend?” the jumpmaster asked, wondering.
“Yeah, he’s pretty solid. Good guy.”
“And did you unpack and pack the chute like we taught you?” the jumpmaster asked.
“Nah. No need. Too much trouble. My friend says it’s good to go.”
“I see,” the jumpmaster said. “And if it doesn’t work, then what?”
“Hey, if it doesn’t work the first time, then, hey, I’m hoping I can just give it another try.”
“Uh huh,” the jumpmaster said, unsurprised. He’d heard this line before, too. “So, you’re going to jump out of the plane at eight thousand feet and if your chute doesn’t open, you’ll get another chute and try skydiving another time?”
“I’m hoping that’s how it works,” the well-dressed man replied, smiling confidently.
“I’m thinking that’s kind of short-sighted,” the grizzled jumpmaster replied.
“And I’m thinking you’re a little judgmental,” the well-dressed man shot back with asperity.
The jumpmaster shook his head and walked on a bit and came to the middle-aged woman. She looked up and stood as he approached.
“Morning, sir,” she said.
“Morning, miss,” he replied. “You have your chute?”
“Right here, sir.”
“You pack it the way it says in the manual?”
“I did, sir.”
The jumpmaster leaned down, ran his hands over the chute, checking all the fittings and buckles and straps. It was packed the way they’d taught her. He looked up, satisfied. “You okay with trusting the manual?”
“Wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t, sir,” she replied, a slight smile on her face. The jumpmaster could see she was as cool as a cucumber.
“Well, good,” he said. “You’re right to do so.”
The Caravan soon came taxiing down the taxiway and pulled up in front of the hangar. As the students walked out to the plane, the middle-aged woman stopped and turned to the jumpmaster.
“Aren’t you going to stop those three idiots from jumping out of the plane?” she asked.
“Everybody has to get on the plane when it shows up,” the jumpmaster replied. “Everybody has to jump; it’s a one-way trip … no one comes back to this airfield. School rules say I can’t force ’em to take their chute. We can tell ’em the rules, we can pound on the table about the consequences, but we can’t force ’em to jump out of the plane with a parachute. We give everyone the manual. It’s up to them, though, what they do with it.”