1 thousand, 2 thousand, 3 thousand, 4 thousand, 5 thousand, 6 thousand.
It was Easter 1980, I was 19, married with a 1-year old baby and spending the holiday parachute training with 60 young officers from the Duntroon Military College in the ACT.
Some of you might wonder, what a tender young mother of 19 was doing parachuting with 60 soldiers. But the question I was asking myself was, how did I end up a 19 year old mother living in Canberra?
Not that I regretted motherhood for a second, but it just hadn’t been my plan….my plan was to buy a kombi van, drive north to join a commune in Hippy central tropical Nimbin, tie dye, make soap and live in bare feet. But there I was in cold Canberra, our seat of government, as far away from Nimbin you can get in climate and ideology, knee deep in nappies, and wearing two pairs of sox and boots. My plan in tatters, my sense of identity shattered and my self-esteem flattened… that’s why I was lining up in the ranks of our defense forces finest young men, taking a leap of faith…to restore my faith in me.
Every year the local skydiving club hosted the royal Australian army’s Duntroon officer cadets’ compulsory recreational parachute training camp. And that was the weekend I signed up for training. Our Instructor was Major Andrew Harris of the S.A.S, the special armed services- our elite trained killers, the toughest of the tough, the bravest of the brave and in major Harris’s case the macho-est of the macho.
One of the first things he taught us was the PLF, the parachute landing fall. In those days, we only had round parachutes and they came down hard and fast. So, to avoid breaking bones you had to land with your feet and legs together at a slight angle then roll onto your thighs and hips to help distribute the shock. Major Harris had us jumping off the back of an army truck to practice. However, It was painfully obvious that I couldn’t do a PLF to save my life.
The 1 thousand, 2 thousand was our parachute drill. 1 thousand you arched your back, arms and legs out to fall stably, 2 thousand look and grab ripcord, 3 thousand pull rip cord, 4 thousand roll slightly to see if parachute deployed, 5 thousand grip reserve ripcord and 6 thousand pull reserve rip cord. The drill I had, I still have it, what I didn’t have was the strength to open a reserve parachute. My partner repacked the reserve chutes yearly and he often ran me thru the drill on the ground with a reserve chute which needed repacking but I in all the years I skydived I never managed to open one reserve chute on the ground.
Despite my lack of grunt power and the injuries I sustained just falling of the back of a truck, I was allowed to jump (Remember this was 1980 before health & safety seemed important.)
The day of our first jump dawned, a chilly Canberra morning, crunchy frost under foot and air so crisp you could almost snap it. My nerves were so tight you could have snapped me! I wasn’t alone, the soldiers’ fear shrouded the drop zone like fog.
Time to kit up, leg straps check, chest straps check, helmet check, “all right soldier in the plane”. I waddled over to the plane looking more like a turtle than a burly soldier. My fears crowded into the plane with my fears, I thought this could be the last time I see my daughter. But as the plane ascended into the crisp blue sky a calmness descended on me.
Jump Run: Go
On the first jump run, Major Harris ordered power down, the plane backed off its speed and he sent the first soldier out. Hand over hand with military precision, the young soldier climbed out and hung off the plane’s strut. The Major yelled “go” but the soldier hung on, The Major screamed “go”, still the soldier clung to the plane, Major Harris roared “GO”, and still the stricken soldier hung on for dear life. In a change of strategy Major Harris called to the pilot for “power on” and the reluctant paratrooper was blown away.
Second jump run and my turn. “Power off, all right girlie out you go” Unlike the soldier before I was slow and clumsy climbing out but when Major Harris ordered go, I went! 1 thousand 2 thousand three.....my chute opened…. I enjoyed a few minutes of euphoria till I come back to earth with a thud…. I jumped up, waved to the crowd and smiled… then made my way to the hospital to check for fractures… luckily there were none just a massively bruised pride.
While most skydivers claim they lose their fear after a number of jumps, I never did. Though I continued skydiving for many years, while I was on the ground there was fear, I would always think, this could be the last time I see my children but once in the air, I was ready for that leap. Luckily during those years I graduated to the modern and softer landing square parachute….which was a great relief as I never mastered the parachute landing fall…and I still hadn’t managed to open a reserve chute.
One hot summer’s day when the heat was rising off the tarmac in shimmering waves at the Australian National Skydiving Championships, I was jumping out of an old propellered DC3 with 49 other skydivers. This many skydivers in the air at one time posed all new dangers. You could be hit by someone in freefall and killed. You could open your parachute, be hit by someone in freefall and killed or you could open your parachute and slam into someone else who has just opened their parachute and killed. But 50 of us took that leap of faith.
Do Or Die
We exited the plane at 15,000 feet, giving us over a minute’s freefall in which we were to perform numerous formations. At 3000ft we broke contact and I headed for a clear space to open my chute. At 2000 feet I pulled my ripcord…nothing, I tried again, nothing-terminal velocity, seconds to impact and time stopped. I remember thinking “SHIT this is it, do or die” (my military training), The emergency drill kicked in, I took hold of the emergency ripcord in both hands and pulled.
My emergency chute had an interesting history. It was secondhand and known locally as the “eighth of an inch chute”. You see its previous owner, deceased, had neglected to pull the emergency ripcord all the way out. Accident investigators found that a mere eight of an inch stood between his life and death.
I pulled again and again…. The chute snapped open. Somehow, I had found the strength.
I guess it would be true to say that all my parachute jumps had been physical leaps of faith…and though there was fear, it doesn’t compare to the fear that comes with life’s metaphorical leaps of faith, starting relationships, ending relationships, changing jobs, moving home. In comparison skydiving is easy, make the decision then leap. No time to wonder did I make the right decision, no time for regrets, definitely no turning back and once you leap, the outcome is known within minutes, or if you are unlucky seconds.
But metaphorical leaps take so much longer to land. They allow so much time for agonizing and that’s when the fear really kicks in. Did I make the right decision/ the wrong decision, what if it goes wrong, what if what if what if… time stops as the what ifs immobilize you…. And with the metaphorical leaps you can even turn around and scramble back on the airplane and continue on as before, safe and sound… but long plane rides though safe n sound eventually feel confined and uncomfortable…..and at some time you are forced to stretch your legs…. just like life sometimes forces you to stretch.
My Soul Called GO
I recently made the biggest metaphorical leap of my life… but when my soul called GO, I went. The fear was overwhelming. The “what ifs” and “what have I done’s” plunged me into free fall. Not a nice stable free fall but a messy out of control flailing decent-terminal velocity, seconds to impact, then, grace and courage unfolded like an emergency chute. And I landed that leap when I married my new Swedish husband Ulf. And now we take another leap of faith as we look for a country to call home but happily that leap of faith is a tandem leap.
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