My instructor says, "are you ready!?"
I say, "I'm ready!" and she says, "OK, then, do it!"
I lunge out the door of the plane and I'm falling free for three or four seconds before my parachute opens with a crack.

It's 1983 and I'm on my fourth parachute jump. Those days, you did five static line jumps to prove yourself before you could free-fall. You did your jumps with old-fashioned round parachutes, not the sleek flying wings of modern days. The static line opened your chute automatically after you left the plane, leaving very little for the student to screw up - or so I thought.

Once the chute opens, I'm floating gently to earth at about 5,000 feet. It's quiet and peaceful and more fun than any three roller coaster rides. The jump out the door is scary, the floating to earth is delightful. I spend several seconds just enjoying the ride and scoping the scenery. I wanted to burst into song, it was so much fun. 5000 feet.

Gathering my senses, I start to plan for my landing. Right away, I realize that something has gone horribly wrong. Instead of drifting north towards open fields, the wind has shifted and I'm floating almost due east - right towards the center of the small rural airport I had just left. I don't even bother to think about who caused it or how this fuckup has come about. Without thinking about it or even stopping to be scared, I'm riveted to my task. 3500 feet

At the rate I'm going, it looks like I will land almost in the center of the airport. This is bad; very bad. It's ankle-breaking concrete there. There are pointy metal buildings, pointy parked aircraft and lots of other stuff you don't want to come down on hard. My engineer brain takes over without any conscious decision. I can turn west and try to fight it - but that doesn't look good. My old-timey round parachute only gets about six miles per hour in the direction I point it. If I fight my easterly drift by turning west, it looks like I might just end up hitting the edge of the airport or, even worse, the highway running along side. Adding my six mph to my easterly drift doesn't look like it will clear the airport, either.

If I turn south, I might miss the buildings, but it sends me right towards the runways and I don't want to get mixed up with low-flying planes. North is my only real option. Maybe I can make it to the open fields north of the airport - at least I won't have to worry about ending up on the runways... My engineer brain kicks in to do the vector math. I'm not calculating these things, I just know them - the way I know that two and two are four. 3000 feet.

I turn sideways to my easterly drift and head north. At first, it looks good. I'm missing the worst of the buildings and parked aircraft. 2000 feet. As I drift downwards and eastward, though, I start to worry some more. I might make it to the grass and I might just hit the little two-lane road the skirts the north side of the airport.

Damn. Looking bad. 1000 feet. Not only am I not going to make it to the grass, I might not even clear the road. It's hard to judge, the winds are obviously variable. Uh oh, there's a power line that runs along that road - on the north side, away from the airport. My engineer brain takes a break from vector math and notices at some visceral level that three thick wires on wooden poles in a rural area probably mean three-phase, 480 volts or, maybe 600 volts (the summer I spent as an electrician's helper kicking in without my conscious knowledge). Lethal, either way.

I'm fucked, there's no two ways about it. 200 feet. I'll probably make it over the road, but clearing the power lines isn't looking good. Maybe the wind will pick up. My focus on the wires is intense.

No doubt. I'm not going to clear those power lines. 60 feet. I'm mostly over the road, but I'm just not going to clear those wires. OK, I'll shoot for the bar ditch alongside the road - between it and the power lines. I tug the ropes and make a 90-degree turn to the east. This swings me out towards the power lines as I turn. My engineer brain takes over and reminds me that it's OK to touch any single wire. As I swing, I stick out a foot and kick off of the nearest wire. Out of the corner of my eye, I see this send a wave down the wire - snapping at the poles - and a thought in the back of my mind worries that the wire will jump free, but it doesn't.

The kick did it. I swing around and hit the ground in the soft dirt of the bar ditch. The parachute doesn't even catch on the wires. I struggle to my feet and gather up the silk. By the time the pickup truck from the parachute center comes careening around the bend, I'm standing with the chute bundled in my arms, ready for transport.

Friends and parachuters welcome me aboard, "we thought you were screwed!", "I thought for sure you'd end up on the roof of one of the hangars!", "shit, man, you sure came close to that power line!". None of them realized that I actually hit the wires; I was too low to be seen from the parachute school. I hardly said anything. I wasn't fully capable of speech.

It was only when I got back and got my gear off that I could really think rationally. Then, it hit me, I almost died today. A foot here, a few milliseconds there, and I'd be dead.

I made two more jumps; getting past my initial 5 static line jumps to a real free-fall jump. My heart was never really in it again, though. I went ahead and proved I could do it, but I knew that there was just too much random danger in it to make it an innocent hobby for me ever again. When my instructor -who had over 300 jumps- made a stupid mistake and had to pull her reserve chute on a routine jump, I walked away and was never tempted again.

ever since then: I know I'm on borrowed time

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