All's well that ends well

Rick Long

"It is always the best policy to speak the truth, unless of course you are an exceptionally good liar." - Jerome K. Jerome

Whenever I hear an aeroplane going overhead I am reminded of the time, some years back, when I made a commitment that was going to be damnably hard to keep. The family were sitting around home on New Year's Eve when we decided to make our annual resolutions. It had been a regular family tradition to do this, we never kept them, but we did make them in good faith.

Knowing that I was perfect in every way (oh Lord it's hard to be humble) I was having difficulty in deciding what on earth I could do to improve my persona on this occasion. I reluctantly conceded that I did have one flaw in my make up; I'm terrified of heights.

The resolution then was obvious. I would somehow cure my fear of heights during the ensuing year. The kids, knowing of my overt fear, were uncharitably sceptical.

I put up with their taunts most of January, until, lying on the beach one glorious summers day and looking up at the sky it occurred to me that thing I would hate most to do was go skydiving. It was a revelation; all I had to do to cure my fear of heights was to go skydiving. It was so simple; why hadn't I thought of it before?

I was aware that there was a skydiving company out at Masterton's Hood Aerodrome, but I didn't want to fail locally so I rang the Manawatu Skydiving Club to check out the options there. The lady on the phone was most obliging. I couldn't have rung at a more opportune time she intoned. They were starting a new class in the first week in February and I was welcome to join. It required me to attend a tutorial every Thursday night for six weeks at a complex at the Milson Aerodrome in Palmerston North where I would be taught the theory of skydiving. On the sixth night I would be required to sit a test and if I passed, on the following Saturday I would take my first jump.

So every Thursday I would rush home from work, shower and change and then tear over the Pahiatua Track to Palmerston North to learn the 'theory' of skydiving.

I have put the inverted commas around theory because I need to emphasise it.

There were 28 of us in the class; my fellow trainees were of both genders, some were barely out of school and their enthusiasm was unnerving. Palpably the oldest in the class, I felt like Methuselah.

We didn't do anything practical except on the third or fourth evening when we were made to climb on to a platform about as high as a dining room table with our parachutes strapped on our backs. From this modest level we slid down a flying fox type contraption and in the process were instructed how to land safely.

To give you some indication of the extent of my fear, I'm bound to confess that I was experiencing a bout of acrophobia even standing on the table!

On the sixth night we were given the test and I topped the class in the 'theory' of skydiving. In fact we all passed with flying colours and the instructor invited us to come back on Saturday morning when, weather permitting, we would be able to put our theory into practice.

I didn't get a wink of sleep on that Friday night and next morning reluctantly rose early for the pilgrimage to the Manawatu. My wife and four children were coming of course; there was no way they were to pass up the chance of witnessing the inevitable death by trepidation of their timorous husband and father.

I wanted get lost somewhere around Eketahuna, but the family kept me on the right track and we arrived punctually at Milson aerodrome on a cloudless, windless day in mid-March. Perfect weather, the instructor gleefully told us, to go skydiving.

I tried to appear outwardly calm 'but in my heart my knees were shaking!' The palpitations increased markedly when the tutor said, "He who tops the class, jumps first."

The little Cessna 172 sitting on the tarmac was the scariest plane I have ever seen. There was a door missing on one side and when the instructor, the pilot and I were bundled into the tiny cockpit I discovered to my great chagrin that I was sitting next to the gap where the door should have been. I remember saying to the pilot "Look at those people down there, they look like ants," to which he replied, "Those are ants you silly fool, we haven't taken off yet!"

Soon we were airborne and the plane circled around and around in the clear blue sky to attain the desired height. By now I was numb with fright. I'd once read a book called "The Power of Positive Thinking" and had managed as a result of its teachings to keep the contemplation of actually jumping from an aeroplane at a great height out of my thought patterns over the last six weeks, but now, as the plane soared higher and higher, there was no hiding it from my consciousness.

The open-door policy only exacerbated the situation!

Finally the instructor said: "Okay, now jump!"

I said: "Can we just do one more circuit?"

He reluctantly acquiesced and allowed the pilot to make another turn which really only prolonged the agony and meant I was even further from terra firma. I was told that if I didn't jump after this next circuit he would get the pilot to tip the plane and I would fall out and this would be somewhat less pleasant than actually taking the plunge voluntarily.

Voluntarily! How on earth did I allow myself to get into this ludicrous situation?

The moment of truth arrived. The New Year's resolution was about to be fulfilled. I took a deep breath, cursed Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and his darn book and jumped.

Now in the 'theory' of skydiving we were told to count up to fifteen seconds, enjoy the sensation of flying, pull the rip-cord and then float down to earth to the cheers of the madding crowds.

I think I counted fully one-and-a-half seconds before I hastily tugged firmly on the cord. You're never going to believe this, but the parachute failed to open.

Never mind, I topped the class in the 'theory' of skydiving and first off it is important not to panic; you simply curl up into a foetal position and pull on the little white cord with the knot on the end that's conveniently placed at waist height and this will release the emergency chute which will reliably open and safely float you to the ground.

I tugged at the cord and it was about at this time that all the 'theory' went out the window. The emergency chute failed to open as well.

I never did, at any stage, experience the glorious sensation of floating or flying. Now it felt like I was hurtling, and the ground was coming up at an alarming speed.

They say before you die you whole life flashes before your eyes and certainly as I looked down, I could see on the edge of the tarmac my wife and the four kids standing around the car, all the things I hold dear to me - particularly the car - and I could imagine what was going through their minds; "Gosh isn't Dad brave, he really is waiting until the very last minute before he opens his parachute!"

To the right of me I could see the Palmerston North public hospital just a few hundred yards east of the aerodrome, where, with a bit of luck I might end up, but behind me, to my left was the Kelvin Grove Crematorium which was more likely to be my ultimate destination.

I decided to have one more crack at life. I grabbed the white cord firmly, got my hand securely behind the knot and I pulled and I pulled - and pulled the cord clean out of my pyjamas!


Rick Long

Lansdowne Park Lifestyle Village.


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