Look Out Below!


by Bruce Gravel, BED’79


When I attended McGill decades ago, all of 18 and flush with the heady freedoms of new adulthood, I craved unique experiences. Already a scuba diver, I reasoned that if I enjoyed swimming underwater, then surely I’d enjoy soaring above water.

So I joined the McGill Skydiving Club. I paid careful attention in skydiving class—especially to the lecture on What To Do If Your Chute Doesn’t Open—and took many notes. My girlfriend later asked what good would notes do when I was two miles up, falling at over 140 feet a second. Good point.

The Big Day finally arrived. My first jump. My honey, muttering that sane people did not voluntarily leap out of perfectly good airplanes, accompanied me to a small airport north of Montreal.

We were a mixed group: ebullient would-be skydivers, with sombre friends who looked like their next stop would be a funeral parlour.

Checked and cross-checked, four of us eager eaglets crammed into a modified Cessna with the pilot and instructor. The plane lumbered skyward.

En route to the drop zone, a curious phenomenon occurred: the higher we climbed, the less excited we got.

Finally, the cabin door was latched open and, with a demonic grin, the instructor selected me to go first.

Pushing forward against the buffeting wind, remembering warnings not to look down, I emerged from the cabin’s safe womb and inched along a ledge under the wing, hands death-gripping the wing strut.

The instructor screamed: “GO!”

I screamed: “WHY? Haven’t I already demonstrated my courage just by exiting this aircraft at 2,000 feet?”

The instructor bellowed that returning to the cabin was not an option; it was too hazardous. (Like letting go wasn’t?)

I let go.

As I fell away, the idiot-cord attached from the plane to my chute snapped tight and, miracle of miracles, my chute flowed out behind me. Even more miraculous, it ballooned open. Straps jerked tight, I was yanked upright and voila: I floated over serene Quebec farmland.

Awesome view: blue sky around me, white canopy above, green fields below. Green fields coming closer every second. With mysterious brown spots on them. That moved.

I was coming down on a field full of cows.

I pulled on the chute cords, attempting to change direction. That just moved me from the edge of the field to the middle. Where the cows were thickest.

Figuring that Bessy would not appreciate someone suddenly dropping onto her back, I yelled down at the herd, to get them to move. They stayed put.

Remembering they were Québécois bovines, I bellowed in French. Same result.

I just missed a cow as I landed and rolled, shouting “Merde!” which accurately described what I landed in. The animal, eyes bulging in astonishment, bolted.

My chute settled gracefully behind me. Upon the rest of the herd. Chaos ensued.

Two weeks later, we were at the airport again. My girlfriend remarked that the number of repeat skydivers had dwindled significantly since their first jump. I ignored her.

Up we went into the wild blue yonder.

When it was my turn, determined to repair my reputation, I wasted no time clambering out and letting go. (I’m sure no one heard my whimpering over the roar of engine and wind.)

My chute considerately blossomed open again. Disregarding the wonderful view, I looked where the wind was sending me. Trainer parachutes are quite unresponsive compared to expensive, advanced chutes. With those, you could literally control your descent to land on a dime. With my chute, you couldn’t land on the Canadian Mint if it was right below you.

Only empty fields lay beneath me. Not a cow in sight. I heaved a sigh of relief.

Dropping lower, I observed that the local farmers had industriously bordered their fields with sturdy upright posts and wire fence.

One of those sturdy upright posts was directly below me, framed between my dangling feet.

I was about to be impaled. Bruce-on-a-stick. An embarrassing epitaph.

I started swaying like a pendulum beneath my canopy as the post drew rapidly closer. Just missing the pole, I crashed into a deep ditch filled with reeking brackish water.

After two close calls in two jumps, I decided to stick with scuba diving. Sharks, barracudas and string bikinis were less hazardous.

Bruce Gravel is president of the non-profit Ontario Accommodation Association and writes a biweekly humour column for the Peterborough Examiner. His work has also appeared in Maclean’s and the Globe and Mail. His first book, Humour on Wry, with Mustard, was published earlier this year. For more information, visit www.brucegravel.ca.

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