John McPherson had always feared this day, but now it has come at last! He would confront his irrational fear of heights and defeat it once and for all. Alone, unaided, he would leap into the unknown and confront the face of the divine.
John looks out at the white, fluffy clouds and the glorious blue sky and feels a rush of excitement filling his entire being.
The Cessna 182 is now cruising at 10 000 feet.
The pilot, Jack Wilson, adjusts his baseball cap and then gives the thumbs up sign. “Happy Birthday, John!” yells Jack over the roaring of the engine.
John tries to recall his training, but now that the moment had arrived, his mind is blurry. His parachutes are securely strapped to his body. He smiles at Jack and tries to hide the fact that his legs are trembling. He walks cautiously to the abyss, and tries to stop his mind from spinning. His gloved hands are sweating profusely.
One statistic is chiseled in John’s mind: on average, one in a thousand parachutes fail to open…
Don’t be absurd John, he tells himself. Remember your training….
Feeling suddenly cheerful, John gives Jack the thumbs up, smacks his helmet twice for luck, then yells “Tallyho!” and leaps out of the Cessna.
John feels the wind swirling all around him. As he looks up, he just catches a glimpse of the Cessna being swallowed up by thick clouds.
Now it is just him and the enormous, boundless blue sky. The wind is cool, but refreshing.
He looks down and sees vast green and brown swathes and the vague outline of a distant mountain range. He holds out his arms and pretends he is an albatross, gliding above the clouds, enjoying the warm sunshine basking his wings.
John knows that he is falling over 200 feet/second.
The green and brown landscape begins to form patchwork patterns of farms and homesteads.
As he looks up, he sees fresh contrails far above, marking the path of a jetliner cruising far above him.
It is time. John pulls the ripcord. Nothing happens. At first, he thinks he must have imagined this, and he pulls the cord again, with the same result. Trying not to think, he pulls it again and again, still it doesn’t open. He considers the reserve parachute. It will save him. Surely both parachutes couldn’t be… Jack pulls the cord of his reserve parachute. It doesn’t deploy.
His mind is reeling now. Could Jack have set this up? No! It is just a fluke. He pulls on both ripcords for several moments. They have both failed. What now?
Fear, hatred, terror, anger, disbelief and panic flow through his mind, but all these emotions are peeled away like an onion, blown away by the by the wind. Fate, chance and circumstance have conspired against him. By now, he has quit trying to pull uselessly on the rip cords, accepting his destiny. His mouth is dry, he cannot scream, he cannot speak. He sees a solitary eagle gliding effortlessly past him.
A poem forms in John’s mind: Oh noble eagle, how I envy thou! For you will sit this very day in your eyrie, safe and cozy, surrounded by your family, while I, I will likely be found in some unnamed farmer’s field, a crumpled corpse, from which consciousness of existence will have been extinguished.
The eagle drifts off to the right, circles around him once and then vanishes into a cloud.
He can see patterns now, in the farms, and silvery shiny rivers, twisting and turning like snakes.
At last he is able to scream, to articulate, to be alive to be human!
“Gravity, oh gravity!” he roars to the heavens. “Have mercy on me!”
Jack ponders how many people in history have suffered his terrible fate: fighter pilots, bomber crews, balloonists, skydivers…
He knows that the world record for surviving a freefall without a parachute is held by Vesna Vulovic, a Serbian flight attendant, who plunged 33 330 feet and survived.
He recites the Lord’s Prayer a few times. He wonders if Vesna had recited the same prayer as she had plunged helplessly to the ground.
John considers the road system below him, and is aware of countless automobiles and trucks moving on them in an endless stream, he can sense their patterns and logic as they connect node points across the landscape. For the first time, he is aware of how ugly these grey strips of rock really are, artificially dividing up the land into sections, scarring the landscape. He finds that he is somehow aware of every vehicle on every road and highway in the world. He knows each vehicle’s type, speed, direction and destination. He can sense them circulating, like blood inside a human being’s veins, always moving, heading for node points scattered all over the world’s land surface.
He can also sense countless forests, and he is aware of each tree, of their roots and bark and branches. He can picture the structure of each leaf, sense the chlorophyll running through them, the sap of life flowing through each tree’s branches. He can sense countless centuries of tree growth and photosynthesis, imagine their seeds being spread and pollinated. He can envision every plant, tree and all the vegetation and fauna spanning the Earth. It is a single breathing, living organism.
He can also see the river below him clearly, and somehow he can sense the fish and aquatic life under its surface. He finds that he can sense all the aquatic life in all of the world’s rivers and lakes and oceans. He can see whales, sharks, dolphins and schools of tuna and mackerel swirling and swimming in some eternal aquatic dance. If he thinks hard enough, he can even envision countless amoebas floating in the primordial soup eons ago.
He dares a looks down again and he feels his stomach churn, as he can see individual details such as cows, farmhouses, and homesteads and rural roads.
As he contemplates a horse walking through a meadow, he knows that it is related to one once ridden by Julius Caesar. What good is that now?
John is unaware that he had unconsciously pulled the rip cord of his reserve parachute and that it had opened.
He is dimly aware that he is slowly beginning to slow down and sway from side to side as the parachute begins to work its magic.
Yet, the ground is still rushing towards him, and he knows he is going too fast.
He can see a cornfield, a line of trees, a fleeing cow…
John closes his eyes.
He can sense the orbits and temperatures of of every planet and star in the universe. He sees dust clouds, the birth and death of stars, spinning galaxies, the Big Bang.
His mind reels.
Could it be? Could it be?
The grounded ended his enlightenment.
A man is lying inert under clean white bed sheets. His left leg is in a cast and is raised in the air.
“John!” says a voice.
John slowly opens his eyes. The smell of ether fills his nostrils. He is dimly aware of a man standing there, but it is his cap that he recognizes first.
A New York Yankees cap!
“Jack!” he shrieks as he raises his head, then feels his body go numb and he puts his head down again.
“I thought I lost you,” says Jack, chuckling slightly.
“My parachutes didn’t open until it was almost too late,” grumbles John.
“I know,” says Jack. “I still can’t believe it. Well, you handled this emergency like a pro. They found you inside a haystack. It may have saved your life.”
“A haystack?” mumbles John. “Well, they’ve turned me into a mummy now.”
Jack laughs again. “You broke a few bones, but they can fix them! Hey, we’ll have you up there and ready to skydive again in a jiffy!”
“Very funny,” says John.
Jack walks up to John and hugs him.
“Hey, look at that!” says Jack, pointing at the window.
John turns his head and sees an eagle gliding past. It is the most beautiful sight he had ever seen in his life.
His face fills with tears.