When I was growing up in Todd County (KY), we would sometimes go over to Fort Campbell’s “Field Day.” It was a big event, hundreds or maybe even thousands of troops engaged in demonstrations, maneuvers and other activities. I have a vivid memory of one soldier exhibiting handling of non-poisonous snakes. He deliberately let a black racer bite his hand. “Yes,” he said, showing us blood streaming from where it had bitten him in the joint between his index and middle fingers, “it will sting a bit and it will bleed, but there’s no real harm.” I immediately went home and quite intentionally avoided picking up black racers.
The drama of a basically self-inflicted snake bite notwithstanding, the high point of the annual event was the 101st Airborne’s Screaming Eagles jump demonstration. What seemed like hundreds of troops streamed out of low flying cargo planes, parachuting down to the earth. Their descent under billowing silk (or nylon or whatever their parachutes were made of) seemed magical, mystical and somehow incredibly powerful. Not quite gravity-defying but certainly courageous and impressive.
I never lost that sense of wonder over the ensuing decades. Today, at Red Wing, Minnesota, I got to do something even more amazing—a tandem jump at 12,500 feet—with the Army’s Golden Knights. The Knights are the Army’s team of expert skydivers and one of their units does tandem dives as a way of strengthening connections with educators and other community partners around the country. Thanks to Major Sam Arnett’s support, Captain Jon Garvey’s wonderful coordinating hospitality, and the terrific work of the Great Lakes Recruiting Battalion, I joined a group of fourteen other jumpers at Red Wing (MN) Airport.
After an hour of instruction and several weeks of deliberate visualization of a successful exit from a fully functioning airplane and frequently reminding myself “These people are experts who all want to live till another day,” I was as ready as I could be. Nervous and prayerful and hoping I didn’t wet myself like a scared baby at the jump door, I waited my turn on a very cloudy day with forecast of rain and thunderstorms. As a member of the last group, I kept hoping the weather would hold off; throughout the morning, I was thankful every time it seemed like the sky grew a bit brighter.
By the time we jumped, the sun was burning through the clouds. Strapped to Sgt. Noah Watts, a dude with thousands of jumps in his record, I stood at the door and leaned into the wind. Two seconds later, we launched out into nothing but air.
At about 120 mph, we plummeted toward earth… but astoundingly with no real sensation of falling. Our forward momentum created an arc of transition from horizontal to vertical. The sound and feel of rushing air dominated the initial experience. After Noah tripped our chute at 7500 feet, the silence was amazing. I sat in the harness sling, marveling at the beauty of the upper Mississippi River and valley which join Wisconsin and Minnesota. Green forests and bluffs, crop fields and city streets, and the braided channel of the river formed a spectacular view.
Much to my surprise, I experienced no nausea, even when staring straight below. Except for the occasional thrust of G-force after a turn, it was like sitting in a swing. A swing with someone else controlling the push, entirely.
I reflected on our hookup in the plane a few minutes earlier. As Noah prepared to connect our harnesses, I thought, “I don’t think I’ve ever so fully put my life in someone else’s hands before.” It was humbling and a bit marvelous. I fully trusted those hands, of course.
Everything Noah did from there back to our safe, sliding landing in the grass between the runway and taxi strip proved my trust was well placed. The experience was even more profound than I anticipated. It took me twenty minutes to wipe the grin off my face and may take another few hours. Or days…
It is an incredible thing to fly to the earth at a controlled rate, feeling the rush of air around you, watching the changing perspective of ground features. It is an incredible thing to place such trust in the hands and heart of a stranger. It reminded me of a similar experience over fifty years ago when I put my soul and my eternal welfare into the hands of someone who loved us enough to come down from heaven to earth and to even descend into Hades in order to set us truly free.
In reflection over the many experiences of my life—changing jobs, moving to new places, raising children, facing heartache and tragedy—I realize that many of the things I’ve been through have actually been a lot scarier than jumping out of an airplane. And yet, everything that has happened over those decades has proved to me that all of the trust I have given the Captain of my soul has been well-placed.