Alison Condie Jaenicke teaches writing at Penn State University, where she also serves as assistant director of the creative writing program. Alison’s essays, poems, and stories have appeared in such places as Brain, Child; Literary Mama; and Gargoyle Magazine, and her writing has earned prizes from the Knoxville Writers’ Guild and the National League of American Pen Women. A native of Washington, DC, Alison earned her BA and MA in English from the University of Virginia and currently lives in State College, PA, with her husband and two children.
“We're in a freefall into future. We don't know where we're going. Things are changing so fast, and always when you're going through a long tunnel, anxiety comes along. And all you have to do to transform your hell into a paradise is to turn your fall into a voluntary act. It's a very interesting shift of perspective and that's all it is... joyful participation in the sorrows and everything changes.”
― Joseph Campbell, Sukhavati
I. Independence Day
At dusk, atop the parking deck, we wait for darkness to ascend, the sky to explode. Teenagers buzz—our kids, theirs—hanging out of hatchbacks, lazy, wondering aloud what time it will start. Nine-fifteen? Nine-thirty? We cannot say. Midyear days are languorously long. We gaze over the valley. Maggie leans her chin on the wall, ready for entrancement. Radios crackle, preparing to crank out tunes chosen to match the fireworks’ dance. A few low explosions erupt, rattling like machine-guns, and everyone cheers, attends.
Throughout the show, Eli chatters. He explains how triangulation can help him figure the height of the bursts, why the still-low moon rises orange over Mount Nittany and how it will clear to white as it ascends. He wonders whether a song is the 1812 Overture and why so many fireworks are green and red (not red, white and blue). He blabbers about which songs he hates and why this is all so boring. His stream of words aggravates—hush, let us enjoy, I say—and yet they also inflame my love and admiration for him.
On either side of me, my children’s shoulders nudge mine, warm, and I am basking in happy. Ahead, on the sky’s dark canvas, hot sparks arrange themselves, flicker, crackle, drift to earth—silver streaks, pink puffs, flowers, anemones, jellies—here then gone.
Over the edge of the concrete wall, four stories below, small people pass on the asphalt. Suddenly, out of nothing, my mind spins out an image of my child falling to the road below (only one of them, which one I cannot determine, and it’s too brutal to choose). My hands flutter over the edge, fragile as butterfly wings. They can do nothing: the descent is irreversible. The violence of the thump brings me to my knees to vomit. I see my life halted.
A mother’s milk dries up and yet she is still a mother. A child’s life is truncated, and yet the mother feels that life still, a phantom limb that still itches, hurts, longs to move.
We knew a man who moved from one house to another on our street. First, he was the man who lived on a corner lot where he stretched a cable from one tall pine tree to another, forming a triangle. In the center of the tightrope, he secured a bicycle and posed a male mannequin atop it, jaunty cap and sunglasses on his head, a hand raised to wave to passersby. When the man moved to a house up the street, closer to us, the mannequin came down and did not seem to move with him. His new house was a plain box with a crumbling brick retaining wall wiggling between him and his neighbor. From chatting at the bus stop and from waving to his mannequin, we knew him slightly. We did not know that he was a skydiver, had completed more than 70 dives in the past three years, and worked a second job for Skydive Happy Valley, keeping their website and filing jumpers’ paperwork.
On Saturday, July 7, at around 10 a.m., this neighbor, 53-year-old Chris Brown, stepped out of an airplane and plunged 4,000 feet. When balled up, a skydiver has a terminal velocity of about 200 miles per hour; with arms and feet fully extended to catch the wind, he slows to about 125 miles per hour. On this day, Chris’ main chute opened but tangled, and his emergency chute failed; he spiraled to the ground and to his death.
A few weeks after he died, Chris’ grown kids—even those who had never jumped before—parachuted in his memory, a memorial jump that involved 35 seconds of free fall and a five-minute parachute ride to the ground. I try to imagine what drove them: a desire for disorientation, for moving sideways with the plane while looking down toward their drop; a yearning for dizzy, exhilarating fear to intoxicate their blood, chemically bonding them to their dad; a need for wind to rush against their skin in such a way that the indelible ink of his death would erase or at least fade.
Reading about our neighbor’s fall from the sky returned me to the previous week’s image from the parking deck. Dreaming, waking, those three long seconds came to me—one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi—seconds in which I would know while my child was in the air that I could not affect the outcome. That he or she saw the ground coming, knew what came next, and could do nothing. (Repeatedly, like a heartbeat, the words: Did Chris know? Did others see him and know?) My reaction played and replayed in my head: I drop to my knees and pull out my innards like a magician pulling out silk scarves. I pull and pull until all that is inside has come out. Until down is up. Until fireworks stream from ground to sky, film reel in reverse. Rewind.
III. Descent without Drogue
When traditional skydiving becomes humdrum, one can move on to BASE jumping—parachuting from a fixed object or landform. BASE stands for the four categories of fixed objects from which one can jump: buildings, antennas, spans (bridges), and earth (cliffs).
By the 1990s, after years of skydiving, Austrian skydiver and stuntman Felix Baumgartner decided to “extend his canopy skills” with BASE jumping. His many daring and record-breaking jumps around the world include the following. In 2003, he became the first to cross the English Channel in freefall by crossing from Dover to Calais. In 2004, he set a world record for a BASE jump from the highest bridge in the world, Millau Bridge, France (1,125 feet). In 2007, he jumped into the second biggest cave in the world, called “Seating of the Spirits,” in Oman (396 feet) and jumped off the world’s tallest building, 101 Tower, Taipei (1,669.95 feet).
In the fall of 2012, the world watched and waited as Baumgartner prepared to float to what was billed “the edge of space” on his drop back to earth. After a few false starts when weather and winds scrapped the mission, on the morning of October 14, 2012, 65 years to the day that Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in an airplane, Baumgarter tethered himself to a helium-inflated balloon and rose nearly 24 miles above New Mexico. Beneath this huge upside-down teardrop, his capsule dangled like a silver bauble. At 128,100 feet, he opened the hatch. Far beneath him lay a glowing shield, blue and curved. In his white man-on-the-moon suit, face hidden behind smoked helmet window, he stood at the threshold, teetering, the capsule a silver turtle shell on his back. Breathing erratic and loud, rasping through the receiver, he managed a few words: “Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you are. I’m going home now.”
And then he stepped off the edge, willingly dropped into 4 minutes and 22 seconds of freefall, his body spinning near unconsciousness. For 35 seconds, he fought to control a "death spin." Later, “Fearless Felix” said, “It was much more difficult than many of us expected. In that situation, when you spin around, it's like hell and you don't know if you can get out of that spin or not.” But he did. As he fell, the earth rose beneath him, everything blue at first, then warming to red then brown, the world finally separating again into familiar earth and sky.
In all, the trip back to earth lasted just over nine minutes. At his peak speed, he fell at 844 miles an hour, or Mach 1.25. He did it without “drogue,” the extra parachute sometimes used to produce drag to slow down man or machine, to control and stabilize. His parachute floated him near the earth, and then, as if he’d simply jumped from a tree limb, he was running on solid ground, then kneeling, then talking about how humbling it was, this effort to travel to the edge of space, then turn around and surpass the speed of sound, hurtle toward home at more than 800 miles per hour and stand here with us, mortal once again.
IV. Not Plummeting, but Ascending
Why does one choose freefall? That feeling when the bottom drops out, all support gone, that weightlessness of organs, that fear that you will never stand safely on firm ground again. Across the nation, we line up for rides like the Drop of Doom, the Wild Eagle, the Stratosphere Tower’s X Scream. We ski jump, bungee jump, hang-glide. Some of us yearn for the fear inherent in dangerous activities like skiing and parachute-jumping. ''If you ask accident-prone skiers if they are scared when they are on a high-risk slope, they'll say they wouldn't bother to ski the slope if they weren't scared,'' said Seymour Epstein, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts. ''They want a slope that terrifies them. Parachuters say the same thing. After you take the plunge there's an immense relief and sense of well-being in facing a fear that doesn't materialize.'' We look for an out-of-body experience, to disconnect body, self and mind. We expect all to reunite afterward.
I am not one of those people who willingly seek to be unsettled. To me, life itself provides enough freefall. I am cautious. When I ski, I zig zag methodically and slowly. I avoid horror films. I’m done with roller coasters. And yet, I will admit to admiring thrill-seekers. A few summers ago, at Funland in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, my kids and their younger cousin had just begun their ride on the Freefall, had strapped in and risen to the ride’s zenith, when all power went out on the boardwalk, and they were caught at the top, stuck. They sat for a while, then the ride operator lowered them manually, slowly, and we walked away, grounded. I shared their disappointment, missed watching fear electrify them.
On the last day of 2012—New Year’s Eve—while other children walked around town banging the resolution gong, writing down bad habits and regrets on popsicle sticks then burning them in a bonfire, eating kettle corn, and whizzing down the Russian ice slide, our friends were taking their eight-year-old son to the emergency room. Earlier in the day, he had seemed mildly sick, had just begun to complain of a sore throat, but then his fever spiked and he became suddenly worse. The doctors did not know what was going on—meningitis?—but they did not like what they saw and put him on a helicopter to Hershey Medical Center. The parents drove several tense hours to meet up with him there, and when they arrived, the doctors told them, “We're sorry. He didn’t make the flight.”
In the end, it turned out that Mack died of a rare blood infection. A fluke. No one could have done anything. Even if we could all travel back in time, we could not affect the outcome. And yet I still wanted to shriek: Please! Rewind!
The next week when our church youth group talked about the sudden loss of this boy, one of our own, one girl described what she felt when she heard the news: “you know that feeling you get in your stomach when you’re on the amusement park ride, the Freefall?” I nodded: fear, adrenaline, and the flood of well-being when everything returns to normal.In this case, though, the freefall would not bottom out, would remain a sickening, endless feeling of howling emptiness and loss. There would be no reunion of body and spirit. No recovery from a fear that didn’t materialize. Another girl talked about how Mack was not gone but transformed, like a caterpillar’s transformation to butterfly, from earthbound to winged. Mack’s older sister said he went to heaven on a helicopter.
In the year following their son’s death, Mack’s parents used words like parachutes against their freefall, weaving together their own words and those of others, like American writer and theologian Frederick Beuchner, who wrote: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
What is life at its essence, I wonder, but a rushing of wind and time against our skin, with clouds and birds and leaves and people spinning past? Even when we are sitting very still, trying not to take up more than our share of space and air, trying to avoid risk, breathing shallowly and willing everything to stay the same, we are in freefall. Best then to “turn our fall into a voluntary act,” fully extend ourselves to catch the wind and to slow the disorienting spiral, calming our need to know how and where we will land.