Scaredy Cat

I’m sitting in the back of the booth at the Krčma U parašutistů in Prague. The Paratrooper’s Tavern. As the pub’s only English speaking regulars, we call it The Troop. It’s Collin’s birthday. Somewhere between pre-dinner beers, during-dinner drinks and after-dinner shots he brings up the idea. Then there is the Absinthe.

“Next year,” he slurs. His eyes are the slits they become when he gets toasted. “Next year, I’m going sky-diving on my birthday.” This is okay, because Collin’s that guy. He’s tall, cool, serene and nonchalantly popular, so when this suggestion comes out of his mouth, it sounds natural. It’s the exact sort of sentence that people expect to hear from him.

Not me. I’m exceedingly un-handsome and have all the serenity of a thrash metal concerto. I’m afraid of everything, and flying, falling and being strapped to men rank high on that list. The very sight of an airplane gives me the sweats. Boarding one introduces the irritable, judgmental side of me. As the death tube rumbles down the tarmac I mutter and swear and as we take off into the terminal blue sky I look around at the others thinking: ‘These are the idiots with whom I am going to share my last moments?’ My grammar is fantastic in life threatening situations.

So, in a moment I’ll never be able to comprehend, I answer: “Great idea,” I am wearing the points-up half moon smile that dresses my face when tattooed on plum brandy. “I’ll go with you.”

Perhaps we’re inspired by the décor of the pub, as The Troop is dedicated to the seven Czech paratroopers who assassinated Nazi Reinhard Heydrich in 1942. The pub serves as a shrine to them and World War II, with maps, flyers and pictures of men jumping out of airplanes.

Fast forward 350 days and my friend has neither forgotten his plan nor backed out. In fact, five other friends have decided to join. Any hope of a respect-retaining withdrawal has disappeared and I decide, over hours of compulsive contemplation, that I will stick it out. The mockery I’ll be subject to outweighs plummeting to my death.

For the two weeks before the jump everything I step off of becomes the door to an open aircraft. Tram steps become the penultimate step to oblivion, every curb a jump lift. Whenever a lift door opens I am viewed with confusion as I grip my messenger bag and jump off to the even floor with both feet, landing with a grunt. D-Day minus 12 hours I stand on my bed for forty-five minutes, the cat eyeing me as I stare down into the floor and imagine fedora-like clouds and the seams of hedges separating fields below.

We’re picked up by a man whose mullet appears to be digesting the back of his shirt. His smile shows us a disdain for modern dentistry and a disinterest in attracting the opposite sex. We pile into a white van decorated with a giddy cartoon kangaroo mid-sky-dive and I hate this kangaroo since he is done with his jump and I have yet to finish the statistically deadlier ride to the airfield. I am, in my estimation, screwed. Everyone is excited and I grow paler by the second.

After a gray and cloudy day which teases me with the possibility of cancellation, we arrive at the airfield at 3:30 p.m. the dark clouds that ‘threatened’ the jump have dissipated, leaving behind a clear, blue sky. God damn it.

As I stuff my chunky body into a form-hugging, baby blue jumpsuit I am struck with the thought that they want to both kill and humiliate. I mumble something about insult and injury and glance in the mirror at myself. I resemble a late 70s rocker, the suit adding the effect of the fourth Bee Gee smuggling cherry tomatoes in his underpants. I have used the toilet eleven times.

Our instructors saunter across the airfield like the tall, mustached kids at an eighth grade dance.

“Hello,” my instructor says, “I am The Milan.” The Milan is not arrogant, he is Czech. But this doesn’t stop the red light from going off in my mind.

“I’m Damien,” I tell him, “and I am scared to death.”

He smiles. “Do not be afraid. I am best the instructor in The Prague.”

I now have two concerns. The first is that The Milan doesn’t have a strong command of the definite article. The second is that The Milan has a cold sore on his upper lip the size of a Portuguese fishing village. The latter conjures a dozen un-publishable hallucinations.

We go up in a Russian Cessna, which becomes my third concern as Russian planes have a cranky way of resisting physics. Collin is sitting across from me, staring out the window at the countryside with a blank, content look on his face. He resembles a Hindu elder seeking the next world on his transcendental exit from this one. I ignore the countryside, and stare at Collin, loathing his contentment and his smug yogi-ness. I decide that I have ten minutes to live and recline into my own contemplation.

My contemplation isn’t as meditative as Collin’s. Mine is, well, deranged.

I have a disturbing fantasy along the trip to our jump altitude (12,000 ft.) and it involves The Milan. The Milan calls himself “The Milan” and calls Prague “The Prague,” yet he calls The Eiffel Tower “Eiffel Tower” and The World Series “Series of Baseball World.” In these last moments before the jump I fantasize that The Milan’s misunderstanding of the definite article culminates in a moment of grammatical confusion that ends with him pulling a cord, but not the cord.

Have you ever seen a tandem-skydiving duo? Try to find an inch on either body not covered by some sort of cord. He pulls the cord, which releases me from him, turning me into a 209-pound, baby-blue-colored bowling ball hurtling toward the Earth at terminal velocity.
After the fantasy I am resigned to my fate and watch as the miniature garage door chugs open. Solo skydivers, obvious enthusiasts, say their casual goodbyes and then step off the airplane as if it were a bus in midtown. I think: They are all now dying.

“Damien, are you ready?” The Milan asks me to step into the harness which brings us closer than I would ever like to be to another man, but at the moment I present no complaints. I word a lascivious offer in my brain in case of emergency and let out a whimper. After being strapped to The Milan I sit on his lap, negating any sense of manliness I might have attained while doing this deed.

The green light goes on.

I cross my arms against my chest, hike my legs up and lean back into The Milan, who stands and walks us in a slow gait to the door. I am staring at Collin, who is staring back at me with a flat smirk that tells me that if we are going to die, he’s glad I am dying first. My last thought before looking out at the now very 3-dimensional clouds is that if I live, I will start peeing on his soap. My mantra: You can do this. Millions of people have done this, thousands of them under fire. You can do this. The Milan has his hands on the door jambs, and with my arms across my chest, I am as helpless as a Nerf sword.

We’re out. We’re falling. I’m screaming. It takes me a few seconds to realize that I am not screaming out of fear, but exhilaration. I am not terrified, but excited. I scream until The Milan pulls The cord. Now I’m in the middle of the sky which I’ve been terrified of for half my life and The Milan points out landmarks on the outskirts of Prague. I can now recognize my friends below and I feel the creeping promise of victory. We land and I storm off towards the airport where I am greeted by back slaps and a flask-full of something which makes my stomach warm.

On the ride back, the elation is written all over our faces and I join in the revelry, but I search for something in it all. Fittingly, we get to The Troop and my acute search for meaning is lost as we tell the story hundreds of times. The Milan. Mullet of doom. Smurf outfit. Clouds.

Somewhere between pre-dinner beers, during-dinner drinks and after-dinner shots, Collin reads my mind. It’s his birthday and we’re wearing the same suits as the year before; slits for eyes and half moon smiles.

“Hey,” he slurs, “at least your next flight will involve a landing.”

“That’s true,” I say, and mean it. Then there’s the Absinthe.

Eventually, it all becomes a memory brought back by Facebook pictures and comments and the occasional drunken story. And now, it’s nothing.

  1. #1 by leslie on July 13, 2011 - 10:28 pm

    This made my day. Thank you for sharing this story.

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