The sky attracts individuals of every kind, and not all are pilots. Take Jack, freshly retired from Great Britain’s Royal Marines and tough as a steel-toed boot. After live-fire experience as a paratrooper with UN ‘peacekeeping’ forces, Jack was now braving married life in yet another foreign country, California. So impatient was he to find gainful employment involving his specialty – leaping from planes with nearly his own weight in gear – that he asked the likes of me what one had to do to become a smoke jumper. I almost said, “First you gotta be nuts,” but for once the Great Spirit stayed my tongue.

Jack had come not to ask for a job, but to redeem a gift certificate. Unduly embarrassed, he opened the envelope and said, “Wife got me this.” Dismissively apologetic or apologetically dismissive? Hard to tell.

Usually wives are there shooting pictures when Dad takes his ride, but on this day Mrs. Jack was absent. “Should be her doing this,” he muttered as if to himself. “I’m used to a bit more excitement.”

“Well,” I said, “for us the point is staying up, not coming down.” Just when I thought I could trust the Great Spirit.
Joyless growl, “All I need’s a briefing, sir.”

“Briefing? Hmm, lessee… this is one of the few activities that have no purpose except pleasure. Your orders are to enjoy it and ask every question that comes to mind. There’s your briefing. Oh and we do have one rule. If you’re not having fun you’re fired.”

That line I use routinely with students when they need loosening up, because usually it works. Jack’s response, “Fun? Well I must have some then, mustn’t I?”

Yee ha!

Then seconds after liftoff Jack the intrepid suffered a full-on panic attack. Not ordinary anxiousness but a phobic petit mal, acute irrational and uncontrollable. It started with erratic movements, rapid breathing and…

“You alright Jack?”

“Gotta get out!”

If he bailed from the front we’d both be toast. Maybe two hundred feet up I snapped a diving about face (2 Gs pulling him into his seat) and we were down before he could get his canopy open.

Jack was shaken, and dreadfully chagrined. I wondered aloud if he’d been claustrophobic, stuffed into the nose cone of an aircraft strange to him – without a parachute. “No, no,” he said too quickly to sound convincing. But we’d breached a seal somewhere in his private mind and for half an hour he went on to spontaneously spill more beans than maybe even he knew were there. He told, among other things, of being haunted by “a bit of barbarity” in Bosnia, and more recently losing his mother in 9-11!

Divulgence apparently therapeutic, for Jack returned the very next day and this time brought his wife. We offered to comp a second hop but he fiercely threw down cash. His eyes were resolute, though without the boilerplate confidence he’d had before. That’s what he was here to reestablish. Determination? Jack had that to burn.

Of course he still manifested a coiled potency that I could never physically overpower in the cockpit, and I was pins and needles worrying what might trigger him. Attempts at delicacy were artless even for me and he grumbled, “I’m not a child sir. Just let’s bloody do this!”

Launch 2.0 went okay, and I had every intention of keeping it a granny ride. Soon though, his self-consciousness yielded to pleasing sensations and a lilt of ease crept into his voice. After a placid few minutes I asked if he might like a steeper turn.

“Why of course,” he nearly shouted.

Where many passengers would lean away, he looked boldly straight down inside the turn, that familiar view evoking a fond sigh. I asked if he’d like a steeper one the other way. “Oh yeah!” he laughed, and loved it. We finished that flight doing only steep maneuvers, dives, pull-ups and whoop-de-dos.

Back on the ground Jack was giddy with recovery, and his wife, nervous as I beforehand, trembled tearful relief. Such an honor to help the happy warrior heal.

That was the last we saw of Jack, in person. Then some weeks later we got a DVD in the mail, of wackiness that would seem normal today on Youtube, but back then was a chintwisting cipher. There were several sequences, all alike, featuring Jack in a number of sporty skydiving suits standing on the edge of one or another roof, dancing to screechy music and acting as if about to jump. Over and over. And that was it. No audio except the music, no accompanying note. The package was addressed by a female hand.

Supposing Jack made this video for the same reason we fly gliders (FUN), I wonder if it were shot many eventful years earlier, before the war when Jack may have been an altogether different person…

If he comes again will I have the courage to ask?