Flying and Falling
My father first introduced me to flying through Super Mario when I was around five or six. I sent the pixelated plumber running from the left side of the screen as though it were a bad memory, and marveled as he soared through the air with his yellow cape. My father eventually wished for me to follow pursuits natural for the American Male. He would have me hunting game instead of playing one, fixing pipes rather than sending Mario down them. None of that nonsense interested me. I had princesses to save and Goombas to crush. But one of my father’s hobbies caught my eye years later.
In our living room, the bare floor still waiting on carpet, he showed me and my brother a faded photograph of several skydivers in formation, a human mandala frozen in both space and time. His thick finger pointed to one of the parachutists.
“That’s me,” he said. He swelled to the size of Super Mario—he even had a mustache to rival that of entertainment’s most famous Italian outside of Joe Pesci. He was, to my young mind, invincible.
The god of the skies appears in countless mythologies, often born out of the formless void. Ouranos (Uranus, for those Romans out there copying off of the Greek’s homework) was lord of sky and earth until the titan Cronos castrated him. From Ouronos’ spilled blood emerged the Furies, the most apt emotion in the immediate aftermath of forced separation from one’s genitals. The sky god, as mythologist Karen Armstrong puts it, is the distant god that scarcely touches the human realm. His role is to mitigate early man’s wonder and terror at the vast canopy of blue that contains the whole world.
My father and I rarely spoke when I was young. Practical commands took precedence. Hand me the Philips-head, pass the crescent wrench, no, not that one, the other crescent wrench. Can’t you listen?
I couldn’t. My mind was full of elves and knights and lightning-throwing deities and twenty-sided dice. My father liked hunting deer; I preferred hunting orcs. As my mother’s alcoholism worsened, my father and I retreated from home life in our own ways: he withdrew further into a garage full of gasoline cans, motherboards, and 2x4s, while I retreated into the realm of video games, each enacting a life-or-death struggle preferable to the one going on under my own roof.
At some point during my adolescence, he took me and my brother to an air show. We lived down the road from the Sugar Land Regional Airport, so money or time weren’t the usual stumbling blocks. I remember very little of this event, save for the moment my brother and I crawled into a military aircraft. It would not be the last time. Were the seeds of our service in the U.S. Army planted there? Did my father’s stoicism crack and betray a hint of childlike wonder at the expo, implanting my brother and I with a desire to impress? Did I feel a charge from the plane, power over the sky given form?
Power over the sky, that’s a laugh. No power exists over the sky. We can ask permission via technological ingenuity, but the blue intermediary between Heaven and Earth is utterly merciless and is rivaled only by that other blue maw, the ocean. At some point, the difference between falling and drowning is a technicality.
Armstrong notes that sky worship was not reciprocal amongst Paleolithic peoples. The sky was not a divine ATM into which someone punched a pin code in the form of prayer. The sky existed to terrify and evoke awe. It was, and still is, the impersonal dome under which all known life was born, lives, kills, and dies.
When the Army recruiter asked if I wanted to go Airborne, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. A certain pride swelled within my nineteen-year old breast at the thought of telling my father that I would one day leap from a plane as he did. For the first time, I could do something that he did. Better yet, I could surpass him. He’d dress up in camouflage and play war games, while I would dress in camouflage and play war. To me, it was the difference between playing Operation and digging into a patient’s stomach.
“You don’t have to do this,” my father said as the recruiter was preparing to finalize the paperwork.
“I know,” I said.
The recruiter gave both of us a look like yeah right. All three of knew better. Sorry pops, I’d thought, if you wanted me to go to college, you should’ve done more. And with that, I signed, eager to carve my nose clean off my face.
If a sky god remains forever aloof, perhaps we might shift our attention to deities who had spent their fair share of time both treading the earth and soaring through the air. Jesus ascending to heaven after leaving the world the gift of His teachings, the trickster hero Maui who captured all the winds save for the western one, the wind god Enlil who flooded the Sumerian world. I’ve never found Jesus all that imitable. Every time I made my way up to heaven, I found myself falling back to earth, though I will say there’s nothing like a good plummet through the air to put one in a prayerful mood. Maui is the most relatable of the three. God knows I’ve spent far too much time chasing a completeness that never comes. I’ll never admit that Enlil is relatable—I’ve flooded my own world with salt water far too many times.
The first day I jumped out of a plane I was at Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. The shed sweltered, dozens upon dozens of soldiers jam packed on benches in an old warehouse. Excitement carried through the air like electrical current, nervous legs pumping as though trying to draw water from the concrete floor.
An LCD TV mounted on the warehouse wall lit up. On it, a baritone voice hemmed and hawed about adventure and embarking, while a video played of low-resolution soldiers jumping out of the door of the C-130. The realization hit me like a hammer blow to the sternum. I’d known that I would do that, but for some reason the video brought the future to my present.
The giddy feeling did not go away after I boarded the aircraft with 63 other soldiers. Everyone’s face was a mask expressing something between abject fear and manic excitement. I remember, more than anything, that when the jumpmaster opened the exit door at 1,250 feet, the cargo hold flooded with the wind’s mad call. One by one, we would answer. When my turn came, I handed my static line to the jumpmaster and faced the door. Below, the Carolina countryside resembled painting more than pasture. The jumpmaster shouted ‘Go!’ and I went, one more human doing their best to defy heaven while trying to be in it.
Touching the earth afterwards was one of the sweetest feelings I’d ever known. Sex somewhat comes close. Little wonder that my father, at the time of his death, had over three hundred logged sky dives. When I dusted the drop zone off my uniform and packed my chute into my kitbag, I hustled my way to the shed, eager to jump again and utterly terrified at the prospect.
I imagine Apollo might be the sort of god that sees the need for paratroopers. As he drags the sun across the sky—really, the duty of Helios but nobody’s paying close attention—Apollo might look down at the landscape and imagine how much more convenient it would be to simply drop people from the heavens to where they needed to go. Why bother with the earth, its impassable mountains and ridges that dig into the terrain like old scars? Nope. Just find a few willing souls, an air corps.
Of course, Apollo wouldn’t go with the parachutists. The booziest of gods, Dionysus, would. And believe me, wine is like water compared to a nervous system high on adrenaline. Apollo might have the reason or rationale to get soldiers into the sky, but it is Dionysus who is with us when we head out the door. After all, the most maddening part is the descent.
I was eating at a Whataburger in College Station when I received the call that my father had died of a massive heart attack. My mother had long been dead, almost an exact seven years to the day my father died. I was twenty-five. Most people at twenty-five haven’t lost both parents, especially not me, especially when I’d already paid the universe with my mother. Fine cosmos, I’d thought, you get one. To prove that it didn’t give a fuck about my conditions, the universe took my father.
On the drive back to Houston, I came to as close to flying as I possibly could without my four wheels leaving the asphalt.
The five years following his death was a whirlwind of interfamily strife. I tried just about everything I could to make sense of my life, or at least cope with it—upping the drinking to Army-era binges, overstimulating myself with energy drinks and video games and dipping tobacco, Tinder relationships that erupted into conflagrations, studying hard at History, slacking off in History, weightlifting and intaking upwards of four-thousand calories a day to get my bench press and squat up, not eating at all and dropping down to a hundred and twenty-five pounds in the course of a year, arguing on FaceBook with liberals and conservatives. Nihilism.
I was so bewildered at losing my father that I couldn’t make sense of his legacy. Only recently, after letting the memories stew until they’d bubbled up and over, have I bothered to dig inside.
He left behind a kitbag full of trinkets from his days of parachuting, one of the few items I kept after my siblings and I sold the estate. Inside, I found an analog altimeter attached to a nylon body. An altimeter is used to gauge how far above sea-level a parachutist is, so that they can open their chute at the right moment instead of making a small crater in the landscape. The altimeter resembled a pressure gauge. The face is a color that could be best described as ‘previously white’, and the number gauge goes up to 11. The scale reads x1000, and it now strikes me as funny that one is supposed to take whatever number and multiply a thousand-fold to receive the proper sense of scale. As one multiplies to gain an accurate gauge of height, so I multiplied my father’s character far beyond the man himself. I’d told myself I’d outgrown him—I’d joined the military, seen the world, gone to college—and yet his death came to me as such a shock because I could not imagine anything striking him down, least of all his heart.
His jump log provided but one example of why. My father once told me that he had around three hundred dives out of various aircraft. His words, while awe-inspiring to my young mind, do not compare to holding my dead father’s jump log and flipping through five years of his life.
The log of his first jump in ’82 notes that my father did a ‘Nice job – Need to bring left hand up for stability’. I smiled at the strange thought of someone saying that my father lacked in capability. At his funeral, his friends often commented about his jack-of-all-trades, master of some capacity. Broken water heater? Tommy could fix it. Engine trouble? Give Tommy a call. My father could make anything, while somedays it feels as though I can only make a story about my father.
In Iroquois folklore, the goddess Atahensic fell from the sky during the creation of the world and eventually gave birth to the Earth Mother. I would like to identify with Atahensic, as a goddess falling from the sky feels almost too apt for this essay. However, the Earth Mother gives birth to twins, one of them erupting from her side during the birth and killing her. The other child planted a seed in his mother’s body and from her body sprang maize.
As someone both repulsed and entranced by the danger of falling, I find Atahensic alluring. The process of writing can feel as if the writing is busting through like I’m some ink-infused Kool-Aid Man. The Earth Mother knew the truth about creation: the things within you will tear their way out and you had better pray to God that one of them will leave something behind.
Six years after my last jump, at the age of thirty, I decided that it was time to see the world as my father once had. Parachuting in the Army, while a hell of an experience in its own right, put one out of the aircraft at about 1,250 feet at most. The parachute is attached to a static line, which in turn is attached to a cord inside of the aircraft so that the parachute deploys without any fuss on part of the parachutist.
On the contrary, the sport skydiver exits at around 14,000 feet
After mustering up the courage to head to the drop zone thirty minutes out of town, I filled out form after form that more or less said it wasn’t anybody’s fault but my own if I died. One of the instructors came and took me and one other prospective skydiver to a classroom where we watched an orientation video.
The video featured a heavy-set man with a beard that reached down to his desk. The man, his name may have been Bill, proceeded to reiterate in deadpan that the skydiving center would not be held responsible in the event of my dismemberment, injury, or death. For some reason, when he said the word ‘death’, his eyes bugged out before resorting back to his monotone monologue. My mind couldn’t help but drift, pondering the arcane laws and legalities that necessitated the creation of the video. Every now and then I felt the charge of frisson that I’d felt so many years ago in the Fort Benning chute shed, the creeping feeling that I was about to do something stupid and yet could not change tracks. I’m fairly intimate with this feeling by now, a watcher of my own bad habits.
When the video finished, I met my tandem partner James. As it turned out, James was stationed at Fort Bragg, as I had been during my stint in the Army. He served with a Special Forces group and, while deployed, got invited to try out for Delta. As far as I know, nothing in the Army tops Delta in terms of supremacy. James told me that his wife didn’t want him to go, so he opted to get out of the Army and go to Duke instead. His wife didn’t like that either, so he divorced her and worked for ten years after graduating Duke, making money hand over fist and hating his life. His second wife told him that he could do the skydiving instructor thing, and now he spends his days throwing himself and others out of a plane for a fraction of the money he made.
I found much to envy in what little I knew of James. I saw him as man’s man, capable of carving his own space out of the universe. Maybe that’s the truth, or I saw him that way because I felt trapped. James, like the rest of us mortals, always had to come back down to earth.
On board the Cessna, the seats are parallel benches that ran the length of the plane. We faced the tail of the plane, straddled the bench, and scooted backwards towards the cockpit. I situated myself between James’s legs, and as the pilot took us heaven bound, I realized that I had not been this close to a man since the days of the military. The circumstance, while relatively safe, demanded that masculine pride take a backseat to the threat of injury or death. While I often crave personal space, I had the distinct sense of being like a baby kangaroo, utterly terrified of separation.
How can I write about the sky without mentioning its most notorious traverser? Icarus defied his father’s wishes and fell from one blue vastness into another. Didn’t I learn my lesson? I fear that I will spend most of my time on earth trying to leave it, either through stories, drugs, or mad ventures. The thought of clawing my way up this or that career hierarchy rings hollow to me; I’ve been lucky enough to take a bad route through life.
The G.I. Bill from the military and the sale of my childhood home has ensured that I have little to no material debt, but a lifetime’s worth of baggage.
Still, there is a restless search for the right project, the right endeavor. I fear the Icarian myth. We are taught from a young age what happens when we fly too close to the sun, but we never see what happens when we fly too low.
James tumbled us out of the aircraft. I watched as the plane zipped away, and the world tumbled around us.
We fell for about fifty-seven seconds. One of the instructors had mentioned that most people regret not buying the video package for their first jump. I didn’t regret buying it then, and I still don’t now. The thought of hurtling through the air while trying to entertain a cameraman so that I can later entertain myself seems quite odd. Would I have wanted some dude waving and smiling at me the time I lost my virginity? I don’t believe in ‘re-living’ an experience. I would only live the experience of watching myself skydive, and I think the utility of that is somewhat low.
Here are the things uncaptured by a video camera, and for that matter, by the writing of this essay: the sense of dread when the Cessna lifts off the runway, the slap of the wind whipping through the cargo hold, the strange feeling that blossomed in my chest when I watched the first jumper exit, the scratch of the bench on my ass cheeks as James and I made our way to the door, the mind-emptying rush of falling from the aircraft, the feeling that I would die, the feeling that I would never die, and the sheer joy upon landing in a gravel pit without any broken bones.
When I drove back home, a small emptiness gnawed at me. Perhaps I am fated to chase one experience after the next, hoping I find something that connects to myself and to the world at large. Despite my wanderings to various corners of the earth and the skies above it, stories rather than my own daring exploits provide the taproot that sustains me.
One last personal myth spun out of the threads of life long gone. When I was perhaps eight or younger, I would fall asleep on the bristly couch in our living room after a long night of movie watching with the family. Allow me to write myself as a young boy untouched by resentment, defeat, or anger. The only deception I engaged in then was feigning sleep on the living room couch. Stifling a smile proved the most difficult part, but the reward matched the challenge. If I kept still enough, I would feel my father’s hands scoop underneath my small body. He would then carry me to my bedroom to tuck me in, taking care with every step not to wake me. Being held by the one you love is a rare present and a terrible absence. Had I known it wouldn’t last forever, I might have treasured it more. When my legs and arms dangled freely in the air, body cradled close to the man I’d not yet grown to loathe, I might as well have been flying.
Thomas Trest is a graduate of the Creative Writing M.F.A. at Texas State University. He currently resides in San Marcos, Texas with his ginormous Great Pyrenees, Iggy. He can be reached or followed on Twitter @NoRestforTrest.