Paratrooper

One of my favorite toys when I was ten years old was a green-plastic army soldier about eight-inches tall. He was a paratrooper molded with both hands above his head which held the thread that was attached to a round orange-and-white plastic parachute. The parachute was folded lengthwise, then doubled over twice, wrapped with the parachute line thread and finally tucked into a molded cavity in the back of the soldier. The soldier was then thrown as high as possible. The parachute unfolded and the army man drifted softly back to earth. It was very cool.

After folding and throwing the soldier countless times, our arms were very tired. One of my neighborhood friends, Ronny, came up with a brilliant idea; we should make a real parachute. I quickly volunteered my Indian blanket to use as the parachute. My dad had just returned from some educator’s conference Oklahoma. He always brought gifts back with him and my gift was a blanket with teepees and buffalos printed on it. It was lightweight and a perfect size. Ron had a ball of kite string that he donated to the cause.

Using my mom’s heavy-duty shears that she used for cutting fabric with a zig-zag edge, we cut the corners off my blanket into a near-round shape. We punctured the blanket’s perimeter about every foot with nails and tied a five-foot piece of string through the fabric. We gathered all of the ends of string and tied them together in two equal groups. The parachute was completed rather quickly.

Now all we needed was a place to jump off. This part was harder than it sounds. The jump had to be high enough for the parachute to open, yet low enough not to kill us if the parachute failed to open; which we all agreed was highly unlikely. We proposed several possible jumping platforms. There was a double-sided billboard behind my house. We routinely climbed up the center of this structure to sit on top of the message board and watch traffic go by on busy 24th Street. Sitting on top of the billboard was scary as hell. Standing up, balancing on top of this narrow structure and then jumping would be downright terrifying. We also considered the roof of my tree house as a jumping platform, but it was only 15 feet high—and truth be told, it wasn’t even built in a tree. It was a four-by-eight plywood box with cut-out windows supported by corner posts. We determined that the parachute would barely be open by the time we hit the ground, so that was eliminated. We examined the telephone pole in the alley. About eight feet up the pole were L-shaped posts that formed a ladder to the top where the power and telephone lines were attached to a cross beam. It was perfect.

We had to select which one of us would be the first parachutist. As I recall, I was given the privilege of being the first paratrooper since the parachute was made with my blanket. That made sense to me. Ronny decided that we shouldn’t fold the parachute because there probably wouldn’t be enough time or distance for the chute to unravel. Again, that was good thinking on his part.

To get to the telephone pole ladder posts, I had to climb on my fence to the neighbor’s carport that bordered our property. Ronny joined me on the roof and helped me loop the parachute strings under each armpit. The strands of string were placed in each hand just like my toy paratrooper. It was a short one-foot reach to the telephone pole’s first ladder post. I climbed on to the pole with the strings still in each hand. My friends, David, Greg, Jeff and Mike, stood below me on the ground and encouraged me to climb higher. That was easy for them to say. I had only climbed up two or three posts and I was already even with the roof of my one-story ranch house, yet I was only half-way up the pole. I’m not sure if I was having second thoughts about jumping all together—or if my fear of heights had just kicked in—but I was pretty sure I was high enough. Although I knew it was highly unlikely that my parachute would fail, I was quite certain that if it did fail, I would die if I climbed any higher and then jumped. I looked around. My friends still yelled “higher.” The parachute strings and blanket dangled behind me. If I thought about it too long I knew I would chicken out, so…

I jumped.

I aimed for the patch of grass next to my driveway—and I hit the ground immediately. Pain shot up both legs like nails being driven straight up from my heels. I screamed in pain. My friends fled the scene. Parents always wanted to blame someone; best not to be a scapegoat. I balled up into the fetal position and continued to scream. My mother showed up just as Ronny was climbing down from the carport roof.

He ended up being the scapegoat, but he did help out. Instead of telling my mother I had jumped from the telephone pole, he said I had jumped from the carport roof. That was a good call. If he had said the telephone pole, she would have assumed I had jumped from the top and would have definitely freaked out.

As I recall, I wasn’t punished for jumping from the carport roof, I was punished for ruining my brand new Indian blanket. I tried to point out that it wasn’t ruined, but merely a different shape. That excuse didn’t fly any better than my parachute.

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