Whuffo: Someone who hasn’t made a skydive (yet), especially a spectator. Supposedly derives from “What for do you jump out of a perfectly good airplane?”—The Whuffo’s Guide to Skydiving
When my dad likes a woman, he always invites her over to dinner for Beef Stroganoff, and I have to be there. “It’s better to let her see how it really is around here,” he says, including the fact that he has a sixteen-year-old daughter. It’s okay if my boyfriend, Theo, or one of my friends, even Cory with the tattoos circling his neck, comes over too. Dad says that if she can’t see past Cory’s tattoos, she’s too closeminded for him. That kind of thing is why my friends say my dad is cool. They’d think he was cool even if tattoos bothered him, though. Most of them are awestruck by him, and the fact that he makes their parents a bit nervous doesn’t hurt.
After dinner my dad puts on a “family video.” It starts with a four-year-old girl—me—at the drop zone, wearing a pink jumpsuit and a backpack that my dad modified to look like a parachute container. I’m wearing little military-looking jump boots, like skydivers used to wear. Most of the time my dad’s date says something like, “Aw, she’s so cute!” And I was. I had a saddle of freckles over my nose, and my pigtails were so blond they were almost white, not whatever color my hair is now—something between blond and light brown. Anyway, four-year-old me swaggers around like I own the place. The camera shakes because my mom, who’s filming, is trying not to laugh.
First-jump students stand silently at the fence watching canopies open and jumpers land. They know that soon they’ll be on board the Caravan, then they’ll climb to altitude and, one by one, they’ll jump out attached to my dad or one of the instructors who work for him (who will keep them stable and open the canopy and make sure they land in the right place, not hung up in a tree or sizzling on power lines). Then, one by one, they’ll land and shout “Woo-hoo!” and say that it was awesome and swear they’re coming back the next weekend. And then they’ll drive home and never make another jump.
I’ve seen the video so many times I feel like I remember that day. I strut up and down the line looking at the first-jumpers. Two girls ask me my name and how old I am, trying to pretend they aren’t terrified. I ignore them and go up to the guy who looks the palest, the most like he’s about to throw up, and I stare at him until he’s obviously uncomfortable. Then I ask in as spooky a voice as I can squeak out, “Can you smell it?”
The guy looks confused. “I don’t smell anything.”
I tilt my head and sniff. I ask a little louder, “Can you smell it?” The camera shakes again, and you hear a snort escape from my mom.
Someone finally says, “Smell what?”
Then I say, “Death!” I stomp my foot like I’m squashing a bug and shout, “WHOMP!”
I’m always curious how my dad’s date will react to that. Usually, she giggles nervously. Sometimes she says something like, “Goodness!”
And my dad says, “I have no idea who taught her that. Not good for business.” He sounds serious, but you can hear that he thinks it’s funny.
But I know. I know who taught me that. And my dad does too; I remember when he got mad at my mom and told her she was scaring off customers.
After the “WHOMP!” the first part of the video ends because my mom cracked up so hard, she had to stop filming. The second part shows my dad doing formations in the air with his team the year they won the nationals, and then a world-record attempt he was in. That formation funneled right before the last person closed, but it was really pretty anyway.
Last comes a TV news report about my mom’s team doing a demo jump into a rock concert at the university in Springfield. My mom’s canopy opens with line twists, so she cuts away really low and goes back into freefall a heartbeat before her reserve opens. The crowd loves it. They scream while the reporter shouts about how my mom was mere seconds away from death and how they had all witnessed a miracle.
That’s where the news report ends, but whoever sent it to my dad gave us the uncut version, which makes the reporter look really stupid. The guy asks my mom what she was thinking as she “plummeted to earth,” and she says, “I was worrying I’d broken a fingernail.” (She was messing with him—my mom’s fingernails were as short as mine.) She takes her helmet off, and her short blond hair is plastered to her head with sweat, but even so, she is so beautiful that it’s hard to look at her. The reporter keeps trying to get her to open up about how her life must have flashed before her eyes, and she finally says in this really condescending way, “Look, buddy, it happens. It’s part of skydiving. You don’t wet your pants every time someone runs a red light or cuts you off on the freeway, do you? Jumping is a lot safer than driving and a hell of a lot safer than keeping skydivers talking instead of letting them use their backstage passes. So run along.” Then she actually pats him on the head and leaves him standing there with a red face, looking like he wants to cry.
Then Dad always pops the DVD out, and here’s where the test comes in: each date gets a grade based on the first thing she says. He tells me her grade after she leaves. I’ve given up telling him that it’s ridiculous to judge someone based on this one thing. My dad says that if a woman isn’t okay with him being a jumper, there’s not much point in seeing her again. Seeing how much time he spends at the drop zone, I guess that’s reasonable. Kind of.
Most times, his date says he’s crazy to jump. That earns her a D. He tells her he appreciates her honesty and doesn’t try to convince her that skydiving is actually a lot safer than most people think. If he likes everything else about her, he might call her again. But he usually doesn’t.
If she says, “I don’t see why you’d jump out of a perfectly good airplane,” which every single whuffo says to every single skydiver like it’s the most original and witty thing they’ve ever heard, he’ll find some excuse to end the date early. He won’t even bother to give her one of the standard jumper responses (“Because the door was open” or “You’ve obviously never seen a jump plane”). That “perfectly good airplane” line gives her an F, and he’ll never call her again.
If his date says something like, “That looks really cool,” she passes with a B. She doesn’t have to say that she’s always wanted to jump—he has lots of whuffo friends, not to mention a daughter he hopes will be a permanent whuffo, and he’d be fine with a whuffo girlfriend as long as she doesn’t mind that he spends every weekend at the DZ. But he doesn’t like gonna-jumpers who talk about it and never do it, so if she does say she’s always wanted to skydive, he tells her great, he’ll put her out the next Saturday. If she backs out, her grade drops to a C. If she actually jumps, her grade goes up to an A, even if she hates it and says she’ll never do it again. “At least she tried,” he says on the rare occasions when this happens.
One thing that isn’t on my dad’s video is a shaky, overexposed recording that lasts less than two minutes. I don’t think he’s ever seen it—he’s not too good with computers. One day I searched “jenna clancy last jump” on YouTube, and there it was. At first I couldn’t watch it all the way through, but after a few tries I made it to the end. Then I slammed my computer lid shut, thinking in some weird way that I was trapping the video in there, and didn’t go online again for days.
Every few months I get an itchy, anxious feeling, and I know I have to see it again. I wait until my dad’s out of the house. He doesn’t bother me when I’m in my room with the door closed, but somehow I would feel uncomfortable if I watched it with him around.
First, I always check how many views it’s gotten. I don’t read the comments—not after the first time, when people said things that I wished I hadn’t seen about chicks skydiving and about how deep a crater she must have made.
Anyway, the recording starts with the four members of my mom’s competition team exiting the plane. At first they’re just little dots. They grow a bit larger, and you can see that they’re practicing the routine for the nationals. The sky is so bright behind them that you can hardly see them joining into a star and then a donut and then more formations, so fast and precise it doesn’t look like real people but like computer animation. It’s beautiful, but it doesn’t last long, because jumpers only get about a minute of freefall. They break apart and pull. One, two, three hot-pink canopies blossom against the blue Missouri sky.
My mom’s best friend, Angie, is recording from the ground. She was on the demo team but wasn’t great at formation skydiving, so another teammate, named Michelle, took her place for formation, which didn’t leave Angie much to do while the competition team was practicing. On the video she talks to someone you can’t see, identifying who’s who by how they fly their canopies. “There’s Patsy . . . and Louisa . . . and Michelle.” She doesn’t sound worried at first as she says, “Now where’s Jenna?” She sweeps the camera around and stops at a black dot against the brilliant blue that I know is my mom, but her canopy isn’t open. Instead, there’s a lumpy, misshapen thing flapping behind her.
“That’s Jenna.” Uncertainty and tension creep into Angie’s voice. “She’s—I can’t tell—it looks like—it’s a bag lock.” And that’s what it is; the canopy is stuck partway out of its container. My mom flips over on her back. This should pull the canopy out, but it doesn’t. Then she flips again so she’s belly-down and stable, but the canopy hasn’t budged. Angie starts calling, “Oh God, Jenna, cut it away! Cut away, Jenna!” Another voice nearby yells the same thing, and even though my mom is obviously too far away to hear them, that’s exactly what she does, as though she’s following their instructions. She pulls the cutaway handle to release the risers from her rig, and for a second it looks like everything will be okay, but the main canopy doesn’t fly away like it should. It remains hung up, half in the bag and half out of it. My mom tries to clear it, but she doesn’t have much time, and then the automatic activation device on her reserve canopy deploys. But just at that moment the main canopy finally works itself free, and the reserve flies right up into it and catches its lines, tangling the two of them together.
The two canopies wrap up into a long, swirling streamer—the pink main and the white reserve twisted together like some gigantic, deadly candy cane—and my mom is spinning under it. She’s so low that you can see her twirling as she jerks and tugs on the lines to free the reserve from the mess of the main. Angie’s screaming and she must be running, because everything gets bumpy and shaky. Then she drops the camera, and all you can see is grass, and all you can hear is screaming and crying. And then it ends.
Freefall Summer. Text Copyright © 2018 by Tracy Barrett. Used with permission by Charlesbridge Publishing, Inc. Barrett, a frequent contributor to Chapter 16, lives in Nashville. Freefall Summer will appear in April 2018.