I know I was thinking about this when they rolled back the hatch and 3,500 feet of nothingness opened up below me and the jump master was motioning for me to scoot forward and hang my legs out of the plane. I slid my ass over till one cheek was out in midair and I had a death-grip on the doorjamb. The wind was blasting hard into my face and against my body. The jump master smiled and I guess I smiled back. Everything was rushing and the wind and the noise seemed to be flushing through my whole body as if terror were a poison. I tried to calm myself but it wasn't working so I looked out at the wing as we had been drilled to do and jumped.
To say that I was thinking about my brothers in that moment of mortal drop—with the angel plane disappearing above me and the rock-hard ground lunging up beneath me and my entire being feeling like I'd already landed on one of those high-voltage tension lines—would be a magnificent lie. I was scared shitless, bodyless, mindless. For several seconds, the cosmos went blank.
Then the chute opened. Life, precious life, regained!
My lines were crossed, so I instinctively reached up over my head and drew them apart. I had just completed my canopy-control maneuver when Woodford's voice came into my helmet.
"Nice jump, mate. Now I want you to turn right 180 degrees. Good. Now left 180 degrees. Big flare. All right. You're flying!"
It all happened so fast. Three seconds of electrifying terror, then three minutes of godlike, the-world-in-miniature floating.
Woodford was directing me down toward the bull's-eye when I realized something was wrong. I could hear him telling Steve to turn right, turn right, no Steve, your other right! Steve, are you listening!
I landed in a plop and immediately looked up into the sky. I couldn't find Steve. Instead, the jump master was twirling in fast, touching down beside me.
"He's lost his helmet!" the jump master told Woodford. "Use the arrow!"
Woodford scrambled to unfurl a large fabric arrow on the ground, an emergency device used to guide jumpers who have lost radio contact. Steve had tumbled out of the plane and the static line had caught around the side of his head and ripped off his helmet and radio.
Chris, Dan, and I were all standing there together staring up into the blue sky at one brother, hoping with one heart. Our fear was that he was unconscious—just floating in the welkin like a limp doll—and would crash-land into power lines, a barbed-wire fence, a highway. He could break his back, snap his neck, impale himself...
But though he was a long way off, it was clear he was in control, unassisted and yet unpanicked. He was directing his chute toward the drop zone.
In a couple of minutes, Steve landed softly out in the prairie.
Later, Chris and Dan would execute their jumps flawlessly—Dan, lime-green but holding it back because they won't let you jump if you're puking; Chris hitting the bull's-eye, naturally, and winning the bet—both dives sadly undramatic.
It's hard to describe how you feel when a brother is in peril. For a moment, your soul enters his and you are there beside him, with him, holding his hand. On any ordinary day four sanguine brothers like us wouldn't be caught dead holding hands.
Only on an adventure.