Poised like paratroopers on D-Day, we waited for our signal to jump, to make the leap of our lives, the one we had trained for and from which we would not return. I could feel the wind in my face, all of us could, and our anticipation grew stronger. We had been told countless times not to look down because the act could stir panic in our hearts, and our instructors would have no choice but to shake us loose and let us drop. I tried to resist, but I couldn’t stop myself any more than a child could keep from reaching for a cookie in a forbidden jar. I looked down. Below me and as far as I could see, hundreds more of us who had already taken the leap were standing tall with hands raised in triumph like a classroom filled with students who already knew the answer. Instead of fear, I felt excitement. Soon, if all went well, I would be joining them on the ground, my own arms raised and beckoning those waiting for their turn to come join our noble cause.
Drilled into my brain and now as much a part of me as my own genetic code, I could still hear the words barked at us for what seemed like forever: “Stick the landing, troops. It’s the most important thing you’ll ever do. Stick the landing and everything else will work out the way it’s supposed to.” I wondered how many times I had heard that in my young life.
Soon, a rattle of conversation rode through the group in front of us and I knew their time had arrived. A wave of anxiety flowed through my team as we heard the commands, “Get ready, now. It’s almost time. Be strong, don’t look down. Stick the landing.”
The wind seemed somehow stronger, and the group about to leap shook as they assembled into position. “Let’s go! Let’s go!” And off they went, cut free and surfing the wind, cascading down, each one gently yet, as a group, feverishly like a winter flurry.
The wind was in their favor and the ones who had stuck the landing stretched their arms further, welcoming the torrent of newcomers descending though the spring air. Suddenly and unpredictably, the wind shifted. The group attempted evasive maneuvers as they had been taught to do since the early days of our training. I watched as they tried one stunt after another, exhausting their resources as they drifted further, further off course. A few, just a few, were successful and they were greeted warmly by those who had stuck the landing. But the rest were blown too far away for us to even hear them cry out or curse, if they had been doing either. Those were the ones who ended up falling on hard ground. They didn’t stick the landing, their arms weren’t raised in triumph and, instead, lay motionless at their sides. The anxiety on my team grew and a murmur soon arose that had to be quelled.
The instructors were on it. “Listen up! Listen up!” they said. “Some of them will make it, OK? A great many will not, but we all know the odds don’t we? Now look, it doesn’t mean that’s going to happen to you. Remember your lessons, don’t panic. You feel the drift, you start reacting immediately. You got that?”
We said yes, but they made us say it again, louder and with more vigor so it sounded like we really meant it and I suppose that effect was to console and encourage each other whether we believed what we were saying or not. It didn’t matter. We had little time to ponder sincerity when our own time for a jump was at hand.
I looked down again, at the hard place where most of the last group had landed, and down below where many more of the ones before had ended up. There were more of the latter and I convinced myself that the odds were in my favor.
“Let’s go! Let’s go!” And with that, our turn had finally come. There was no more time to worry, to grieve or to wonder.
We floated majestically and I looked around me to find a cadre of butterflies riding the breeze, laughing at the sheer delight of being airborne at last. The wind did not turn, remaining in our favor, away from the hard ground. We drifted and I looked down again. The others were waiting, and I was almost close enough to hear them call out a hooray. But the wind was not finished with me yet and I glided along a gentle current, actually floating up for a moment before cruising close to the ground.
Stick the landing! I had almost forgotten the most important lesson of all. The one that meant a chance at success or the death of failure. I looked around. I was in position. I was almost there. Almost. There! Softly into the grass, a spot all my own, near enough to be within sight of the others but far enough away that I had a chance. I had made it, and I had stuck the landing. The single most important journey of my life, a journey now at an end. I felt a melancholy ache, a memory made from what had become a quest fulfilled. There was little time to think about the past, for now it was time to dig in and allow a new adventure to take root.