In the spring of 1945, the Barnaul Technical College (its full name was The Automobile and Tractor Building Institute, this being the specialisation of its graduates) announced that it was opening an intensive combined ninth and tenth year high school course, upon the successful completion of which one obtained one's higher school certificate and could also enrol at the institute without further applications or exams. The duration of the course would be the summer vacation, the following school year, and another summer. I, and another couple of boys from of our eighth classes, enroled. There were several advantages. To start with, one saved a year of schooling and would be a student in one's home town. Next, one would skip two summers in a kolkhoz. The risk of being drafted into the FZU would also be gone, and with it, most probably, the risk of an early mobilization; the scheme, like the FZU mobilization, was obviously caused by a shortage of skilled technical personnel on all levels.
It was a sad and heavy winter, with a cold wind blowing in more senses that one. The summer before, Shura Okolyelov died. Then the FZU mobilization took away Vitka Karabanov, Mishka Sysov, Vanka Okolyelov, and a few other old friends. I visited them at home a few times but it was not the same and we were drifting apart. Then, in spite of all the bright and fascinating things that life offers a teenager - fishing in the Ob, skiing in winter, trapping birds, falling in love, and, last but not least, the marvellous books in the town library - the four years of hunger, poverty, poor clothing, and lack of news from my father were taking their toll, and making Stella and me and - especially - our mother tired and weary. The poor, usually second-hand, clothing became more of a problem as I was growing up. Some of the Russian boys, especially those whose fathers were at home and working, could afford shining knee-length leather boots and embroidered Russian shirts, not to mention Vasilyev's white sheepskin coat, and it was becoming painfully obvious that, communism or no communism, such things were important to the girls. Then there was my future as an engineer. I had always dreamed of becoming an aeronautical one, imagining myself sketching out a revolutionary new fighter plane which would then be named Fra-1. I did not realise that for each such designer there were thousands lesser ones working all their lives on a tail wheel or a strut. There was only one aeronautical engineering college, in Kharkov, and it was very difficult to be accepted, and even more difficult to transfer from the Barnaul college later on. There was, in my case, a good possibility that we would return to Poland after the war, where things might be different, but it was still with a somewhat heavy heart that I enroled at the Barnaul college course; a youthful dream receding before reality.
Having signed up for the course, I considered myself as safe from the FZU as I would ever be, and one fine morning, absenting myself from school, reported to the clinic. It was already badly crowded, with a lot of young army-age boys milling around, and long queues in front of every doctor's office in the crowded corridors. I met a few other boys who also came for the aeroclub examinations; the reception clerk asked us to stick together and to go in as a group when our turn came. All of them looked stronger and better fed than me. Two were lathe operators, one a mechanic, and one a pupil like me. We had to see four different doctors: a general practitioner, an eye specialist, a skin and venereal disease specialist, and a psychiatrist, and we reserved places in all the four queues.
The lady doctor at the general examination was young and well built, and she looked at me doubtfully as I stood before her stripped to my shorts, untanned, skinny, with narrow sloping shoulders and ribs protruding.
"Do you really want to do parachute jumping?" she asked.
"Yes, very much, comrade doctor," I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.
"You look rather perishing."
"I have been growing very fast for the past couple of years, comrade doctor, and am now studying hard for my higher school certificate, but please believe that I am in excellent condition. I have swam the Ob last summer and did twenty kilometres on skis, cross country, a week ago. I would very, very much like to become a parachutist, and very grateful to you if you would pass me if only possible."
Still doubtful, she listened to my chest through the sthetoscope, asked me to drop my pants, dug her fingers into my groin and asked me to cough, checking for rupture, looked at my anus, then told me to crouch fifteen times and took my pulse.
"Look," she said, "there's nothing wrong with you apart from your general condition. Do you really want to jump or have you been sent by the army? I can either pass you or fail you; it's up to you."
"Please pass me, comrade doctor; I shall be awfully grateful to you, and I promise to get into a better shape as fast as I can."
"All right then." She wrote "fit" on the form, and signed and stamped it.
In front of the skin and VD doctor's office, we waited on a long bench in the corridor. Opposite us sat a friendly elderly man with tertiary syphilis; the lower part of his nose had fallen in and his eyes were red-rimmed.
"You see, boys," he said,"when you're my age and some pretty young thing opens her legs for you, take my advice and don't; stick to your old woman and resist all temptation; believe me, it's not worth it."
There was no need to explain what he was talking about; it was literally written on his face. Somewhat embarrassed, we mumbled things like "Yes, you're right of course," or just nodded in agreement and sympathy.
"And what are you boys here for? Army medicals? A lorry-drivers' course?"
"No, parachute jumping."
"Parachute jumping? Then forget what I said; you'll never reach my age."
We chuckled, thinking hard of some brilliant devastating reply, but just then his turn came and he stepped into the doctor's office without giving us a chance of retaliation.
At the eye specialist's we went in as a group.The other high school student was found to be both short-sighted and colour-blind. I was worried about what late night reading by the light of the koptilka may have done to my eyes, and sneaked to the end of the queue, trying to memorize the last two or three lines with the smallest letters. I only slipped on one letter in the last line, and passed.
During a short session with the psychiatrist, he asked me first of all whether there were any cases of mental illness in my family, then made me talk about everyday things: my studies, the subjects I liked best, sports, and friends.
"Suppose you're walking through the woods," he then said in the same conversational tone "and suddenly see a submarine coming towards you. What do you do?"
"First of all I'd try to remember whether I had anything to drink that day."
"Very good. Suppose you hadn't?"
"Then I would suspect that I am suffering from hallucinations."
"Suppose you aren't and the submarine is real?"
"I would assume that the navy has developed an amphibian type of submarine capable of moving over dry land as well."
"Suppose it's a plain old-fashioned submarine without any wheels or tracks?"
I hesitated. I had already learned not to crack any jokes with anyone whose sense of humour I had not checked beforehand, but the doctor's smile and the twinkle in his eye reassured me.
"Then I would inform the captain that he has lost his way, and show him the way to the Ob, along which he can reach the North Sea."
The doctor laughed and signed the form.
"You're all right," he said. "I wish you pleasant jumps."
Outside, I walked on air, with enormous love for the medical profession. They have found me fit for flying; the blue, hitherto inaccessible sky overhead was now open to me. There remained two more problems. Together with the medical forms, one had to submit to the aeroclub an autobiography specifying, among other things, parents' occupation, in the manager's words "to check one's political streamlining." My father's arrest, leave alone his capitalism, profession, and having been an officer in Pilsudski's Legions, as well as our deportation and perhaps even Polish citizenship, would have eliminated me faster than tuberculosis, syphilis, and rupture combined. I composed something about his having worked in an office, and becoming separated from us when the Germans attacked, making it sound as if we had been evacuated only then. In a brief interview with Vladimir Kononov when I brought in the medical forms and the autobiography, he glanced at it and asked whether we have heard anything from our father since, and I said no, one possibility being that perhaps he was with the partisans somewhere behind the lines. Just then, with two other boys waiting outside, a blond lady gliding instructor who, it seems, also helped with the management of the club, walked in and told Kononov about some problems with fulfilling the norm that year if things did not pick up; after she left, looking slightly worried, Kononov said "All right, welcome to the club. Send in the next one," and shook my hand.
The parachute course was starting in another fortnight, with almost a month of theory - night classes two or three times a week - before the three regulation jumps. The gliding course was a slower business; one had just started and was full up. The theoretical course took three months, and the flying, over weekends and allowing for bad weather, once again that long, so it would take half a year for me to start.
There was now my mother. I knew she would not let me do any parachute jumping, and I was prepared to tell any lies and jump without her permission, presenting her with a fait accompli. The theoretical course was no problem. I told her that, since aeronautics interested me and might be of help in my engineering studies, I have obtained the permission to attend the theoretical parachuting courses and, later in the year, gliding ones, at the aeroclub, as a sort of free student, and she approved of it. The hell would break loose after I jumped, but maybe I could keep that a secret as well for a while and only break the news to her after I had completed all three jumps and received the marvellous little enamelled badge with a white parachute on blue background, surmounted by a little red star.
When the evening classes started, we learned about two different types of parachutes, their parts, strength, and how to fold them. There was also some theory, including an equation relating the speed of descent to the weight of the jumper and the surface of the parachute. The speed was about five meters per second, the equivalent of a jump from the height of about three metres - a tall wall - for a man weighing about eighty kilograms. My own weight was at most two-thirds of that, so I was hoping for a slower descent, more time in the air, and a softer landing.
After the theory, ground training started, and it was murder. "If you don't break anything during ground training," our instructor, Gosha Chistoyedov, a quiet rural type with over a hundred jumps to his credit, told us, "you won't break anything during the jumps either; it's child's play after what we're putting you through down here."
He was as good as his word. We repeatedly climbed to a platform about three metres high in the aeroclub backyard and jumped from there, admittedly onto a layer of soft sand, rolling over one shoulder on landing. Then there was the omega, simulating landings in strong wind. You climbed to an even higher platform with a steel cable descending over your head, got hold of a steel loop with a couple of handles, and slid down, letting go when you almost reached the ground, and again rolling over your shoulder. The swing was the worst. You were suspended a couple of metres over the ground in a parachute harness attached to a release operated by the instructor. A push would send you swinging, and you always had to swing face forward. That meant that at the end of a swing you had to grab the straps with crossed hands - the left one with your right hand and the right one with your left - and pull them aside crossing the straps, which made you turn backwards, or let go at the end of the swing. The instructor could drop you to the ground whenever he chose, and of course he would try to catch you going backwards. For lesser corrections you did not cross the straps but simply pulled one pair back while pushing the other one forward. Gosha told us that the German paratroops had only a single line connecting their harness to the parachute, without possibility of any such control, and that their method of landing was on all fours. That was the first time I heard about any superiority of Russian equipment over the German one.
The last part of ground training was getting in and out of the front cockpit of the plane. There was a mock-up - actually the front half of the fuselage of an old U-2, in the club backyard. Getting in was easy. One marched up from the left to the pilot's cockpit, wearing the parachutes - the main one on the back and the smaller emergency one in front - snapped to attention, saluted smartly, reported that cadet so and so was ready for the jump, and asked permission to get in. The atmosphere at the club was fairly relaxed, stopping short of calling the instructors by their first names, but we were told that once at the airfield the discipline was going to be military - standing to attention, saluting, reporting, requesting permission, and so forth - for our own safety. You then hoisted yourself onto the lower wing - there was a narrow rubber path along the fuselage to prevent slipping - moved towards the front cockpit, got in, and strapped yourself in. Getting out was more complicated and each of us had to go through it a dozen times until it became a second nature. First of all you undid the seat harness, making quite sure that you were not undoing that of your parachute by mistake. Then you got hold of the struts on both sides of the windscreen and stood up. Then you placed your right foot on the seat, turned right, and transferred your right hand from the strut to the edge of the cockpit. Then you raised yourself and brought your left foot out onto the wing, and then the right one, and then the left hand from the strut onto cockpit edge. Then, stepping sideways and holding onto the cockpit edge, you reached the rear cockpit, facing the pilot, and bent down. This was very important. While you were sitting in the front cockpit, the static line - a strong strap seven or eight metres long which opened your parachute during the first jumps - went from its point of attachment at the top of your parachute to the pilot's cockpit where the rest of it was folded with the other end firmly attached to the plane. After you turned right leaving the cockpit and reached the back of the wing, the strap passed over your right shoulder and into the pilot's cockpit. Had you turned right again and jumped, the strap, passing under your chin, would take your head off or at least break your neck. As you bent down, the pilot passed the strap over your head and onto your left shoulder. Now, when you finally turned back towards the tail and were ready to jump - at forty-five degrees to the fuselage so as not to hit the tail - the static line passed free from the back of your parachute to the pilot's cockpit.
There was one fun part of the ground training we missed; the parachute tower in town. It was about twenty-five metres tall; you climbed a ladder, strapped yourself into the harness, with the parachute suspended overhead from a beam, already open by a wicker ring, and jumped from a platform. During the first jumps they added a counterweight to a cable passing from the centre of the canopy, over pulleys, to the base of the tower, to slow you descent, gradually reducing and then altogether removing the weight. The mechanism got out of order recently and the tower could not be used until repaired. During the oral theoretical examinations one of the boys, a real smart-aleck high-school type who always knew everything best and spoke distinguished Russian was being put through his paces by Gosha Chistoyedov. We did not know that Gosha, a quiet good-natured and plain-spoken ex-kolkhoznik with a permanent kind little smile on his face, hated with all his heart any signs of showing off or superfluous brilliance.
"Suppose your parachute opens too early and catches on the tail of the plane."
"That's a serious situation, comrade instructor, which calls for quick action, the reason being that the weight of the parachutist suspended so far back throws out of balance the centre of gravity of the plane which under normal circumstances coincides with the centre of pressure of the wings, approximately one-third from the leading edge, and is almost certain to make it stall within seconds unless the pilot succeeds in counteracting with the controls, which is unlikely, even if we disregard the possibility of the parachute canopy fouling the control surfaces and cables." Gosha swallowed hard. "For such an emergency, the parachutist carries a sharp knife within easy reach, and should cut the main parachute straps and, once free of the plane, open the reserve parachute."
"Very good. And if you jump and your parachute comes out but does not open?"
"I immediately open the reserve one."
"And if the reserve one comes out and tangles with the main one?"
"There are still some seconds left to try to untangle them. Such a thing happened to the Master of Parachuting Sport Menyayev over the Moscow airfield in 1936, and he succeeded in untangling the parachutes and landing safely."
"And suppose you don't succeed? What do you do then?"
There was silence. The boy stood there, thinking hard.
"I don't know, comrade instructor. What should I do in such a case?"
"Why, you can use the knife to cut your balls off because you won't need them anymore."
Ever since we loved Gosha Chistoyedov.
Once or twice during the theoretical course, when my mother asked me how it was progressing, I mentioned that it will be sad to see everyone but me make a parachute jump afterwards, but on this she was adamant. The second time she said she might ask Rabbi Orlanski but she was sure he would also be against it.
At the club, I was trying to get into the good graces of the instructors and the manager, with view to getting more than the regulation three jumps when the time came. The chances were feeble; the parachutists had to be taken up one by one to a height of seven or eight hundred metres, the fuel was strictly rationed, and the instructors overworked. It was very rare for a promising parachutist to be groomed further, perhaps as an instructor. The only one I knew was Valya Kukushkina with her twenty-something jumps, and God only knew how much of this support was due to her parachuting talents and how much to her blue eyes, a smile which could melt Hitler's heart, and those eyebrows so much darker than her blonde hair. For all I knew - she was an older woman, pushing eighteen, to our tender sixteen years - she may have even had an affair with one of the instructors. My own chances - skinny, Jewish, and an "intelighent" - were rather feeble. (Antisemitism should not have been a problem with at least the club's mechanic, Senior Technician Meier, who was also Jewish.) I drew two funny cartoons for the club's wall newspaper - a single hand-printed sheet tacked to the wall - and volunteered to repaint one Sunday the mock cockpit which was peeling badly. Having discovered a sense of humour in Gosha Chistoyedov during that exam, I told him two aeronautical jokes he hadn't heard before, and I helped the manager's six-year-old son Tolya to repair his cat's parachute. This was an auxiliary spring-loaded extraction parachute, about a metre in diameter, used in free fall to extract the main canopy. When it was written off due to wear, Kononov removed the spring-loaded spokes and gave it to his son, showing him how to attach a stone to it, fold it, and throw it into the air. It did not take Tolya long to get a better idea. With his mother's help, he sewed a harness for the family cat, climbed a ladder to the top of the steep roof of the one-storey club house, where Kononov and his family also lived in two small rooms - and dropped the cat from there. After a while he took to teasing Chistoyedov by saying that his cat had accumulated more parachute jumps than the instructor. Tolya was always badly scratched because the cat didn't like it.
Finally the great day arrived. We gathered at the club at dawn, climbed onto the back of the club's lorry, and drove to the airfield. The plane was wheeled out of the hangar and filled with fuel, while we put on the thick flying suits, leather helmets, and goggles lent us by the club - the morning was quite cold - and the first boys on the list put on their parachutes for a brief familiarisation flight. Valya Kukushkina was there, due to make a free-fall jump. Kononov took the first parachutist up, circled the field at about two hundred metres, landed, and took another one up. I was somewhere half-way down the list of about fifteen. A beautiful blue day was downing and we hoped to make two jumps each that day.
I had an idea, and when my turn came I went up to Gosha Chistoyedov who was supervising us and said that as I had already flown before, in a glider with Valya Kukushkina, could I please make a jump right away, skipping the familiarisation flight, to save the club the fuel and the time. He seemed to be impressed and looked at me pensively, with some expression I seemed to remember but couldn't quite place. If this succeeded, my prestige at the club would rise, and I might succeed in getting an extra jump.
"I'll ask Kononov." he said, walked with me to the plane, leaned over the cockpit, and talked with the pilot for a while. Standing a couple of paces away, with the engine ticking over at low revs, I couldn't hear what they were saying.
"No," Chistoyedov said. "He says it's different in a plane and you should get used to it before you jump."
I didn't mind. I have made my mark and now saluted smartly and asked permission to get into the cockpit. Chistoyedov, I thought, was very kind to climb up on the wing and check my seat harness after I fastened it, tightening the shoulder straps a little. The engine roared and we took off. The green grassy airfield began to fall away, slowly losing its third dimension and flattening into a coloured map, just like the snow-covered surface of the frozen Ob a few months before. The cockpit was more solid and better screened than that of a plywood glider, with a row of instruments on the dashboard. The morning air was still, without turbulence, and the plane climbed steadily without wobbling. There was a rear-view mirror attached to the right-hand strut, and I could see Kononov's helmeted and goggled face in it. I smiled at him in the mirror and raised my thumb, and he smiled back and nodded. I was watching the ground below and loving it. Then I looked at the instruments. The height was four hundred metres - twice as high as a standard familiarisation flight - and the plane was still climbing. This was marvellous; Kononov must have been impressed by my brave volunteering and was now awarding me some extra minutes in the air.
At eight hundred metres the plane finally levelled out and dropped the nose. I knew the pilot would now throttle back for the return glide, and was surprised to hear the engine open wide. The next moment I saw the whole airfield in front of me; the plane was diving at full throttle, with the whistle of wind growing behind the roar of the engine. Then some enormous force pushed me down into the seat and my head into my shoulders, and all of a sudden there was only blue sky in front of me, and then we were upside down . Then the earth began to show up again, from above, and we were coming out of the dive. Kononov has looped a loop and scared me out of my wits. From the dive, he went straight into another one, and then a third. I was clutching at the edges of the cockpit with my eyes closed and praying "Please, God, don't let me piss or shit myself. I am not going to piss or shit myself. Please God don't let me." I was very close to it. Coming out of the third loop, Kononov finally throttled back and levelled out, with the nose fairly high, the engine purring softly, and the noise of the wind diminishing until it stopped altogether. The left wing dropped, and suddenly the plane was on its side, turning and falling down, with a nasty sucking at the pit of my stomach, total disorientation, and even greater fear. When it finally came out of the spin, I saw that we were low over the ground and at long last gliding in for the landing; and, wobbling my behind inside the thick flying suit, I was glad to discover that I have not, after all, pissed or beshat myself. By the time we taxied back I have recovered enough to smile at Kononov in the mirror and raise my thumb again. The fucking club was having fun teaching a show-off a lesson, and the best revenge would be to pretend that I enjoyed it. I tried to walk back to the grinning group as straight as I could, hoping that any wobbling would be attributed to the heavy flying suit and the two parachutes.
"Enjoyed your familiarization flight, Frankel?" Chistoyedov asked with a happy smile.
"It was lovely," I said.
"Then why are you so green in the face?" Valya Kukushkina asked.
"Must be the long winter, Valya. I must get some tan soon."
After the remaining familiarisation flights, the first parachutist went up for his first jump. We watched the plane climbing and growing smaller. Then it throttled back, going straight and level. After a while we saw some movement on the wing; then a small black dot began to fall; a white flame started to trail behind it after a while, and then the beautiful white flower of an open parachute, with the plane spiralling down to pick up the next parachutist..
There were still six before me, then five, then four. My mind was going numb. I had a cigarette a safe distance from the hangar. Less than an hour now. Something could go wrong with the plane's engine in the meantime, but they had another plane in the hangar. One could, I thought, quite happily spend the rest of one's life trapping birds, fishing, swimming, skiing, and in due time sleeping with girls without leaving the ground, but thinking was becoming difficult, and the other boys awaiting their turn have also grown silent and only smiled, insincerely, with badly disguised effort, while the ones who had already jumped were exuberant in a most irritating way.
Then it was my turn. I decided to conform for the time being, marched up, saluted the pilot, reported that student Frankel was ready for the jump and asking permission to board the plane; when this was granted I got in and the plane took off.
It was by now a familiar feeling, except that in view of what was expected of me the inside of the drafty open cockpit smelling of oil and varnish felt like the warmest and safest home in the world. The altimeter hand was climbing very slowly; the U-2 was a slow, somewhat underpowered plane and I was grateful for that. I knew that I was not going to jump; the idea of jumping was so unreal and abstract that it had nothing to do with me and this flight. The only question was how to inform the pilot. Refusing outright would be too sudden and shameful. It was much better to explain that I was not feeling well - he might well believe it after the aerobatics he had put me through - and to ask for a postponement till another day, when I would not show up, having telephoned some final excuse.
The plane levelled out and Kononov throttled back. The altimeter hand stood at eight hundred metres. There was a loud swish of wind and I could not talk to the pilot from where I was; it could only be done from the wing, and there wouldn't be any problem getting back into the cockpit after that. I undid the seat harness, stood up holding onto the struts, and got out on the wing. When I reached the rear cockpit, Kononov was already holding the static line to pass it over my head. I bent down and let him, in case I slipped off the wing; but my rubber-soled boots had a good grip on the corrugated rubber path and there was little danger of that. I was now standing on the wing facing the tail. I looked at Kononov, still not knowing how to break the news to him. He was smiling from inside his leather helmet and behind his goggles, the falsest and most faked smile I have ever seen, which his slightly yellow horse teeth fully exposed; they must have been taught at the instructor's course that a smile from the pilot encourages the parachutist on his first jump or something of the sort. Then he raised his hand, dropped it, and shouted "Go!"
I stood there in the slipstream, completely paralysed and very cold and lonely. The earth, from this height, looked like a large, greyish map. The hangar looked like a match box, and a transport plane some distance away like a small toy. There were some little black dots near the hangar - our group - and all of a sudden I realised that one of them was Valya Kukushkina, looking up and waiting for me to jump.
I closed my eyes when I jumped the better to concentrate on what I was doing. At first there was an awful suction at the pit of my stomach and I sensed that I was pitching forward. The whistle of the wind grew and I had a feeling that something was pressing me, face down, into some soft but resilient mattress. There came a drumming on my back - the parachute lines being pulled from their rows of storage loops inside the pack - and then a powerful soft hit in the shoulders and silence. I felt as if I were going up very fast. I looked upwards and saw the open parachute, beautiful, white, semi-transparent against the sky, and surprisingly small so high over my head. There was dead silence, with only the distant sound of the throttled-down engine of the plane going down to land. The earth was more beautiful than I ever remembered seeing it, and the sky huge. I now had about two minutes to myself under the parachute; there was no wind and no turbulence, and I relaxed in my harness to take it all in. I knew that it will take longer than that to grow into my new status as a parachutist. My chrysalis sixteen years were over; from now on, the Zyggy Frankel who had gone up in a plane, climbed out onto the wing, and jumped, would be someone else, and no one could take it away from me.
I made a perfect landing, rolled up my parachute, and rejoined our group to receive the customary handshakes. By noon, everyone had jumped once; we were going to have lunch, prepared by Kononov's wife - a luxury bowl of soup with a piece of sausage floating in it and two slices of bread each - and make another jump in the afternoon. The sun was shining brightly and the morning chill gave place to a lovely warm day. There was no more need for the heavy flying suits and we took them off and then refolded our parachutes under Gosha Chistoyedov's supervision. He was watching us like a hawk and checking every detail, because the year before he or some other instructor overlooked a mistake and the pupil - I think his name was Vasiliev but I am not sure - was killed on his first jump. When the parachute is folded for the automatic, static line, opening, there are two identical steel rings on the outside of the pack. One is firmly sewn to the flap and acts as a guide. The second one, with a short steel cable with three locking pins, rests above and against it, with the cable passing through the first ring and the pins locking the parachute pack. There is a short length of thin fairly weak cord attached to the top of the parachute, protruding from the pack and tied to the second ring. The end of the static line is also attached to this second ring when the parachutist boards the plane. When he jumps, the static first line pulls out the locking cable, opening the pack and allowing the parachute to come out. As the top of the parachute is still attached to the static line by the short cord, it is then pulled out to the full length of the canopy and lines. The weight of the parachutist then breaks the thin line and the parachute opens. What Vasiliev had done was to tie the protruding line to the first ring, the one sewn to the pack. When he jumped, the static line opened the pack and the parachute came out, but with its top tied to the pack. Nobody knows why Vasiliev did not try to open his emergency parachute.
I went up for my second jump with the nonchalance of an oldtimer, even looking forward to it. I had done it before and I could do it again. Saluting Kononov and getting into the cockpit I felt more like a member of a select air community than a green beginner. I was now merely increasing the number of my jumps. When the plane took off, I sat back and relaxed, enjoying the slipstream ruffling the open collar of my shirt; the afternoon had grown warm and we were now jumping in our shirtsleeves, having left the heavy flying suits in the hangar.
At two hundred metres, Kononov throttled back, pushed the nose down, and began to glide to a landing at the edge of the airfield. I looked at the instruments. There was plenty of fuel, and all the temperatures and pressures were normal. The plane seemed to be fully under control. And then I broke out in cold sweat. The only possibility remaining was that Kononov had noticed something wrong from his cockpit, and that something could only be the top of my parachute pack with the two rings. I sat there frozen in body and mind, not understanding how I could have made such a mistake while packing my parachute and how Chistoyedov could have overlooked it, trying to tell myself that it was luck that Kononov had noticed it, and trying not to imagine what would have happened if he hadn't.
Kononov landed, got out, leaving the engine ticking over, said: "I'll be right back. That idiot with the tractor is wrecking the airfield," and walked towards a tractor with the large steel spikes on its rear wheels taking a short cut across the grass. I started breathing again and even tapped myself on the shoulder, congratulating myself on having gained an extra short flight because of the stupid tractor driver. By the time we took off again and reached eight hundred metres, I was the old parachutist again, and this time jumped with my eyes open, although the green airfield looked rather smudged and jumpy as I fell.
The parachute opened with the same soft but powerful hit in the shoulders, and at the same time I received an awful punch on the chin and, for the next few seconds, literally saw a whole array of stars, moving and turning. I had forgotten to adjust the straps of my parachute harness after discarding the thick flying suit; they were loose, and the emergency parachute had knocked me on the chin. I did not feel any pain, but passing my hand over my chin, I saw it streaked with blood; the emergency parachute had opened a cut. This, however, would have to wait; almost as soon as the parachute opened, I began to swing under it. The warmed-up air has developed turbulences. I stopped the swing by alternative pulls on the front and rear harness straps, and then estimated, by sighting over the tops of my boots, where I was going to land and it was right on top of the Dakota transport plane - there were many of those, contributed by the Americans - stationed near the hangar. Pulling on a few lines I went into a side slip, and then started swinging again. My whole descent remained divided between side slips to get away from the Dakota, and attempts to stop the swinging. I finally landed with a swing a few metres from the Dakota in the middle of large puddle, slipping in the mud and rolling over twice. I sat there happily on the ground, discovering that I haven't broken or sprained anything, and - with the help of my hankerchief - that the cut on my chin was nor bleeding too badly. Then some force laid me on my back and began to drag me over the airfield. A wind had sprung up and I had forgotten to put down my parachute. It was now functioning as a large sail dragging me over the grass and the occasional puddles. We had been taught how to handle this, and, getting hold of the straps, I rotated so as to bring my feet forward, dug my heels into the ground, and they just slipped in the mud and the parachute kept dragging me on. I tried twice more without success before three or four fellow parachutists, including a happily giggling Valya Kukushkina, caught up with me and tamed the parachute. Kononov's wife washed the cut on my chin with alcohol and stuck a plaster over it; the cut was small and stopped bleeding shortly afterwards.
The same fate that puts obstacles in your path sometimes just as unexpectedly removes them. When I got home and told my mother that I had spent the whole day at the airfield, not yet supplying any additional details, she said "Oh, by the way, I met Rabbi Orlanski today and told him about the parachute course, and he said that a lot of young boys did it and it wasn't more risky than a lot of the other things young boys do and that if you wanted to jump so badly I should let you; so if they'll allow you, go ahead, but please be careful. It won't be a pleasant day for me, waiting for you to be back home safe and sound."
"You have just been spared such a day," I said, and confessed everything. She was relieved, but still worried about the third jump I had to make to get my badge. I did my best to reassure her, and, I think, succeeded, grateful to the rabbi while wondering what on earth made him so tolerant of parachute jumping.
A few days later we drove to the airfield for our third and last jump. I was busily scheming how to break the three-jump barrier and had recently drawn some new cartoons for the club's wall newspaper and helped Gosha Chistoyedov to check some parachutes. He now asked me to make up a list of names and afterwards to keep an eye on the boys to make sure nobody smoked near the planes or fuel. "Is it all right to put myself first?" I asked. "Then I'll be able to keep the watch without interruption." "Go ahead," he said. I thus opened the day's jumping, hoping to have gained a little in standing. The first parachutist of the day was always a bit of a guinea pig, helping the pilot to check whether he had calculated the drift correctly. My jump passed smoothly and without mishap; I even felt some beginnings of enjoyment of the free fall, which until now had been something to be got over with as quickly as possible. As the last parachutists were going up, I caught someone getting ready to light a cigarette near the hangar door and stopped him in time and in no uncertain words in Chistoyedov's hearing. While his approval lasted, I threw myself at his mercy, telling him how much I wanted to make another jump, if at all possible.
"Three jumps are the norm," he said, doubtfully., "and the fuel is strictly rationed." Then, seeing the unhappiness on my face, he said "I could ask Kononov, not now, but after the last jump. Put your parachute on so as not to keep him waiting if he agrees."
I did, and marched up to the plane behind Chistoyedov after it had dropped the last parachutist and landed. Kononov listened to Gosha, looked at me, at attention and ready, with some annoyance, but finally waved me in. There was some turbulence and wind by now, but I managed to land safely, jumping to my feet and deflating the canopy before it dragged me over the field again.
A few days later I met the rabbi in the street. He greeted me warmly; I think he always reserved his greatest charm not for his pious followers but for the fringe Jews like me who were in danger of drifting away from the fold, starting with smoking and fishing on Sabbath and, God forbid, marrying Christian girls afterwards.
"I hear from your mother you've been making parachute jumps," he said. "Must be scary. Do you really enjoy it?"
"Yes, I do," I said. "It's scary the first time, but afterwards you get used to it and begin to enjoy it."
"How many jumps have you made?"
"Four, and it took some protektsia, because the norma is three. The fuel is strictly rationed because of the war."
"The fuel for what?"
"For the plane. It's a small two-seater, and they have to take us up one by one."
"Take you up in an aeroplane? What for?"
"Why, to make the jump."
"You mean you've been jumping from a plane, not from that tall tower by the railway station?"
"The tower is for training only, and it's been out of order of late."
"Let me get this straight," he said."You say you jump from an aeroplane which is flying in the air?"
"And it's got this long beam, like on the tower, with the big parachute suspended under it? A small plane with all the wind blowing?"
"No, of course not. When you jump from a plane, your parachute is folded inside a pack on your back."
"And when does it open?"
"After a few seconds, under the plane."
"What do you mean, under the plane? How do you get under the plane?"
"You jump from the plane and fall?"
"At first, yes."
"Like a stone?"
"More or less."
"How far do you have to fall before it opens?"
"Maybe thirty metres."
"Thirty metres? About ten floors?"
"Something like that."
He was silent for a few seconds, taking it in.
"Groyse Yiddishe Gott," he said at last in a scared voice. "And I told your mother to let you do it. I thought it was jumping from that tower by the station; I saw some boys doing it, and it looked scary but otherwise like something they have at fairs, you know, merry-go-rounds or ferris wheels. Good God. You say it's over and you won't jump any more?"
"Yes." I decided not to tell him anything about the forthcoming gliding course and my hope of further parachute jumps.
"Thanks God. All's well that ends well. Can you imagine what I would have on my concience if anything happened to you, God forbid?"
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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